Thomas Nichols Has A Lot Going On, But None Of Those Things Involve Booze.
Welcome to Humor Us, a new column in which local comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other local comedians about the ol' funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
As Thomas Nichols sees it, the best way to get better at comedy is to just get on stage. And DFW certainly offers plenty of opportunities to just do that — if you're willing to take advantage of them.
Me? I'm used to seeing Thomas Nichols every Wednesday at the open mic hosted by Hyena's Comedy Club at Mockingbird Station. Nichols, a comedy veteran of seven years, tests new material while slumped against the back wall onstage, performing with a languid nonchalance. This display of indifference is contradicted by material that's sharp, precisely crafted and deeply funny. Nichols pushes himself to perfect every joke he intends to add to his act. And as his career expands — he's building a fan base, and is increasingly receiving offers to perform in places that are farther and farther from DFW — it's clear that he his passion is unwavering, and that his ambition is matched by an enviable work ethic.
Nichols is finding more opportunities to showcase his talents as a stand-up comic these days, but he's also finding new opportunities outside the medium. He just debuted a new comic strip called “Just Us Cops” that he's working to turn into a cartoon. He's also part of a podcast called “Dude, How Did You Not See This?” where he (finally) watches different landmark films he's never previously seen.
This weekend, he'll be performing as part of a charity show on Saturday, May 28, with proceeds going towards the Robert E. Lee Elementary PTA. As you'll see in the below interview in advance of that gig at the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, supporting teachers is something Nichols is particularly excited about.
You've got a lot going on these days. Can you run down some of it for us?
I started my own comic strip that's going to turn into a comic book called “Just Us Cops.” It's a buddy cop comic strip — two cops go around and arrest some of my favorite comic characters from the past and present, and it also relates to what's going on now as well. To be able to do that — to do stand-up and to be able to do a comic book that will turn into a cartoon — it's stuff I've always wanted to do.
I was reading it recently and wanted to ask you about what inspired the series, and what your plans are going forward with it.
I've written a couple cartoons before. I just didn't say anything about them. I didn't release them or anything. My mentor actually inspired me to release this. He stopped doing stand-up for a while. He's still not doing stand-up, actually, as we speak.
Who's your mentor?
Jason Brown, out of Tulsa. I'm gonna see him in about two weeks. I see him every time I go to Tulsa. But he stopped doing stand-up, and I figured, if I wrote this cartoon… We'd already written a cartoon together, we just didn't put it out or say anything. He stopped doing stand-up at that time, and I was trying to figure out, “What is a good way to get him back in?” I figured if I wrote something funny, it could inspire him to get back in. That cartoon is it, man. I came up with the idea. I didn't really say anything to him. He's actually in the cartoon himself. One of the characters is named after him, so it's kinda based off him a little bit. It's pretty much based off me and him; we used to do the Looney Bins together — four different comedy clubs. We'd hit the road together and do those rooms. Just sitting in the car with him, just remembering the games and conversations and stories I used to hear from him, it's that bond that's in the comic.
It sounds like the cops riding in the patrol car is kind of an analogue for comics driving on the road together.
Yeah, you could definitely say that. It definitely has that vibe to it.
So it plays up the intimacy that comes being in the car on a long drive?
Yeah, exactly! [Laughs] Sometimes they can't stand each other, but when it comes down to it, they actually love and support each other, y'know? That kind of thing.
You have another project, a movie podcast.
Yeah, it's “Dude, How Did You Not See This?” Kelly Workman (another local comic) is the host of that show, and he invited me on. He's also the cartoonist for [“Just Us Cops”]. I introduced the comic to him maybe two months before the podcast. He's a good dude, he likes to work and he's definitely a good artist. So he started doing the comic, and then he invited me on the podcast. It's interesting. I knew we would get along — we both do comedy — but I didn't think it would be as strong a bond as we have now.
So was it more like an organic thing. Like, the more you talked, the more you clicked and decided to work together?
Yeah, I mean for the cartoon perspective, I wanted to work with people that love cartoons, of course. [Former Dallas comic] Usama Siddiquee, who's in New York now, he's the other writer for the cartoon. So we went back and forth on writing the script and the storyline. Then we give the script to Kelly, who draws them. The next comic will come out in May, and we'll follow that with another one. But, for the podcast, Kelly invited me on. It’s rare to find cult movies that haven't been seen by anyone. Kelly hasn't seen E.T., and I haven't seen Star Wars — not one scene. I played the video games before I watched anything. We work with Derek Tusing [another local comic] and Daniel — we don't really talk about Daniel's last name [laughs]. But that's what it is, we brought three comics together, myself, Kelly and Derek, who haven't seen a ton of movies, and then Daniel's the guy who's generally seen most likely everything. We sit and watch the movies, and watch the trailer, we say what we think it's about, and any questions we have, and Daniel can most likely answer. So we have a guy with some knowledge, to some degree.
So you do have your expert.
Exactly. I love it, man. We just got done doing Human Centipede. That was interesting [laughs]. Then we have another one — Tank Girl, that's one a lot of people asked about. A lot of people ask for certain movies. I think we're going to do Flubber soon. None of us have seen that. We still have to do big nights where it's, like, Star Wars night. I think that's one where we're planning to go to the theater. I think the Alamo [Drafthouse] shows all three in one night. I might go crash that. We'll talk about that soon. Just hit us up at “Dude, How Did You Not See This?” on Soundcloud. It's all free. You don't have to pay for shit. We're the only ones paying anything.
So you talked earlier about visiting with Jason Brown again in Tulsa. You'll be performing in Tulsa at the beginning of June, correct?
June 1st through the 4th.
I've seen you talking more about taking gigs in places like Oklahoma. It seems like you've been traveling more lately. Can you talk about what it's like to start getting work on the road?
It's dope. I mean, I can't lie. I'm glad I'm able to do it, because I'm able to reach different people. Every show I go to, there's a different type of audience, a different crowd. Being able to reach different people, and inspiring them to not only chase what they want to do, but to be understood, it's great. It's been weird this year, though. I'll run into different people after shows. I actually made a dude cry! I was in Oklahoma City and I didn't know this guy at all, never met him, but he and his wife were actually proud of me, which was weird, but it was like, “I actually did that?” [Laughs] It was weird, I haven't heard “I'm proud of you!” in a long time, and definitely not from a stranger. I've never heard that before.
That's a weird reaction to get.
Yeah! It is, but there was clearly some personal stuff attached to it. But to be able to connect with people like that was one of the most powerful things I've experienced, crowd-wise, in the last year, for sure. I love traveling. I'm still going to do other things, travel to festivals and just do as much as possible. I'm just trying to be consistent.
Do you feel like you have to change your style or select different jokes based on where you're performing? Or do you stay pretty consistent?
Consistent. People want you, they want who you are. It's those people that stick by you and stick with you the whole time and whole career, because you gave them your honest opinion about something, or you approached them like you normally would. It took me 20 years to find who I was as a person. I'm not changing for anybody at this point. I searched and searched forever — I mean, 20 years is nothing to some, but to me that's an important 20 years of my life. I mean, I'm only 26, so finding myself… I'm sticking to it.
You have a charity show coming up May 28, right?
Yeah, for teachers. I've actually worked out a deal where teachers get in for free for all of my shows.
I wanted to ask you about that, because I've seen posts online where you talk about it. What brought this on?
I feel like teachers are unappreciated in society. We talk about how they don't make much, so that was already one thing. My teachers inspired me to do stand-up; they inspired me to chase my dreams, and were always encouraging me as a performer. My ninth grade math teacher, my freshman through senior theater teachers, my marketing teacher — I still talk to all of these people. They have seen me do stand-up. Even my counselor at school, Ms. Carter, who I saw a month ago! I still work for my old high school, by the way.
I go up and help every now and again. I used to do the lighting for the theater shows. Any time they can't find anybody, they can call me to help with that. Ms. Carter, she was one of the reasons I got into stand-up, for sure. I was always writing in school. I wrote for a year before I started doing stand-up. I would write in school — I would write songs, jokes, poems. I also wanted to join the Army.
That's a pretty big split, in terms of ambitions.
[Laughs.] My grandfather was in the army. My pops was in the army, I loved planes when I was younger. I still had that ambition. I wanted to fly a plane. Being in the Air Force was something I really wanted to do for a long time, and it's still something I'd kind of like to do. But I sat down, deciding what I wanted to do after high school, and I told [Ms. Carter] I wanted to join the Army. Before that, I told her I wanted to do stand-up. And she said, “No, you're going to do stand-up. I don't want you to go into the Army.” She was about it! We had that connection, though. I understood completely. I told her I still wanted to join the Air Force. There were two options — I could join the Army or do stand-up. You have to take a test before you can get into the Army, so I decided I wouldn't study for the test at all. If I just happened to pass, it meant I was meant to be in the Army. If I didn't pass, I'd do stand-up. That was the line. And, of course, I didn't pass. I salute the troops, I really do. My father's a vet, and I really support what they do. And of course, they have teachers there that taught them. I feel like if there's ever something I can do to give back — give them free admission if I can, or even if I can just take care of a tab — I'll do it. I want them to come and enjoy themselves. I know what it's like. I don't want to watch teenagers! I don't want to watch kids! I don't want to do that, so I understand why you might be stressed out. Nobody wants to watch their own kids!
We've talked about you traveling more. What would you say to a comic who's looking to find or create those opportunities to travel?
Well, first, it depends on where you are. If you're in a city where you can't get out at least five times a week, you have to [leave]. There are cities where you can only go onstage twice a week. I'm fortunate to be in Dallas where you can get up maybe seven or eight times a week. I took a year off of work my second year of stand-up and did nothing but open mics. And there were a lot back then! Bars, clubs, everybody was doing open mics, and I did nothing but open mics for a year. I hit maybe seven a week, it was crazy. I was doing nothing but stand-up, and that really helped me get to where I am today. If you can't get up at least five times a week, you have to go somewhere people are putting open mics together. You can't be consistent with only two open mics a week. But those opportunities to travel will come to everyone who's consistent and persistent about it. Just walk your path, man. Don't worry about anyone else, just walk your path. It's gonna come. That's always how it's been. It doesn't matter how far you have to walk. As long as you love doing this, it doesn't matter where your exit is.
So while we're talking about moving and staying, have you thought about moving to a place like New York or LA?
[Laughs.] I've been getting this question a lot. Right now, that's a question I can't truly answer. I would love New York, and I went to LA in November. I love New York, though. If I had to pick — if I had the money — I'd pick New York. There's always art, there's always people. I may not be the biggest people person, but just being able to see so many different cultures coming together in one area, it's beautiful. When it comes to art, it's a great place to be. I feel like Dallas is somewhat the same, but it's spread out all over the place.
We have more of a sprawl here.
Definitely. You have to drive here. There may be the most incredible painting, but you have to drive at least 30 minutes to see it. It'll change your life, but you have to drive. It's interesting how New York is so small, but it's managed to fit everybody. It's weird. I love it, though.
So, you don't drink. You've never been a drinker the entire time you've done comedy.
Do you ever wonder if that's affected your career? Does it make it harder when you can't drink and hang out at the bars and clubs with other comics? Is that an obstacle?
No. Well, I can see what you're saying. It became another obstacle that I worked against; it just made me work harder to get the people who drink, or maybe don't like that I don't drink, to like me more. So I don't drink, and people like me or they don't. That's kind of what it comes down to: People like you or they don't like you. And people who don't like you may not like you for the stupidest shit ever — like, they could just not like you because you have a red shirt on, it doesn't matter. The only thing you can do is keep those people that like you away from those people who don't like you, and make sure that those people who like you love you and connect with you to some degree. Those who connect with you are going to stay with you.
Say I'm a new comic who doesn't drink. What would your advice be as far as trying to make it in comedy and not drinking?
Don't drink, of course! [Laughs.] I mean, if you don't want to, don't. I never had the desire to. I saw the good and bad in it. That's one reason I don't do it. I want to stay in control. What I say is what I said; I don't want to blame it on, “Oh, I was drunk!” I mean what I say. If you don't want to drink, don't do it. I would advise that you don't drink before you go onstage. If you go up drunk, like a lot of comics have done, it's a bad idea — especially if you just started. Because you'll either be really good at it, and you're going to always feel like you need to go onstage that way, or you're going to be terrible and mess up everything at the jump. Just be consistent and do what you want to do. That's all I can really say. Consistency is one of the most important things in stand-up.