You Should Listen to Erica Rhodes

The comedian talks her high speaking voice — and how David Mamet told her she’d have no career unless she “fixed” it.

I don’t remember changing my voice when I was growing up, but I do remember well when I was very little, I was very shy, so I almost never spoke. I remember when I was in middle school, people called me “squeaky” when I did speak, and that bothered me a little bit. But when I went to acting school in my 20s, they were pretty adamant about changing my voice, so I did a lot of work on it. I did a lot of vocal exercises, trying to speak for my diaphragm. I played St. Joan in Shaw’s play Saint Joan, and my teacher basically said, “Just talk like a man the whole time.” So I tried that, but it never quite felt natural to me.

I went to pretty serious acting school, the Atlantic Theater Conservatory in New York. William H. Macy and David Mamet founded it. David Mamet’s the one who said, “If you don’t fix your voice, you’ll never have a career.” I really did work on my voice a lot. As the joke on my album, Sad Lemon, goes, basically, he was right. The joke isn’t like, “And then I went on to star in Shakespeare plays!” I got a few horror films, I got some web series, but I really struggled as an actress. He didn’t say, “You won’t have a career as a standup comic.” He had no idea that was my goal, and neither did I.

Giving the toast at my sister’s wedding, that was the actually first time people came up to me and were like, “You should do standup!” I had never really thought about it up till that point. I think I was like 23 or 24, and I really thought this was a heartfelt speech. There was barely any point when I wrote it where I thought, Oh, this is gonna be funny. I was just trying to be sentimental, genuine, supportive, and people were crying they were laughing so hard. I was so confused.

In a lot of ways, if I had really worked on my voice, I could have had a better career as an actress, if that’s really what I wanted. But I think, intrinsically, that’s not really what I wanted, or I would have really changed it. Your weaknesses are your assets in comedy, so the things that make you more vulnerable or more accessible are actually strengths.

When I first moved to LA, a casting director was like, “Your face doesn’t match your body. You need to slim down.” Things like that were pretty harsh criticism about the way you look. And in comedy, you don’t want to look too great. You don’t want to come across as having everything together. My weaknesses are more strengths in comedy, but in acting you want to blend. As an actor, I feel like it’s a totally different thing than comedy. I think I tend to play roles that are very similar to myself, but I can’t disappear into a role because I have this quirky voice.

Because people have called me cute or pretty or whatever, that was a value that other people put on me — like, “Oh, she should be a pretty actress.” But I’ve never felt that, and I’ve never valued that that much because I’ve always been pretty insecure about things like that. I’ve never wanted to be valued for my looks. So for me, becoming who I am is a lot about rejecting those ideas of people judging you based on the way you look.

Whenever I went into roles where it was like “pretty girl” or “girl next door,” I’d go in, and I’d be like, “I am the one who doesn’t know how to do my hair, doesn’t know how to put together an outfit” and all these things where I felt like, This is not the box that I want to be put in, and I’m never going to win that game. I love that comedy just helps you embrace your weirdness.

A lot of comics actually have quite high voices: Sarah Silverman has a high voice, Maria Bamford has a high voice. I think that it makes you more accessible as a comic. You don’t necessarily want to come across as authoritative — you want to come across as accessible and vulnerable and relatable.

Just in regular, day-to-day life it’s definitely harder. People don’t always listen to what you’re saying. They first listen to how you’re saying it and the sound that you’re making, and so they’ll look at you and go, “Oh, she must not be that smart,” or “She’s not she’s not a threat to me.” In comedy, I feel like it’s an asset because then I can get away with saying darker stuff, and then I can also say things where it might be a smart joke, but it takes them a second to realize it’s a smart joke. I think there’s a surprise element that could be good for comedy, but again, in most jobs it would probably be seen as a weakness. If I were to be a CEO type person, it would be very hard to get people to take me seriously.

Sad Lemon is out now.

As told to Kyle Ryan

Erica Rhodes is a stand-up comedian and sometime actor whose debut album, Sad Lemon, came out on June 18 via Helium Records.

(Photo Credit: Jackson Davis)