Back in late February, Los Angeles-based actor/comedian/musician Whitmer Thomas debuted his first hour-long comedy special for HBO. While Thomas has performed comedy in various ways for many years and appeared on several TV shows (including Stone Quackers, The Walking Dead, and GLOW), this comedy special feels monumental. There aren’t a lot of specials that make you want to cry and although it might be somewhat unintentional at times, Thomas forces viewers to examine their own lives just as much as he examines his.
With The Golden One, you should know if it’s for you within its first minutes since it encapsulates everything that will follow – it’s heartfelt and moving along with self-aware goofiness. Most of all, it’s refreshingly original in content and overall appearance. Co-directed with his childhood friend and longtime collaborator Clay Tatum, The Golden One is a mixture of a homecoming documentary trying to process familial trauma, silly but profound stand-up and intimate original songs.
Starting in Thomas’ apartment, the background of the special is revealed as he goes through photographs and memories of his late mother and Syn Twister, the band she had with her twin sister. He talks about the Flora-Bama, a venue with a strong connection to the family and the venue chosen for his special. “I want to feel like I’m doing my show inside of my mom’s heart”, Thomas says and, as he gets to perform inside his mother’s heart, he bares his own to everyone willing to listen.
While there are obvious difficulties in trying to fit complex experiences and conflicts between family members that have lasted years into just a couple of minutes of screen time, none of his meetings feel dishonest. During an early conversation with his brother, there’s a fascinating divide between how they used to feel about their mother’s musical career when they were young. While Thomas’ brother didn’t enjoy music and instead thought of it as disturbing noise, Thomas idolised her and grew a fascination for show business. Another more emotional conversation happens later between Thomas and his cousin, who together tearfully bond over the pain of being close to someone struggling with substance abuse.
Throughout his performance, Thomas talks about everything from his father leaving when he was young (and later returning) and how it is to be an ageing emo kid to stories from his Alabama childhood and current life in L.A. However, The Golden One continuously returns to the tragic premature death of Thomas’ mother, a musician whose achievements never lined up with her aspirations and ambitions. In the special, Thomas says, “It’s just impossible for me not to compare myself to her,” later explaining that he has “an example of what it looks like to fail.”
While musical performances within comedy isn’t anything new, many other comedians rely heavily on constant punchlines. Thomas instead focuses on the show as a whole, and creates music that works both within and outside of the comedy special. While Thomas has a lovely natural singing voice, he experiments a lot, for instance to reach the moody depths of baritone musicians like John Maus – maybe to create some distance between himself and the things he’s singing about. Underneath the insightful lyrics are intimate things revealed, with everything from sexual performance anxiety (“Eat You Out”) to highlighting the differences between his dreams in life in comparison to his father’s (“Hopes and Dreams”).
One of the most intimate of them all is “Partied to Death”, a song about the effect his mother’s substance abuse had on his identity. Within the painfully blunt song Thomas delicately balances between the fun, the relatable and the deeply upsetting — which further cements his talent as not just a performer but as a writer. “You see my mommy drank herself to death/And I know she tried her very best/But now I can’t party, because my mommy partied to death”, he sings in the chorus. It’s maybe the least conventional choice as a sing-a-long song, but near the end, he has everyone singing. It’s incredibly cathartic to witness, Thomas at his most honest finding a connection with the audience as the whole room is singing his lyrics back to him — maybe even projecting their own experiences into it.
Watching The Golden One is like reading someone’s diary, a collection of memories and experiences collected over many years. Simultaneously, it almost feels like a memorial, a celebration of the good and a process of the less good. However, while the premise of this comedy special is very specific and personal, it never feels inaccessible for viewers to connect to. Life usually never shows up funny in itself, instead, it’s often painful, messy, ugly and confusing. To untangle everything and manage to find humour within tragedy, that’s something performers like Thomas can achieve as to offer viewers an opportunity to together laugh in the face of the painful truths and circumstances of life. As humans we crave to feel relief and connecting to other people’s stories is a way to process our own while feeling relief that we’re not alone.
The Golden One is without a doubt one of the most unique comedy specials in recent memory and introduces Thomas, who self-identifies in one song as “pre-cum Jim Carrey,” as a natural star. If Thomas were a bird, he would have ornithologists travel many hours to only get a glimpse of his rarity — that’s how special this performance feels. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before Thomas will make it in the way he always dreamed of (and feared of never doing).
Whitmer Thomas: The Golden One is available to stream now on HBO
by Rebecca Rosen
Rebecca Rosen (she/her) is a writer from Sweden with a university background in film, TV and gender studies. While enjoying everything from extremely silly to gory, she thinks that it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can find her on Twitter.