Whitmer Thomas is a comedian, actor, and filmmaker from Gulf Shores, Alabama. His new comedy film, The Civil Dead, which he co-wrote, co-produced and co-stars in with his writing partner/best friend Clay Tatum (who also directed), is now in theaters. His special Whitmer Thomas: The Golden One was released on HBO in 2020, produced by Bo Burnham, Chris Storer, and A24, and was directed by Thomas and Clay Tatum. Thomas and Tatum developed their filmmaking skills making shorts for their long-running monthly residency at the Satellite in Silverlake called PowerViolence, which has now been taken over by Whitmer Thomas & Pals at Largo, featuring some of the biggest names in comedy performing today. Thomas and Tatum co-produced, voiced, and wrote the ADHD animated series Stone Quackers on FXX (now available on Hulu), featuring John C. Reilly. Following the premiere of his special on HBO, SubPop Records released its original music, Songs from The Golden One, on their imprint label Hardly Art in stores April 2020. The show has been performed to sold out venues in NYC, LA, Philly, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland. Thomas’ sophomore album The Older I Get the Funnier I Was was released by Hardly Art Records in fall 2022.
Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release in theaters of Whitmer Thomas and Clay Tatum’s new comedy The Civil Dead, which the pair also star in, comedian, musician and actor Thomas shared some of the things that give him life. — N.D.
Going Home to Alabama
There’s nothing more inspiring to me than going back to my hometown in Alabama. My pals back there live a way different life than me and the knuckleheads I’m used to hanging with in Los Angeles. People’s attention spans are a little better down there too, I think. It’s often a really good catalyst for me when it comes to writing. Most everything I come up with starts in Alabama. When I feel creatively dead, I can just go sit on the beach back in my hometown. If I take out my notebook, I’ll usually end up writing something that I use, even if it’s not immediately.
My hometown is Gulf Shores, Alabama, which is on a man-made island called Pleasure Island where the population barely exists outside of tourist season. It’s always a real trip to visit my hometown as a tourist. I don’t think a lot of people get to do that. I definitely didn’t appreciate the souvenir shop with the shark head for a doorway as much when I was a kid.
This is the cover from my last album; it’s a picture of me as a kid on the beach. That’s the vibe of Pleasure Island. It’s very much a jet ski town, where everything is fueled by shrimp and a very specific drink called a Bushwhacker, which is a milkshake with rum in it. Tourists show up for spring break and summer and the locals set an impossible standard to drink six of those bad boys a day and then hop on their jet skis and drive home. People have accents that sound like their head is going to spin off their body, and scream at their kids in a way that is never not shocking. It’s a funnier place and people are just naturally funnier down there.
I met my best pal, Clay Tatum, down there when we were 11. We had this fantasy of being outcasts, punk kids growing up on this little Southern island who had to fight rednecks like in SLC Punk. But in reality, everybody was pretty cool. The rednecks would go muddin’ in their truck before school. It was a symbol of accomplishment to show up to school with a super muddy truck. We’d be like “Derrr, my truck got more mud on it than yers,” but then we tried muddin’ and never said another word. It’s a blast.
Immersing Myself in a Movie or Record
I really like giving something all of my attention, to stop the playlist of life, the recommended YouTube videos called 10 Things I Didn’t Know About Robocop of it all, the scrolling to a new video every 15 seconds or so on TikTok. I love to sit down and just say, “I’m going to watch all of this movie I don’t know anything about,” or, “I’m going to watch all of this director’s films.” I did that sometime last year with a bunch of Hong Sang-soo’s movies; On the Beach Alone at Night was the one that kicked it off for me.
Nowadays, if I don’t like something, I’ll turn it off and start clicking around. But if I just commit all the way to something, it can be amazing. If I’m alone in a city, I’ll go to the movies and check out something I don’t know anything about; this past summer, I watched a great Chinese movie called Ripples of Life by Shujun Wei at the TIFF theatre in Toronto. I can’t stop talking about that one. With music, I try not to click the Daily Mix playlist on Spotify and just listen to an album, top to bottom. That’s what I used to do as a kid. I’ll never forget getting a censored version of Blink-182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket at Walmart and listening to it with my mom in the parking lot. My recent favs are Hovvdy’s True Love and the new Alex G record, God Save the Animals. I listen to the lyrics and the phrasing and try to figure out the chords for my favorite songs. It helps me chill out. Usually a good reminder that not every song has to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s tough to shift from my standup/movie brain back to my music brain, but the one main thing that carries over from all of them is simplicity. I like movies, songs and jokes that aren’t written for brainiacs.
Getting Dark at the Casino
I always learn something new about myself at the casino. It’s a new pathway into the darkness of my addictive personality or my blind optimism that I’ll be able to get myself out of whatever hole I’m in. On the way home from the casino, I’ll end up taking out my phone and going crazy, click-clacking away on the Notes app. A lot of what Clay and I make has a financial element to the character’s story; in our new film, The Civil Dead, there’s a fun gambling scene, which wasn’t even a question when we started writing the movie.
Going to a casino, I always find myself asking, “How did I get into this dark moment?” We were at a casino two nights ago in D.C., and I sat at this Little Shop of Horrors slot machine with my friends, and I was so sure I was going to win money on it. I had a bunch of cash in my wallet from merch sales at the show I just did that I was waiting to count when we got back to the hotel. I told my pals, “This isn’t casino cash. Gotta count this later to see if I broke even with merch.” Thirty minutes later, I was pumping the slot machine full of twenties, my wallet getting lighter and lighter. I was saying, “No, it’ll work out,” but it never did. And now I’m going through my office trying to find some shit I can sell to make up for it … I guess I learned not to walk into the casino with a stack of cash.
I tend to pace myself over the course of the night between blackjack, roulette and slots, and as soon as I’m up, I say, “OK, I’m done,” and that’s the thrill for me. A few months ago, I was driving home from Dallas by myself, when I stopped at a casino in the desert and hit a small jackpot on a Casper the Friendly Ghost slot machine. There’s a Casper throughline in The Civil Dead, so I figured it was destiny. It wasn’t like a life-changing jackpot, it was more like my rent for a month. I was hanging out all night with these sketchy guys in the smoking section and they celebrated with me when I won. They asked me, “How did you win?” and I said, “Dude, I don’t know. I was just about to bail and I spent $100 on this Casper slot machine. You should try it.” And they said, “We don’t got $100 …” When I left, they all quietly followed me to the parking garage and I thought for sure they were going to rob me. When I got off the elevator, one of them hurried out of it behind me and I just ran as fast I could to my car and drove away. My heart beat like hell all the way home through the desert — ain’t felt that alive in a while.
Featured image shows Whitmer Thomas and Clay Tatum in The Civil Dead.