Tom Arnold Has Taken a Hard Road Through Comedy | JOB HACKS
"People say you have to be fat to be funny, or on drugs, or drunk, and that’s a lie."
Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Tom Arnold
Original Hometown: Ottumwa, Iowa
Job: Actor, comedian, writer, producer. Arnold has performed standup, written, acted for, and produced Roseanne, starred in his own HBO special, acted in such films as True Lies, Nine Months, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Hero, Gardens of the Night, Happy Endings, and appeared on shows like General Hospital, Sin City Saints, Sons of Anarchy, Workaholics and more. His full filmography — which has over 150 credits — can be found here.
Let’s start with that piece you wrote a few months ago for The Hollywood Reporter about David Carr and your relationship with him. I was struck that you were in the middle of a standup show when you found out he died, and you still went out and performed. How do you manage in a situation like that? Did anything in your life or career help prepare you?
The thing about doing live standup is that you have to be omnipresent. You could have had a fight with your wife, lost the greatest role ever, it doesn’t matter — those 300 people came to see you. You have to be funny. You owe it to them, you have to get your head in that place. These people drove there, they paid to get there. I had to sit there and reboot my head to get to the place where you’ve got to be funny for these folks.
So at this show, I’m backstage and I see that someone tweeted that David Carr died. I was like, “Well, that must be a mistake,” because Bob Simon had passed away that week, you know. And I kept reading and I was like, “Oh, this is real.”
So I called my wife, I go, “David died and I have to finish this show and there’s 40 minutes left.” She said, “What would he do?” I go, “Well, finish the fucking show.” I remember just staring at the audience thinking, “These people don’t know that David Carr died. They’re laughing, they’re having a great time, let’s keep it that way.” I wasn’t going to talk to anybody there about it because it was so personal, you know? I’m not going to let anybody see me vulnerable. That is the last thing that’s going to happen publicly.
So I did it. “In a perfect world they would never know,” I kept thinking. Because it wouldn’t have happened if they don’t know. So I came off and there’s this guy who interviews comedians. He’s a comedian and a New York guy and I promised to do an interview as soon as I got off the stage. So I had to run down the stairs before I could call people and sit there and do this interview and talk about comedy for a few minutes on camera, and I was just thinking, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” After, I called David’s wife and starting calling people, but what was really comforting to me — because then you feel very alone in New York, and it’s freezing, of course — but the things that other media people were saying and tweeting about him were so wonderful. It was so comforting to me, as I figured out what happened and what I was going to do and what I could do and how I could help.
I stayed up all night. I talked to some of these people and retweeted. They just said these beautiful things. I’m being selfish because I’m trying to figure out a way it’s fine for me, that I can have peace with it, and he had a family that will always be a little hollow and the people who worked with him daily. My thing was, man, if you’re going to die and you’re a member of the media, I mean, these people — because they’re wordsmiths — they say beautiful things. That’s probably the best business to die in. At the meatpacking plant where I worked for three years, if you died — which, by the way, a lot of people did — we all went out and got very, very drunk in their honor.
You know, you live a while and you have friends who die, especially if you live a certain kind of life. But I felt like it was pretty perfect. He died where he loved: working. I’d see him out here doing some promotion or interviewing some asshole celebrity and just loving every bit of it. He was 58 when he died, but he had a lot of miles, as they say. He loved being a mentor. He loved being famous.
Do you like being famous?
When I was young, I lived in a small town in Iowa and I just wanted to be on TV once so people would like me. It turns out that’s not true, but you do this thing and it goes on and on. I got to help David with his book, recalling what happened and what went down and tracking down some old drug dealers. When David was promoting his book, he said it was fun for him. I said, “You want to travel around and answer the same questions over and over?” I should have more gratitude. I work on it every day, I swear. I’m always shocked when I realize how old I am — but you can’t really be old ever, even when you are.
You faced the crowd because you didn’t want to seem vulnerable — is that a personal thing, or a business thing in comedy?
It’s both. Probably more of a personal thing, I’m not going to let somebody see me hurt. Maybe once in a while my wife gets to see that. But it’s such an intimate thing. I don’t mind being intimate onstage about my mistakes and telling good stories about myself, but “emotionally intimate” sounds like a breakdown to me. That’s probably what people do, but my relationship with David was more personal and valuable to me than talking about it onstage. With all due respect to him, I had to put on my big boy pants and do what you do.
You did seem to show a bit of vulnerability at the Comedy Central Roast of Rosanne.
I will say this — there was a moment of vulnerability, when I said thank you. I thought, “I’m going say a real moment, like you would with a real roast.” Nowadays [on those roasts] people don’t even know each other. I felt myself getting a little vulnerable, when I was thanking her for being my Johnny Carson. I wanted to remember a good moment in our relationship. That’s part of what I like about standup — you never feel bad when you’re done. It feels like best therapy session ever.
If that’s what you like about standup, what do you like about drama? You’ve never really stuck to one niche. What’s the incentive when you move between different projects?
I’m always working on something. People say, “The next phone call can change your life,” but if you just sit there staring at the phone, you’re in trouble. I like being able to do it all. Some of the darker stuff — particularly one called Gardens of the Night about a pedophile — happened when the director said, “We can’t make this movie unless you say yes to playing this guy.”
And I have such a history from my childhood — I thought this would help people and raise awareness. But during the shoot, I couldn’t have been in a worse mood. I didn’t want the kids to like me, so I just sat in my trailer and felt terrible about myself. They thought I didn’t like them. I said, “No, I’m playing a fucking pedophile, I’m not in a good mood, Jesus!” That kind of stuff sticks to me, having to promote that movie. And you’ve got to put on a happy face, then relate your personal history, and that sucks the life out of you. There’s a point where I’ve always thought, “This job is the last I’ll ever do.”
What prevents each job from being your last? What talks you out of that?
I remind myself I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and I’ve been lucky. I have to have a moment or two of saying, “This has been great. In the ‘90s, I was in a couple movies that did well but then I started starring in movie after movie — I kept saying yes because I thought, “I could make this good” — and I kind of had to reboot my career.
Steve Buscemi directed a movie called Animal Factory with serious actors and I did a serious part in that.
Out of necessity I started doing more serious stuff, but obviously I like doing both. Of the scripts I wrote that are out now, one is pretty funny and one is dramatic. We’ll see what happens.
Can you tell me about one?
When I got sober many years ago, I realized I needed to do something positive. I wanted to save another addict’s life. I opened up some magazine and it said one of my heroes, Peter Criss — the drummer for Kiss, he wore the cat makeup — was living under the Santa Monica pier. I thought, I’ve got 20 minutes. I’ll save his life. It’ll be good.
But it became complicated. When I found him, I threw him over my shoulder to take him away from the people under the pier who didn’t want him to leave. I didn’t think it through. I took him to a hotel but I didn’t have a bed for him or a set-up. One thing led to another, and I did something really dumb — I told the news about it.
That was something I should have learned in rehab: Anonymity is important. I got a call from a lady in Boston who said she was his ex and she wanted to help. I went to pick him up but he wasn’t in the hotel. The manager said, “He’s on his way to Boston.” Six hours later, the lady called me and said, “He’s here in my living room throwing up everywhere … and he’s not Peter Criss.”
The real Peter Criss is sober. He sued me, and the police wanted to arrest me for kidnapping a dude from a tent under the Santa Monica pier.
The police and the judge said, “You just went down there to try to save a guy’s life? We’ve got a guy who’s resisted every intervention and he will die this weekend.” I said, “I’ll go there.” So I started doing that and it became a thing. I did it 40 or 50 times; I became an officer of the drug court. I was driving one guy to Betty Ford, and I had to put him in my trunk because he was fighting me — not the whole way — but he checked in, then turned around and got back to L.A. before I did. A judge allowed me to put him in lockdown for 72 hours. They kind of sober up then. It’s something I’ve done a lot of, some people know about it, not everyone does. But I wrote a show about a guy who does this and it means a lot to me because it’s personal.
When a lot of people fall into addiction, it’s hard for them to climb back out. You’re one of the few in Hollywood who was able to fully bounce back without damaging your career. What do you attribute that to?
Whatever it was that made me crazy when I was using, you’ve still got that in you. If you can turn it into something good, why don’t you?
There were times back in the early ‘80s when David and I went to crazy lengths to get drugs and alcohol. Middle of the night, hiking through a blizzard, whatever it was. I think we both took it into our careers, and that’s why — when I think of David hobbling to the subway, always going forward to what the next thing was — whatever the opportunity is, he went at it. It’s a characteristic we have that, if we can turn it into something positive, we can do pretty well with it. When I think about him now when I’m dancing with my kid — David loved dancing — life is this opportunity, let’s barrel through it. Shoulder down, neck crooked, let’s get into this thing. I have to remember that. I could be a little depressed but nothing good will happen if I just sit there.
You have to be so crazy and kind of stupid to say, “Oh, this is my life I have in front of me: traveling around for 15 hours in the back of a car.” For most people, it would be no, stay in business administration — what I was studying in Iowa.
When I finally got clean, it was very public. I lost my job, lost my fiancee, there was a lot of shame. But on the eighth day I was in rehab, I spoke to my ex fiancee and I said, “You know, I’m just going to stay here because I think maybe I deserve it.” Every other time I’d stopped, it was to get someone to like me. But this time I thought, “I’m staying here for me.” There are times that you struggle, and I don’t know too many guys who are perfect. There are some, of course. They work a better program than me, perhaps.
Being in the comedy world — where there’s such an emphasis on connection through late-night partying — does abstaining from that make it harder, career-wise?
No, it’s so much easier. It’s bullshit to say “I have to drink, I have to party, it helps.” It makes it terrible. Worse. You aren’t as clear or funny or succinct. It hurts your performance. People say you have to be fat to be funny, or on drugs, or drunk, and that’s a lie. There’s a voice in your head that says that, and that’s the voice that wants to kill you.
Maybe for the first year it was hard to go out and get confidence, but then it was so much better. There are comics who have acts about being drunk, but you can fake anything. It’s so much better now; I think in the ‘80s, people were screwed up. A lot of people started dying.
About that voice…
Yeah, maybe that’s how I had to be to get into that business. I left Iowa with a trash bag of clothes on a bus for a job that paid $15. It was the opportunity to work for $15 at a comedy club, and I had $100 and a trash bag full of clothes. That madness is why I am wherever I am right now. It helps to be an alcoholic to think that’s good idea, and a recovering alcoholic to continue.
Have you accomplished everything you wanted to?
As far as dreams, I wanted to be on TV to make my dad laugh. Bob Hope was my dad’s favorite and that was the only time I heard my dad laugh. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I did one or two Bob Hope specials, he wrote a thing to my dad, so that was done. And when I worked in the meatpacking plant, I knew who Schwarzenegger was and Robin Williams was, and you drink a lot. I used to dream I was friends with them. A few years later, I was sitting in rooms with these guys, playing their friends in movies, and it was exactly like that crazy-ass drunken dream.
If my kid says to me, “I want to be in showbiz,” my first thought would be, “No fucking way, worst idea ever.” But it’s hard for me to say that. When people say “I want to do this,” there’s so much you have to deal with — but how can I say that if that’s how literally every dream I’ve ever had has happened?
Speaking of your son, I noticed his name is Jax. I enjoyed your performance on Sons of Anarchy; it looked like you were having fun. Is that a particularly special role for you, or is your son’s name a coincidence?
I liked the show, and when you like a show and can be a part of it a bit, it’s fun. I like Kurt Sutter a lot, my biggest thing was, wait a minute, do I have to let Jax — Charlie [Hunnam] is one of the nicest guys in the world — but do I have to let him beat me up? But my son’s name is Jax because we liked the name. I called Kurt the week before he was born and asked if that was a problem, but he said he was honored. And my dad’s name is Jack, and I’m good friends with Dax [Shepard]. Everyone thinks my son is named after them, which is great if something happens to me. There will be people to pay for his college.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to go talk about David Carr at the Idea Fest in Chicago. Right in this moment, I’m worried I don’t have standup shows booked, I’m supposed to start a movie next week, I’m 56, I’ve got a second kid coming, I have to work and take care of my family, but the real miracle is that I have a family. Any asshole could be in a movie, but to have a family — that’s something I’ve always wanted. I’m an asshole for worrying about these other things.