Tom Arnold totally understands if you were once in the camp that presumed that if you were involved with someone talented, you couldn’t possibly be talented yourself.
“A lot of people thought that,” Arnold says of his days working with friend, later spouse and later ex, Roseanne Barr. “First of all, I don’t care. I can see how people would have thought [that] because if you look at the track record of people who are with people who are talented and successful in Hollywood, it’s not that good. Especially when they’re divorced, you don’t necessarily hear from those folks again.”
Arnold arrived in Hollywood in 1988 to work on Barr’s self-titled sitcom Roseanne, first as a writer and later as a cast member. What isn’t widely known is that he quickly moved up, essentially becoming the Bill Belichick of that writer’s room.
“On the pilot I was the audience warm-up guy, which I was so bad at,” he recalls. “It’s such a hard job.”
After being promoted to executive producer, he came to an agreement with his colleagues.
“I’d say, ‘I know you know a lot of guys who have been around this business for awhile and that’s great, but I want half the guys to be my guys — new guys that have never written for TV before because I know they’re funny, I can tell by their stand-up and other stuff they’ve done.”
It didn’t matter to Arnold if his recruits had ever written for television. “I can teach them how to write a TV script. I can’t teach them how to be funny.”
Arnold finally silenced critics even before leaving Roseanne by turning in an acclaimed performance in the 1994 film True Lies. For a kid from Ottumwa, Iowa, it was indeed a dream come true. However, Arnold looks back on his pre-show-business life and career as important to his overall development as an entertainer and a person.
“I worked at a meat packing plant for three years and it does help you because you always know what a real job is,” he says.
“One thing that people don’t realize about Hollywood is that you can be the most talented performer in the world, but if you don’t use some elbow grease and do what you’ve got to do — show up on time and be prepared — you’ve got to get up and do it. No manager or agent is going to make your career.”
While the meat packing plant provided steady work with benefits, Arnold literally dreamed of more.
“I grew up wanting to be an actor and be on TV and in the movies,” he says.
While working for the plant, he had a recurring dream that he was friends with Robin Williams.
“But then I‘d wake up in my crappy apartment at five in the morning and have to go to work. After awhile, I willed myself not to have that dream because it was too depressing.”
Then one day Andy Kaufman came to Ottumwa. The Taxi star was in the midst of his wrestling career, which involved him grappling with any female challenger that would pick up the gauntlet.
“I thought if Andy Kaufman can come from Hollywood to Ottumwa, maybe I can go from Ottumwa to Hollywood.”
Arnold enrolled in community college and later transferred to the University of Iowa. It was there that he first performed at an open mic.
“I’m sure I was terrible,” he says, “but that’s where it started.”
From there it was to Minneapolis, which had, and still does have, a solid comedy scene. He quickly became friends with Barr and Louie Anderson, and when Barr landed her sitcom, Arnold headed west with her. Eventually he was in a movie with Robin Williams (Nine Months).
“It was just like my dream,” Arnold says. “It felt like I deserved to be there and that I really belonged.”
As for Roseanne, Arnold doesn’t see much of her, but says he would certainly be friendly if he ran into her. A few weeks back they got into a bit of spat in Twitter.
“I tweeted that I was cleaning out the garage,” Arnold explains, “and that I hoped Goodwill liked old remote controls, phone chargers and my old wedding videos.” Roseanne fired back a tweet about Arnold disposing of videos with her kids in them, which then commenced a back and forth between the two. “It reminded me of how funny she could be,” he says. “The relationship kind of picked up where it left off.” He then adds with a laugh, “it also reminded me of why we were divorced.”
His trip to Cincinnati to perform at Brew Ha-Ha came from a desire to do some stand-up dates in August. He’s looking forward to his visit to Porkopolis, but points out that our city’s nickname may not be accurate.
“That’s nice but Iowa is really the pork capital of the world,” he says, laughing. “But that’s a nice nickname. That’s funny, I love that.”
TOM ARNOLD headlines Cincy Brew Ha-Ha at 9 p.m. Friday. The festival runs Friday-Saturday at Sawyer Point. Tickets and more info: cincybrewhaha.com.