Before Tom Arnold became synonymous with Roseanne Barr and the outrageous antics that landed them on tabloid covers for the early part of the nineties, Arnold was a young stand-up comic from the mid-west who built an act around goldfish performing stunts. After marrying Barr in 1990, Arnold as thrust into the limelight and ultimately became a star in his own right, appearing on television and feature films alongside Hollywood heavyweights like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dan Akroyd, and Mike Meyers. Arnold divorced from Barr in 1994 and in a rare move, declined alimony payments and instead focused on building his career as a comedian and actor. Outside of his TV and film appearances, for the past three years Arnold has returned to his roots as a stand-up comic, as is evident from his 2010 one-hour comedy special on Showtime, That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It. As Arnold prepares for a weekend of headlining shows at The American Comedy Co. in the Gaslamp Quarter, SanDiego.com had a chance to speak with Arnold and talked about his early years in comedy, traveling with live goldfish, and his memories of Roseanne singing the National Anthem before a Padres game at The Murph in 1990.
What are you up to this week aside from preparing for your shows this weekend?
Tom Arnold: I’m rewriting a Spanish movie, believe it or not; it’s the first time I’ve done something like that. And I’m writing another movie for a producer. I have a show called My Big Redneck Vacation that’s on TMC on Saturday nights – we’ve got a few more episodes of that before we start the second season. I do a lot of stuff; I’ve got three movies coming out this summer.
When did you officially get back into stand-up comedy?
2009, about three years ago. I took a night at The Laugh Factory here in Los Angeles, every Wednesday and really worked that and started building an act. Then eventually I realized that I had to get on the road and see what happens, so I went out to Caroline’s in New York with fifty percent of an act maybe, and then once you’re out there doing shows, then you can really start formulating stuff. My whole goal was to do a special, which I did in early 2010. But in order to do that I had to go on the road. Being on the road is not always the most pleasant thing. Doing the shows is fun, but traveling around and doing all the stuff that comes with it is tough. It’s one of the harder aspects of this thing that I do. But it also is the only way to have an act and it’s the only way to do specials. I’ve realized this is what I really like doing. I really like performing in front of people and meeting new people, and that’s a good thing. It doesn’t keep you in the national news but it is fun and it’s what I need to do and I like it.
When you were originally doing stand-up in the eighties as Tom Arnold & The Fabulous Goldfish Revue, how much time did you have in your pocket?
I believed I had a 45 minute set, that’s what I thought. The funny thing was, when I was going to the University of Iowa back in 1982 maybe, a guy named Joel Hodgson, a comedian from Minneapolis came and performed and I opened up for him in the student union. He ended up staying at my place, and he had all these props and was a great comic with a great persona, and I was watching him and he says, ‘Tom, you’ve got to be different.’ Because at the time I was just telling old jokes that I had heard. He said, ‘You’ve got to be different and original.’ So I remember looking around my room and I saw a goldfish bowl and I thought, ‘Well I’ll do something with that. I’ll be the goldfish guy.’ They did tricks and stunts. I did stuff that a lot of people would probably be offended by now, because the goldfish didn’t always make it. Especially in the winter when you got them in your trunk, and there was fire involved with the act or whatever it was. It was a way to give me confidence and make me a little bit different so I wasn’t exactly like the other comics. Then one day I realized I had to stand on my own and realize what my real voice was. When I went to Minneapolis, Joel Hodgson actually came and saw me and a friend of mine said, ‘He’s a lot like you,’ and Joel said, ‘No, he’s exactly like me.’ Because I was talking slow like him and stuff, then I realized you can’t do that. You’ve got to be totally original, or be yourself at least. It took awhile to believe that I could do that, but then I went to emceeing and that helped a lot because when you emcee you can try little things and it’s not all on you and you can sort of build an act. That helped me when I met Roseanne in Minneapolis in 1983, because she was traveling a lot and was living in Denver and she hadn’t been on The Tonight Show or anything yet but she needed material. So I wrote some stuff for her and that was a big lesson too.
Do you think another comedy boom like the one in the 1980s is happening again now?
I guess I do feel that a little bit because I keep hearing about clubs around the country that people love that I’ve never heard of. When you do what I do, you either do casinos or comedy clubs. Obviously the best audiences are in the comedy clubs. With these times today, people want to laugh a little bit.
How much of your act is improvised and how much is written material?
At least eighty percent is scripted, but hopefully it won’t seem scripted; and I don’t do the same order. Since I’ll be in San Diego I’ll probably talk a little bit about what’s happening in San Diego, with the guy from Invisible Children
, because I’ve been involved with them for a few years through Kristen Bell, who’s a friend of mine and is really involved with them. I have some thoughts on that so I’ll probably talk about that a little bit. I also have some experience from that kind of activity in my past, so I can relate. Although I didn’t have a breakdown
, I thought I was doing the right thing. I had my public nudity event at an old folk’s home. It wasn’t like I lost my mind, it was like, ‘Hey this will be fun let’s do this! Let’s run naked through the old folk’s home!’ and then I ended up getting arrested and naked and handcuffed. If they would’ve had the camera phone around when I got arrested for public nudity in 1980, I would not have a career. What happened was so embarrassing. At least this kid works out, so he will hopefully recover and do great things.
Will you be touching on any memories of your time with Roseanne during the Star Spangled Banner incident from 1990?
I will discuss that under the guise of being a good husband-section of my material. I will discuss it all the way through – it seems like it was yesterday. I’ll tell what really happened and what happened afterwards – it’s a fun story and ironically, I’m the one who ended up in jail.
So are you putting together another hour of stand-up for special?
That’s what I’m doing. So I’ll start off with the new stuff and then I’ll go back to the older stuff. But I’m working on it. It takes at least a year to write an act. By this fall I will definitely be ready and I will shoot another special.