Who says, “You can’t go home?”
Now that I think about it, that’s a Bon Jovi song, and now I hate myself for saying it.
Regardless, the point I’m making is that going back to your hometown can be a welcoming event or an embarrassment. Luckily, for comedian Erica Rhodes, it’s the former.
Erica grew up in Newton with a pair of musicians for parents, and after a long history of performing on stage, radio, internet, TV, and movies in New York, LA, and everywhere in between, she has settled into what she feels most comfortable doing: stand-up comedy.
On Wednesday, May 9, she’s coming home to do her first headlining show in Boston. I caught up with her on her beginnings in entertainment, crazy things that have happened along the way, and some tips for actors that she’s learned.
When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
I started acting when I was 10. I didn’t really know I wanted to be an actor exactly, but I sort of had a feeling I was going to do it from a very young age. I was very into ballet when I was a kid. I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Then I played cello, and I decided that I’m going to be a cellist. Partly the reason was because I liked musicians better than actors.
When I auditioned for Juilliard for acting, I remember the orchestra was coming out of rehearsal while we were sitting around waiting for our auditions, and I couldn’t stand listening to the other actors talk about acting. … Then the orchestra came out, and these guys with cellos looked at all the actors and they were all, “to be or not be” really obnoxiously, and I was like, “Those are my people!” I grew up with musicians. My parents are both musicians; my mom is a violinist with the Boston Pops and my dad used to play clarinet. So I feel very comfortable with musicians. I ended up majoring in cello at Boston University, but the thing about acting is it always just came way more naturally to me than music did. So I ended up moving to New York and I got back into acting.
Do you still play the cello?
I’m not like great at it anymore, but like I still play once in a while.
If someone wanted you to play cello in their band, what type of music would convince you?
I actually did do that when I first moved to LA and I was having an identity crisis. I played in a band and it was the funniest thing because I would play and no one could hear me because it’s a cello in a sorta like folksy rock band. … Everyone liked the idea of having a cello, they just didn’t really know what to do with it necessarily. People would come up to me after these shows and they’d be like, “You’re so great. Wow, you’re so talented.” And I’m like, there is no way they could hear it. They liked how I looked playing cello. … I was like, wow, this is so different than Boston, it’s like you don’t have to be really good to to impress people in LA, you just have to hold a cello.
Besides getting the role, what has happened in an audition to make you walk out feeling confident?
It doesn’t take much for me. All I need is if they ask me to do it again. Whereas if they just have me do it once and then say thank you, I always feel disappointed. I always feel like they didn’t try to see me do it a different way or try to give me direction.
You had some early acting success on the web series Upstairs Girls, right?
Upstairs Girls was sort of a huge hit without anyone knowing that it was a huge hit. It got like almost 300,000,000 views online and did nothing for my career because I was credited as Sandy, which was my character, not my own name. Nobody really could find me unless they really tried hard. A lot of the fans thought my name really was Sandy. That was a weird fluke of something that should have done a lot more for me, but just didn’t. I did get paid to do it and I did like 300 episodes, but it’s just this weird sort of fluke thing.
You have a very, let’s call it unique voice. Have you ever been self-conscious about it?
Oh, definitely. When I was little everyone in middle school called me Squeaky. And when I went to acting school I definitely worked really hard to try to lower my voice and change it, but then as I got older I’m just like, this is just my voice. Like it feels weird to like try to make it lower; it just doesn’t feel like me. So now I accept it more and I don’t really care so much. I took a class with David Mamet who told me, “If you don’t fix your voice, you’ll never have an acting career.” So, he was right I guess.
Since you’re in LA, do you still pursue acting?
Yeah. I just really don’t care about it. I’d like to sell my own show or, you know, to create my own projects, but I’m not that interested in acting anymore.
Between acting and stand-up, do you prioritize your time toward one or the other more?
I’m like 99 percent focused on stand up.
How did you get started doing stand-up?
I had to fail at acting for a very long time. I started on the radio show Prairie Home Companion when I was 10 years old. I went to acting school, and then I did the whole indie film thing and moved to LA doing tons of auditions, and it just wasn’t happening. Specifically, I had this Parks and Recs audition where, from my point of view, I felt like I seriously bombed it. It was about three lines.
I thought, I’ve got to figure something else out with my life. And so then I went to an open mic that night, and I just sort of reenacted the audition with people from the audience playing the casting director. It was just a really bad week. I had a boot on my car, I went through a breakup. Like there’s a bunch of stuff that was like a really bad week, so I just sort of vented about it and I had someone tape it for me, and then I put up the video on Facebook the next day.
Ten minutes later my manager called me asking, “What are you doing, putting your first stand-up experience online? Like you’re not even telling jokes, you’re just venting.” I was so embarrassed, and I was probably like never going to do it again except that my friend Veronica Mannion saw it and said, “Oh, you’re doing stand-up now? I have a stand-up show next week. Do you want to be on it?”
Every time you go back to Prairie Home, does it feel like something familiar to you? Or is it just a thing you’ve been doing since you were a child?
It is like home for me. It was how I got my start. I grew up knowing all the same people. My first time ever acting was with Allison Janney who just won the Oscar, and she couldn’t have been nicer.
Do you think your background in performing from such a young age benefitted your transition into stand-up?
It really makes sense that I would go from that to stand-up because I grew up performing for thousands of people live. I performed at the Hollywood Bowl, at Town Hall in New York, and I did a mini tour with Prairie Home all across the US. I got really used to a live audience by doing the show. So when I wasn’t performing in front of a live audience in LA, I just felt really disjointed. I just felt very detached from what I want them to do because that’s what I grew up doing.
Do you ever wish you could look at performing with fresh eyes?
I think we all wish we could go back in time and appreciate experiences we’ve had in the past more, but I don’t really have that because I feel like I’m always growing and learning and I don’t ever feel like I haven’t figured it out or anything. Especially because when I started stand-up, to be honest, it really sorta started things over for me.
This your first headlining show here in your hometown of Boston; is there anyone from your past you would hope is jealous?
I wish I could say something like that, but I can’t think of anyone. I used to be slightly competitive with people from my past, but now it’s like I really couldn’t care less about that. … The people from my past are all like super smart, went to Ivy League schools, all have good jobs. Because it’s Newton. They’re not in entertainment, and so I don’t feel competitive with them.
You’ve been working on your own variety shows that you’re hoping to take on the road soon. What’s differences have you found between booking a variety show and regular comedy shows?
It’s a variety show inspired by Prairie Home Companion, where I have music and comedy, then I do an interview, which is unlike Prairie Home because he doesn’t really do an interview, but I have celebrity guests who I interview. It’s just a very fun show that kind of has more of a wholesome vibe to it than a typical stand-up show. I have to get a celebrity guest and a musician; it’s a little bit more challenging. … booking a comedy show is super easy because comics are always wanting to perform. The hardest part is getting people to come because people, you know, people in LA are spoiled and they see great comedy and great shows every single night.
What advice would you give somebody who’s doing their first headlining show in their hometown?
I would say if you’ve got a stage mom, like I have, let her invite all of her friends. Apparently my mom is selling out the show by herself.
See Erica Rhodes Weds 5.9 at Laugh Boston. For more info about this show and other comedy shows in the area, be sure to visit bostoncomedyshows.com. Listen to the full, unedited phone conversation with Erica and download the podcast at deadairdennis.com/podcast.