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Around the world and under the radar with Tom Rhodes

Tom Rhodes is arguably the most well-traveled comedian you've never heard of. Coming up during the "stand-up boom" of the late '80s and early '90s, he shot to recognition as the long-haired spokesperson for Comedy Central, then scored a starring role in the fish-out-of-water, prep-school sitcom, Mr. Rhodes. The show wasn't a hit, but his next project—The Kevin Masters Show Starring Tom Rhodes—definitely was. Unfortunately for Rhodes' American fans, the show taped and aired only in the Netherlands, where the comedian lived for five years. Having returned to regularly touring the U.S.—he'll begin a two-night stint at The Comedy Factory in Baltimore tonight—Rhodes spoke with The A.V. Club about traveling for a living, why the Dutch love him so, and giving American television another try.

The A.V. Club: So you've had kind of a crazy career, but you're still relatively unknown in the U.S.

Tom Rhodes: I've had a really good life. I've been flying under the radar, and living in Europe for five years probably didn't help my profile in the States.  

AVC: But being in Europe for that long afforded you a couple of unique television experiences.

TR: Yeah, absolutely. I had a late-night talk show in Amsterdam, and that was one of the best experiences of my life. I got to live out my Johnny Carson/David Letterman fantasies. What comedian doesn't dream of coming out from behind the big curtain in a $2,000 suit, standing on the "X," giving your monologue, and then sauntering over to the desk and bantering with the musical sidekick? While it was happening, I tried to savor every drop of it, because television doesn't last long—even with the greatest shows.

AVC: And then they gave you another show, Yorin Travel. How did that come about?

TR: It's comical how much love that little windmill country gave me. I did the late-night talk show for a couple of years, and then they let me be a presenter on a travel show. I grew up reading about artists and explorers, and always thinking about Dutch explorers. I'm from a little town in Florida, and I found myself living in Amsterdam and exploring the world. I got to go to Peru and Russia. Did a couple of highlights on France. The Champagne region was really cool. I went to the Dutch Caribbean—I did all kinds of amazing things. 

AVC: When you're on the road doing comedy shows in the U.S., do you ever wish your job still entailed flying to Peru and buying a bag of coca leaves?

TR: Abso-fucking-lutely. When you're sitting in Shreveport for a week, and you're like, "Wow, I've been to The Hermitage." But I still lead an adventurous life. I think they gave me the job because I was an adventurer. In February, I went to Buenos Aires and Patagonia. I was in Europe this March and April, and I spent a week in Rome. I'm making little YouTube travel clips all the time, so that's the advantage of not living anywhere.

AVC: How has all that traveling affected your material?

TR: It's part of who I am. My last name is "Rhodes," for Christ's sake. Something in the universe just has me traveling. Sorry, that didn't really answer the question... I was maced in Paris once, and I've done that story onstage a bunch. Just different things that have happened. When you're a comedian, and you're just working Southern and Midwest circuits, you can get kind of regional. I'm glad that my act appeals to so many people all over the world, and I can play in Australia and I can play in Holland and London. I'm doing Stockholm in November. I've been lucky to break out in these places. I mean, I went in search of it—going to London and breaking in with London, which is where most of these exotic gigs are booked out of.

AVC: What do you think it is about you that appeals to a Dutch audience?

TR: There's a lot of pain in my humor, and Dutch people love pain. [Laughs.]

AVC: And yet it was the Germans who coined the term "schadenfreude."

TR: Yeah, and the Dutch have a term for that too: "leedvermaak." It means the exact same thing—to laugh at other people's pain. Which is funny, because it makes you think that when Dutch people or Germans want to laugh, they don't go to a comedy club. They go to hospital emergency rooms.  

AVC: Following your experience with Mr. Rhodes, were you wary of getting back into television?

TR: There's never been an instrument of greater mass communication, and I think you can change the world through television. Mr. Rhodes didn't. I was disappointed, but I had a lot of money to dry my tears with. I moved to New York City and lived like a rock star for two years—kind of hellbent, because I was angry at humanity after Mr. Rhodes. But I lived in New York City like a hog when I was 20, and I always swore that if I had any money, I'd live there with style, and I moved there and got a rock star apartment.

But moving to Holland and unexpectedly getting The Kevin Masters Show—being in the right place at the right time, and whatever else lined up in the cosmos—was beautiful. It was the complete opposite of Mr. Rhodes. I got to be myself, and I loved every minute of it. So I'm not wary of television.

AVC: What can you tell us about the new travel show you recently pitched to Comedy Central?

TR: I've made a pilot. It's basically a travel show, but checking out comedy scenes all over the world. Kind of like the Anthony Bourdain of comedy. The way he goes around the world and meets chefs and tries their cooking, I'd like to do the same with comedians. I put up my own money and went down to Buenos Aires for the pilot, and I just finished editing it.

AVC: So you're giving exposure to comedy scenes in places that aren't widely known as comedy hotspots?

TR: Yeah, seeing what comedians in Poland or Israel are talking about. They only got stand-up comedy in Buenos Aires three years ago, so it's really fresh. Stand-up comedy's been on fire in Europe for 10 years—in England for much longer. I can't wait to go to Stockholm. I hear they've got a really cool scene there. There's cool comedians everywhere, and I'm friends with them.

Tom Rhodes - Bad Traveling
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