Without Garrison Keillor, who knows where Erica Rhodes would be? The actress turned comedian, who will be heading up four shows at Houston Joke Joint, admits to not knowing for sure either.
“I started on the NPR radio show A Prairie Home Companion when I was about 10 years old,” the funny lady explains. “I grew up doing that show, and I started writing for them, and at one point was doing tours of the show on cruises! I got to act with Meryl Streep and Martin Sheen, and I learned a lot.”
Rhodes played off the screen legend, and calmed her down! “I was about 21, and while I was a little intimidated, she was so nervous about the format of the show, because it was radio and it was live. And Garrison had changed the script the last minute, making edits like five seconds before we went out! She was so used to being completely prepared, she was so humble and sweet.”
Never-the-less, the New England native remembers the experience traumatically for an entirely different reason: “My biggest regret about working with Meryl is that I had the WORST HAIRCUT OF MY ENTIRE LIFE,” she mock screams. “At the time, it was really red, with bangs – almost a bowl cut. I had died it black for Halloween, then thought, ‘I wanna be blond now!’ My hairdresser was like, that’s impossible. Anyway, it was so bad – and you can find it on YouTube!”
After making the jump to California and the world of television, Rhodes confesses she felt stalled. “I did acting for a long time, studied acting and made indie films. I kept auditioning and not getting them, feeling frustrated. I did a play that was horrible and I was missing performing so much. I grew up performing, and I feel like I don’t have an identity without live performance.”
Still, Rhodes could feel the pull to try her hand at an open mike. “After I had a really bad audition at Parks and Rec - where I messed up the first line and it was only three lines, so messing up the first line was like half the script. So I was really upset, and I was like ‘That’s it!” So I went to an open mike, and I didn’t really know any jokes. I just told stories about my day and how horrible it was. And I had people re-enact it with me, having someone play the casting director and I was like, this is what happened,” she lays out with theatrics. “It was definitely more like therapy than anything.”
While she was proud of the gambit, even going so far as to film the spot and post it on her Facebook account – one person was less than thrilled. “My manager like ‘What are you thinking posting that!? That’s like posting your first cello lesson for everyone to see!’ And I was really ashamed and embarrassed, you know? I took it down, but before I did, some girl who ran a small show in Hollywood was like, ‘Oh you do stand-up now? Come do my show!’ And I think if I hadn’t committed to that show, I never would have gotten up and done that again.”
Performing the super Herculean feat of binge writing material, somehow Rhodes developed ten minutes of joke heavy material… in a week. “That’s a lot, if you know comedy,’ she deadpans. But after killing that one night in Hollywood, Rhodes confesses to bombing night after night for the next year. But half a decade later, she’s hooked on the stage and knows she’s gotten better. “It takes a long time, obviously.”
She credits her manager, Bruce Smith, with really helping her focus herself as a comic, and lead her down the right career path. “Before I ever even did stand-up, I wrote my manager and said in the subject line: I’m a Young Maria Bamford, because I knew he also repped her!
He told me he didn’t really see it, but asked me, ‘What’s your dream?’
I replied, ‘To be on SNL.’
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He said: ‘Get a new dream – you don’t do voices or impressions.’”
With stand-up, Smith showed the aspiring comic the value of format and structure. ‘He taught me that you need a surprise,” she explains. “That you need a twist to each joke. You can’t just meander and talk, or do therapy up there. And if I’m teaching a person how to do comedy, I say: start with short jokes so you know how to do them, but then [pepper in] jokes to a story. You want to be able to tell a story, but get laughs through out. Unless the story is absolutely fascinating without any punchlines at all, you can’t just do a story alone.”
With some lessons learned from years on the trail, and a few bit parts on Veep, New Girl, and Modern Family later - Rhodes is clear that the high of stand-up far outweighs whatever she got from simply auditioning. “Acting is something I know I can do, but the process of getting or not getting stuff is not fun for me. It’s so much more rewarding and creative and fulfilling than acting ever was.”
Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on Friday, November 17 through Saturday, November 18 at 11460 Fuqua. For more information, visit jokejointcomedyshowcase.com or call 281-481-1188. $14-19.