For more than 20 years comedian Tom Rhodes has been on the international comedy circuit. Not a world tour every few years, but spending a majority of his time traveling the world and performing at the local clubs, theaters, and festivals. It all came about after the end of his NBC series Mr. Rhodes when money and time gave him the freedom to pick up and go. Starting in London he became a name in Europe (even hosting a television series in Amsterdam) and moved on to parts of Australia and Asia. And after 20 years he’s finally found a way to document this unique and wonderful part of his life with Around the World, a new album clocking in at just under 3 hours (as in a couple of minutes) recorded from his favorite cities from around the world. From his love affair with Paris (and a Parisian) to finding a home in Amsterdam, to observations about the cities’ cultures and national government, Rhodes created a work he describes as “his best album yet.” We had a chance to speak with him about the album, international travel, and just how global stand-up has become.
Lesley Coffin: How long were you planning the album out and recording it?
Tom Rhodes: I’ve been working on it for about two years, everything was recorded over that time period, with the exception the London tracks…I recorded those years ago. And I was lucky to have those because I hadn’t been back to London since recording them. I’d been doing the international circuit for about 20 years and have accumulated a lot of stories and jokes in that time period because I have some long relationships with these cities, like Amsterdam and Paris. And then there are cities like Stockholm and Oslo where I made it a writing project to write at least 5 minutes for each city I went to. When I first came up with this concept one of the first places I recorded was in Tokyo, it’s a great little place that seats about 100 people and it’s made up of about half expatriates and half locals who speak English. And I wrote some really great stuff about Tokyo. And the reaction was incredible. And I put my recorder on this ledge and as I turned to pick it up, it fell and I lost the recording and that recorder. That’s the reason there’s no Tokyo on the album even though that was the start of this massive project.
Lesley Coffin: Recording an album when you’re traveling from one venue to the other isn’t common and requires you to use portable equipment and kind of take on the tech guy role yourself. What technology did you end up using?
Tom Rhodes: Well, the good thing about breaking my recorder in Tokyo is I bought a brand new recorder and got to upgrade. I bought the H5 Zoom Recorder. And I even started recording my podcast with it. It’s a great piece of equipment to travel with.
Lesley Coffin: Before you became a comic known as someone who works the international circuit were just someone who loved to travel or did that passion come from being on the road as a comic?
Tom Rhodes: I always wanted to travel. But what basically happened was, my sitcom ended and I had a lot of money, and looked at it as my NBC Artist Grant. So I started to take trips to London. And one of my great old friends, Rich Hall, lived there, and helped me get into that circuit. It took a couple of trips to London before I could start booking gigs there. And then I started booking more gigs in Europe. And then got work in Asia. For me, London was key. It opened the door to me becoming the international comic I’ve become over the past 20 years. But I always wanted to see the world, and comedy opened me up to those opportunities. And then I ended up making Amsterdam my home base for 5 years and got married.
Lesley Coffin: A lot of comics work internationally now, but you really became known as a comic with this passion for travel. How key a role did comedy play in that lifestyle choice?
Tom Rhodes: Comedy usually was the thing bringing me to these great cities. But everywhere I went, I always tried to go other places and see new things. As a comedian, especially known with the global market for stand-up being even larger, we have such an advantage because we have this brotherhood. I’d get to a city and comics from there wanted to show me around and teach me the culture. You learned the odd quirks and expressions not just from a tour guide but from a fellow comic. I can’t think of a better way to travel than as a comedian. I just hope that the album isn’t just a fun listen but offers some of the knowledge I’ve picked up over the years.
Lesley Coffin: Do you meet a lot of comedians interested in kind of following in your steps and becoming an international comic?
Tom Rhodes: All the time, especially young comedians. I was in Indianapolis and there was a comedian opening for me and he said, “I’m ready for London, can you give me the information for how to get in with London?” And I said I could, but I ask “have you been to Chicago yet? How about New York?” And he hadn’t, so I suggested maybe take that hour and half drive to Chicago before flying to another country. But the truth is, there are more opportunities for American comedians to work internationally, especially in Asia, than ever before. And a lot of them know that travel is a big selling point so they’re paying the comic with their trip, so take advantage of those opportunities. I started as a seasoned professional and had to find my place in cities that weren’t used to international comics.
Lesley Coffin: I know you mention loving to work in Dublin on the album because so many people are funny there and they just love to laugh. What are some of the great comedy cities right now?
Tom Rhodes: During the comedy boom of the 80s there were cities you could move to in America for your comedy master’s degree…LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Seattle or New York. I moved to San Francisco and that’s where I got good and found my scene. Now, there are international cities with their own stand-up scenes, like Berlin, Stockholm, Seoul. You could move to those places the way comics moved to those American cities in the 80s and become part of that scene. And there are a lot of expatriates in those cities who love seeing American comics.
Lesley Coffin: Why did you pick San Francisco?
Tom Rhodes: When I was starting up, there seemed to be a high level of intellect coming out of that comedy scene. But San Francisco isn’t the same city it was in the 90s. It was artsy and subversive, pretty much everything I’d been looking for. I lived essentially in a black neighborhood, near the John Coltrane Church and there were militant stores that sold Malcolm X speeches on cassette tapes. And now all the people with flavor have been priced out and we have young people from IT companies sipping their cappuccinos. Everything changes. The Amsterdam I lived in for five years has changed considerably. Cities can change a lot in a few years.
Lesley Coffin: Do you still have the travel bug after all these years?
For years I wanted to make a show where I was the Anthony Bourdain of comedy, check out all the comedy scenes around the world. And no one wanted to make that show. So, I made this album and I’m currently writing a book as a sort of companion to the album
Lesley Coffin: Are you someone who likes throwing out those recommendations to fellow travelers? Telling them about the best places to go or about gems that might not be on the guided tours?
Tom Rhodes: Absolutely, those are things I’ll put in my book. For example, when you go to London make sure to go to the Churchill War Rooms. It’s where he essentially saved humanity and they saved the rooms. There’s a wine bar called Gordon’s Wine Bar that’s this great, funky place. I want to offer some of that firsthand knowledge.
Lesley Coffin: That’s great. I love when travelers can throw out authentic recommendations. Back to New York scene because I do live there. A lot of comics will define themselves as being from a certain region and saying I’m a New York comic or I’m an LA comic, or even being from Boston or Philly. Do you self-identify that way with a region?
Tom Rhodes: I never really felt any of that. I come from Florida, went to San Francisco, lived I New York twice, I lived in Amsterdam for 5 years. If someone asks where I’m from I say, I’m from Florida. But I left at 20 and lived all over the world. Whereever I am, I always ask if someone’s from another country. Because my favorite audiences are multi-national and multi-ethnic. Places like New York and LA are guaranteed to have those types of audiences. I just performed in Tampa and there were loads of international people in the audiences. If I’ve gained a following so audiences from all over want to see me perform, I’m ecstatic. Every now and then I’ll get stumped but for the most part I will have a story or joke about the city or country they’re coming from because I’ve been there.
Lesley Coffin: Are you ever surprised to see the number of people traveling internally who choose to make comedy clubs part of their trip?
Tom Rhodes: When I talk to people coming from around the world, they aren’t just coming to The Comedy Store or Comedy Cellar during their trip. They’re making the trip to go to those places. It’s a major reason why they’re choosing the trips they’re taking. Because internationally, there these just huge fans of comedy. And a lot of them listen to podcast and want to see their favorite performers on stage or see the stages they came up on. So, they listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast, hear him talking about The Comedy Store, and it’s now it’s a destination for these comedy fans who are planning trips around these great clubs the way foodies plan their trips around the restaurants they want to experience.
Lesley Coffin: I get that because if I’m just trying to pick between a place or choose my travel dates, I’ll look and see if there’s a festival or comedy show I want to tack on and pick one of those weeks. So, I might be planning a camping trip and just pick the weekend when we can also see a show to make it kind of bonus trip.
Tom Rhodes: I think that’s the best way to travel. I mean, the best time to go to Montreal is during the Montreal Comedy Festival, and people come for the festival, but they also get to just enjoy the city and beautiful weather. Moontower’s in April is a perfect time to be in Austin, and it also allows people to just hangout because they’re all coming for the same reason. If someone’s considering taking a trip to Dublin, go during the International Comedy Festival. They host it in a park called Ivy Gardens, it’s beautiful that time of year, and Irish audiences are the best laughers. It’s the perfect way to plan a trip.
Lesley Coffin: You wrote in your album notes how proud you are of this work and wrote audiences can “reaffirm your pro-humanity instincts.” We talk so much now about the growing divide right now, but the way this album is constructed suggests you don’t necessary believe that to be forgone conclusion. That comedy provides that common link.
Tom Rhodes: I think we are culturally divided, but the really touchy people aren’t the people going to comedy shows. People who would be violent aren’t the people thinking of comedy as a fun night out. I think there’s so much anxiety right now, people are under so much pressure because of the world we’ve created, comedy has become all the more valuable. People need the relief. Doing the album this way, performing for international audiences, allowed me to comment on what was going on in the states because I had examples of what other countries were doing. I talk about how in Norway they have written the protection of the environment into their constitution, while we won’t even recognize climate change.
Lesley Coffin: You mention in the first part of the album your wife, who you met in Amsterdam. And then at the end, when you’re in Jerusalem, you mention that you were getting divorced. How difficult was it to include stories about your wife you told when you were married but you’re now releasing after your divorce? Did you have any reservations about including those tracks?
Tom Rhodes: When I started editing the album I knew I’d leave it in, because it’s such a big part of my story and my story in connection to living in Amsterdam. And then when the album wraps up with my recorded tracks in Israel, I was in the middle of my divorce and had this realization while walking the Mediterranean Sea with my mom, heartbroken. And I flashed back to when my high school girlfriend dumped me and my mother and I walked around this lake for hours. And now I’m having the exact same moment. That’s when it dawned on me that my mother is the love of my life. So there is this through line about these great loves in my life, the first girl I ever loved was with this Parisian woman I lived with in San Francisco and that starts the album and then I talk about my wife, I sprinkle a couple of stories about our life together, and finally I talk about my mother, so that created this through line I didn’t even realize the album would have until I put it together. Staying away from home wasn’t the only reason we got divorced, but it was a major factor, so leaving that subtle story woven into the album made sense. And I’m glad when people pick up on it.
Lesley Coffin: Well most importantly, you had an opportunity to essentially dedicate your album to your mother by saying it during a set while she was sitting in the room.
Tom Rhodes: I’m really close with my mom and I needed her with me at that time in my life. But she’s also an 80-year-old Jesus freak, so to take her to this beautiful theater in Jerusalem and have an opportunity to say that was probably one of the greatest achievements in my life.