Apr 15, 2021
By Jake Uitti
Photography by Jackson Davis
Comedian, Erica Rhodes, cares about the things she says. Growing up, her mother cared obsessively about grammar. Her father was witty, sharp, and made people laugh. Early on, Rhodes realized the power communication can have between people—whether that meant bursts of laughter or depth of a conversation. Today, Rhodes, who has appeared in shows like New Girl and Modern Family, brings that same level of care to her standup comedy. Sometimes she even takes it directly to sentence parsing and grammatical choices with jokes that dig into the difference between “lay” and “lie,” for instance.
Rhodes, whose new special, La Vie en Rhodes, premiered on Amazon Prime and other outlets this past Tuesday, brings this deep care and consideration for communication to her work. The funny thing about the new special, though, aside from the multitude of Rhodes’ jokes, is that her audience is in their cars, socially distanced. Removed are the sweeping claps, replaced with honking cars. We caught up with the comedian to ask her about her first great laugh, who in her family is funny, what she loves about language, and much more.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you get your first great laugh?
Erica Rhodes: I would say the first big laugh I got was probably on A Prairie Home Companion. When I started on that show, I was 10 and I played Garrison Keillor’s conscience. And I don’t remember trying to be funny. I was just saying the words and my voice is very high and already funny and I think I just played it very straight, it worked really well against his baritone booming voice. That was probably the first really big reaction I got from a huge audience.
Yeah, you were on A Prairie Home Companion at 10 years old, which is really young. How did that start and what is your relationship to the show now?
Well, it started in a very odd way. My mom is a violist and she founded this orchestra in Boston and she grew up in Minnesota. She asked Garrison to do a fundraiser for the orchestra because they grew up in the same hometown in Minnesota. She actually knew his brother and had went to school with him. So, she wrote him this email asking him to do that and he agreed. He came out and met my mom and they got along great and she said, “You should meet my sister, Jenny, who lives in New York.”
They met and they fell in love and started dating and they came and visited us and saw me in The Nutcracker, which I was in at the time. I played a party girl. Then we all went out to eat afterwards. I was very shy, but I think I said a couple words. I think I said, “Will you pass the salt?” But it was very high, like, “Will you pass the salt?” I remember him just giving me this quizzical look like, ‘Was that really her voice?’ The next day my mom said he wanted me to do the show, so I ended up doing the show. A couple years later, my aunt married Garrison, so he ended up being my uncle by marriage. But when I did the show initially, he wasn’t my uncle yet. Throughout my life, I’ve done the show intermittently at almost every age until I was in my late 20s.
That’s cool. It was certainly a very big show.
Yeah, he’s probably my biggest mentor in my life. I know he got caught up with the whole #MeToo stuff. That’s a whole other story. But my experience was that he was a big mentor and he taught me a lot about comedy and all sorts of stuff. He taught me how to perform in front of live audiences.
Which is not easy.
No, no, it’s not easy. There were a couple of times that he had to teach me certain things. At one point, he said something like, “You rush sometimes and then your voice gets very high and they can’t understand you.” He’d give me notes like that. Or randomly, he’d be like, “I think you should be off-book for this.” Even though it was radio! He would be like, “I think you should memorize this one.” Then he actually started having me write my own scripts. He said he thought we should just do a “dear diary” sketch where I just write, “Dear Diary…” and I didn’t realize at the time but that would later carry over to standup. It was basically all in first person, this is what’s going on in my life. It was just a dear diary script, so it was like a monologue. That was really similar to standup.
Is there anyone else that is funny in your family?
Yeah, my dad, who passed away this year, was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. He had such a dry wit. He was a clarinetist and then he was diagnosed with M.S. at an early age. So, he had to change his profession. He changed to become a C.P.A. But he used to write these funny essays about being an accountant. [Laughs] So, he was this really funny guy as an accountant. He used to do rap ballads at work where he used to write these funny raps about different C.P.A. rules. So, I looked at all of his essays—he wrote things like, “Babes in Tax Land.” Really funny things! So, I’m looking at all this stuff, thinking, wow my dad really was a comic at heart. The way he saw the world was very comedic.
Do people expect you to be funny? At holidays, does your family somehow expect you to be ‘on’?
I wouldn’t say my family expects me to be on. My sister has always thought I was just really funny naturally and she was always really encouraging when I was a kid. She just thought I was funny as I was. So, I don’t really feel like I have to be on with my family. My family is already quirky and weird. Like we used to have this family saying where if a neighbor came and knocked on the door, we’d all go, “Normal! Normal!” Because we were all just crazy. [Laughs] So, it wasn’t in a trying-to-be-funny way. My mom’s eccentric with a big personality. My sister has a very dry sense of humor, similar to my dad. We all used to write stuff together. So, I think my family is just naturally funny. I never feel like I have to be on for them. I guess if I meet some people that I don’t know very well, it’s like, “Why is she not funnier in person?” I’m so serious in person. But a lot of comics are pretty serious people. If you hang out with comics, we’re just very serious!
That reminds me of the Jerry Seinfeld thing where someone tells him, “You were so funny up there, were you having fun?” And he’s like, “No, I was working!”
Yes! Eddie Pepitone has a great special out now and there’s a line where he says, “This must be so much fun… for you guys! I hear I’m hilarious!” It’s like, you’re giving the experience of joy and laughter but that doesn’t mean that you’re experiencing that, too.
You have a lot of great jokes that include grammatical concepts and sentence parsing and language nuance. What is it about communication and its evolution these days that interests you?
I love language and I think a lot of that comes from my mom because my mom is an obsessive grammarian. She’s obsessed with words and obsessed with grammar, so she’s always been correcting my grammar my whole life. So, I always cringe when people say things like, “Will you do my sister and I’s podcast?” Or “between you and I” drives me crazy because “I” isn’t always correct! So little things like that I just hear because my mom used to correct me all the time.
I love playing with language, too. I just think it’s really interesting. If you switch little words, it changes the whole meaning of something. I also think people hide behind words a lot. They’ll use a certain word all the time and it takes on a certain meaning whereas if you switch it up a little bit it almost wakes people up. So, I think there’s a lot of creativity with language and I also think it’s a dying art. So, I like to remind people that words are important.
In my special, I talk about bringing back the period. We used to use it all the time and it’s so important because it would end things. Now with emojis you can’t end a conversation. It keeps going and going and going. I find that really frustrating. I really find it frustrating, the like app on my phone. I have really intelligent friends; my sister is a professor—they ‘like’ every text that I write. I say, “Thanks for this.” LIKE! Now I’m thinking what if we did that in person? What if we were like, “Hi, how are you?” LIKE! “Okay, how are you?” LIKE!
That’s how I feel when people do it in their phones. To me, it’s a subtle fight for language. I want people to remember that words matter and to still use them rather than going into this emoji robotic land that we’re in. And it’s playful. I think it’s playful to play around with words like that.
You won’t get any argument from me!
Yeah, it’s important. It’s something that’s going away. Good writers are very few and far between now. It makes such a difference. When you read something that’s well written it’s so different than when you read something that’s, you know, strung together haphazardly.
Your new special was in front of an audience in cars, which I’m sure you’re aware.
WHAT? I thought it was a green screen! [Laughs]
That’d be amazing. But did that seem daunting or scary? I wondered if the cars would try to drown you out with their horns or something. Was it weird to try and surf on or control that kind of crowd?
Well, it was my first time doing it. A couple of other comics did it too before I did it and I was debating to watch them before or not and I made the decision to not because I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions about it. So, I went in not really knowing. They did mic the cars and that did help a lot so I could hear some reaction. I think it would have been impossible to do it if I couldn’t hear any reaction. I could hear laughter. I wasn’t much worried about them drowning me out as I was about the timing. Sometimes there would be a joke that would not land quite at the moment that it would normally land and then suddenly there would be a honking from the back of the crowd. Then there would be a wave of honking. So, I realized I have to slow down and make room for them if they are going to react. So, I think I did that if I remember correctly. I think I paused when I thought it should get a laugh even if I couldn’t hear a laugh!
One of the things I laughed at was when you talked about aging and what it’s like dating in your 30s with social media and apps and all that. Does it ever feel like you’re being too personal in your comedy, does that ever worry you?
I think I made a decision to be personal in my act. Not every comic makes that decision. A lot of comics skew observational. I think for me it’s just more fun to make it personal and feel like even if—I guess to me the point of comedy is to rise above the struggle, to rise above disappointments and find a way to look at it in a different lens. To me, that’s where the good stuff is. Anything I’m frustrated by or disappointed by or sad by, if I can turn it into something funny or ironic or weird or different than somehow, I’m not a victim in the situation or I’m not an underdog. Instead, I’m someone who turned it into something else. Like, I went through this and it kind of sucked. But then look! Look what I got out of it! Hopefully that inspires other people to see it that way, whatever they go through isn’t something that they have to be ashamed of or something they have to wallow in.
It’s more like, let’s turn it into something else. Let’s look at it differently or find the irony. Or also, let’s find the thing that brings us all together. We all struggle with getting older. That’s just something that happens to everybody. We all struggle with technology in our own ways. I think we all—I can tell because if I tweet something about being frustrated with Twitter, it gets the most likes of anything! So, I know it’s a universal frustration. We have to use it, but we don’t want to use it. It’s destroying humanity but we can’t stop! I feel like we’re always conflicted in a lot of the same things.
But whenever I connect with something of another artist, I feel they’ve found a personal slant on it. It’s not a generic “Oh doesn’t technology suck!” Instead, it’s like, “This happened to me and then this happened!” And then I can see the universal side of the personal. To me, that’s what makes it not too self-indulgent. If it didn’t have a universal reality to it, it would just be therapy. But hopefully I talk about something personal and then people are like, “Oh yeah something similar happened to me, if not the same thing!”
I appreciated how you talked about getting older. I’m 37 now and the older I get the more I stay inside!
Yeah! But also, my side of the joke is that we’re not old, we’re just seeing things more clearly. So, it’s not that you’re getting older, it’s that, “Oh now I know that it just wasn’t that great!” [Laughs]
What comes to mind when you think about the future, either personally or professionally?
I’m trying to get to a new place in my comedy where I feel more real. I guess we’re always trying to get to that point but some jokes, to me, when I look back at them feel a little written. I can tell I wrote that joke. I want to get to a new level where it feels like “Oh she just thought of every joke just now.” That’s kind of the magic trick. But the comics that I look up to, I go, “Wow, it really sounds like they’re just talking. They didn’t, like, write that joke. I don’t know where that joke came from, it’s just something they said.” I think that’s a really hard place to get to. You just want to feel very, very grounded and real. Almost like less trying to be funny, I guess? I guess I want to try less and less as I evolve!
It’s interesting because when I think about it when I talk about how I was 10 and doing the radio show, I really think the reason it was so funny was that I just wasn’t trying at all. There was no effort. I was just, like, being. As a 10-year-old I wasn’t aware I had to be funny to be anything. So, if I can get to that realness, I think I’d be good.
What a curse, right?
Yeah, what a curse to start trying! Because when you’re young you don’t even know what trying is, really.
What do you love most about telling jokes?
I love the feeling of connection. I love connecting to a live audience and I love feeling that moment of I feel what you feel. I see what you see. That feeling that humanity is all connected somehow. I don’t know, it’s just a very comforting feeling. I often feel very disconnected in a lot of personal relationships and stuff. But then on stage I feel very connected. I feel like oh when a joke lands, it can be a little therapeutic because somebody can say, “Oh, I really feel that.” We all really go through the same stuff. I think that feeling is definitely—I think at the highest level it has a healing component to it. You can have a healing effect on people and I like that idea.