L.A.-based comedian and musician Whitmer Thomas grew up in Gulf Shores and returned to shoot his first full-length comedy special at the Flora-Bama. “The Golden One” will premiere on HBO Saturday, Feb. 22. (Photo courtesy of HBO)
Whitmer Thomas left Gulf Shores as soon as he could after high school to pursue some kind of a career in Los Angeles. Now, 13 years later, he’s made the life and family he left in coastal Alabama the backdrop of his first hour-long standup comedy special, as he details his journey to find success in Hollywood.
“Whitmer Thomas: The Golden One” will premiere on HBO Saturday, Feb. 22. The special was filmed primarily at the Flora-Bama Lounge in Orange Beach — a now world-famous watering hole Thomas has maintained a connection to through his mother, the late keyboardist and singer Jenny Thomas.
“My mom was in the house band at the Flora-Bama and she would perform there pretty regularly when I was growing up,” Thomas said. “She passed away a long time ago, but I remember I would go there and watch her all the time. The people at the Flora-Bama … they still know who my mom is.”
Jenny played with her twin sister, Jude Hammock, and guitarist Ricky Whitley in the three-piece outfit Syntwster. In the trailer for “The Golden One,” Thomas talks about his mother’s struggles to make it in the music business — something he draws parallels to when discussing his own career.
Speaking with Lagniappe, Thomas said he’s been performing a version of “The Golden One” for about three years as a one-man show. The title is also a nod to his mother, who sent him a journal when he first moved to L.A. in 2006 and signed it: “My golden son, reach for the stars. I love you so.”
Over time, the special grew into an eclectic mix of standup, storytelling and original music that explores Thomas’s self-described “bleak” childhood experiences like the absence of his father. After developing the special for years, comedian Bo Burnham and a production team got behind it.
Though he was apprehensive at first, Thomas said Burnham and others backing the special pushed him to film it at the Flora-Bama and to confront some of the things from his childhood that show up in his comedy. In addition to music and jokes, a portion of “The Golden One” includes personal conversations Thomas had with his formerly estranged father and other members of his family in Alabama.
“There are documentary elements to it, because I wanted to give everybody I talk about or make fun of in the special an opportunity to humanize themselves and not to be some shadow figure,” he said. “I also wanted to incorporate my music into the show because that’s one of my ties to my mom. She inspired me to become a musician. But other than the family stuff, it’s just a comedy special, though it does go to places that might be a little more vulnerable or emotional than a lot of other specials do.”
Earlier this month, Thomas said it was hard to overstate how much HBO greenlighting his comedy special has impacted his life, adding that it is without a doubt his “big break.” That said, he has managed to stay busy in L.A. over the years — keeping a relatively steady stream of standup gigs and acting roles.
Among other credits, Thomas has had small parts in “The Walking Dead” on AMC, the Netflix series “Glow” and NBC’s “The Good Place.” He also starred in the FXX animated series “Stone Quackers” with his friend and fellow Gulf Shores native Clay Tatum. Still, a one-hour HBO special is something that few ever land in the competitive world of standup comedy. Thomas said he’s grateful.
“I’ve been deeply broke out here for almost 13 years. You get a couple of opportunities a year and hope you do a good job and that those can keep you afloat for a while along with little odd jobs here and there, but that’s the classic thing — move to Hollywood, starve for a while and hope someone eventually gives you your big break,” he said. “When HBO said, ‘we want to do it,’ my life changed that day.”
By chance, Thomas filmed his special at the Flora-Bama on the 13th anniversary of leaving for L.A.
Like most comedians, especially those who leave the South to make it in the entertainment industry, Thomas makes fun of the place he came from. But he also makes fun of himself, his family, his music and a number of other things that shaped his life experience. He said the South is no different.
“I’m deeply grateful to have grown up in the South, and I think it was important to me and to who I grew up to be having this larger sense of wonder about what there is and what the world is like. I think that’s what I love so much about the South is that Southerners — the good ones — are just really curious and open people,” he said. “Another thing I’ve noticed performing comedy for Southern crowds is that they don’t shy away from laughing at things that are dark or difficult, even if you’re making fun of them.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).