Comedian, actor, writer, producer, and all-around Jacqueline-of-all trades, Erica Rhodes has a lot of balls in her court. While Rhodes is wrapping up a couple appearances on Fox’s “Punchline,” ABC’s web series “The Off Season” is now streaming for summer audiences. She plays one of two siblings (Jack and Laurie), who inherit a motel from a distant relative. The dilapidated property turns out to be more than what they bargained for.
All the while, Rhodes is nose-deep in the developing stages of another project. Though she’s remaining mum on its details. “To me, [in development] just means a lot of meetings,” she quips.
Acting was something Rhodes started doing early in her career. She got her start as a guest writer and actor for NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion.” Her first role came at age 10, voicing the conscience of Garrison Keillor.
“I learned a lot while working on [‘Prairie Home Companion,’]” she says. “I would write for the show a couple of months here and there and act, and it was always sort of sporadic. I guess I never had a normal schedule—that’s for sure. Right now I would say my focus is standup.”
It’s a relatively new endeavor but one Rhodes has been primarily focused on for about five years. She’ll have four shows at downtown Wilmington’s Dead Crow Comedy Room this weekend.
“To me, [standup] is the most creatively fulfilling thing,” Rhodes says, “because I’m always evolving my act. I’m always writing and performing, and it’s all my creation, which feels really good. That excites me the most.”
Rhodes’ act evolves as her life does, so a routine or joke is never necessarily finished. Whereas a film or TV show eventually wraps, comedy is an evolving expression of creativity. Acting is like playing a part in someone else’s vision.
“That’s why I would like to eventually have my own show,” she tells. “I would love to apply my own life story to the show where I’m basically playing myself.”
Since going all in with standup, Rhodes has learned it’s best to stick to what she knows rather than what might seem like a funny or “hot topic.” She talks about her passions and what’s going on in her life. As of late, funny anecdotes include a recent breakup.
“I say, ‘I went through a breakup—but that’s great because it means it was a real relationship!’” she tells. “Usually, I’m like, ‘It’s over!’ And he’s like, ‘Who’s this?’”
Rhodes also muses over breakups in the digital age. In other words, we live in a place where there is no real escape from a former love.
“It used to be, ‘Sorry it didn’t work out, have a nice life. Goodbye,’’” she says. “Now it’s, ‘Sorry it didn’t work out; I’ll see you online … forever.’”
Like every comedian who wants to pack a show with laughs, Rhodes says there’s a fine art to knowing how to get them. It could come with a new punchline, or switching up a word or two.
“Also, the placement [in the routine] can be so important,” she adds. “I often find if a joke isn’t working it could just be in the wrong place in my act, and I might need to put it somewhere else. I also try to do ‘callbacks’ [to previous jokes] in my acts. So it’s kind of like a puzzle.”
Rhodes used to run jokes by her manager or close friends, but she found it sometimes made her lose faith in the work before trying out with an audience. Now she goes all in with new material in front of live audiences. While some people are more naturally funny than others, Rhodes insists it’s not as intimidating as it seems.
“I honestly feel like more people could do [standup],” she observes. “It’s not as hard as people think it is. It’s scary but also the worst thing that can happen is people don’t laugh. Why is it so awful? Nobody dies; no one gets hurt.”
There is a technique behind writing a joke, organizing it in a routine, understanding its timing and executing it onstage, which can be learned and improved upon. A sign of a good show, however, is having jokes not anyone could say and be funny. Delivery is key in one joke she’s been working on about “Beauty and the Beast.” Rhodes thinks it sends the wrong message.
“Belle falls in love with the Beast and then the Beast turns into everything she could ever want—a hot prince with tons of money,” Rhodes explains. “We shouldn’t be teaching little girls that if you love someone enough they’ll change into everything you’ll ever want. . . . Basically, I think ‘Beauty and the Beast’ should end with her falling in love with the Beast, and then the Beast just stays a beast and true love is its own reward.”
As a writer, Rhodes used to think in order for her jokes to work with a live audience, they needed to work in writing. However, what seems to lack luster on the page shines brighter onstage.
“I used to just sit, write jokes, and come up with clever punchlines,” she continues. “Now, I write a lot more on my feet. . . . I feel like it’s the only way to write now.”
Being the same person onstage as she is off has been the most helpful lesson thus far in developing her act. For the most part, her fellow comics have been generous with advice and feedback, too. They support each other and respect the time and energy the job takes. While the industry itself is still mostly male-dominated, what Rhodes feels has changed (in her favor) is desire for more diversity.
“It’s sort of complicated because I feel in some ways you’re at an advantage being a woman just because there are fewer of you,” she says. “Whereas for some guys who try to get on shows, it’s way harder. But as a woman, they’re like, ‘Oh, we need a woman!’”