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Entertainment & Arts

Did she swallow helium? Let’s take the high-pitched comedy of Erica Rhodes seriously

HERMOSA BEACH, CALIF. - MAY 18: Comedian Erica Rhodes, poses for a portrait at The Comedy and Magic
Comedian Erica Rhodes at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A man in a seersucker suit sipped a Manhattan. Tourists ambled in, sunburned, wearing sneaks. A woman checked her lipstick. A guy cut into a steak. The air went cool and the lights dimmed. The first of 10 comics hurried to the stage, a wild-haired woman riffing about Russians and a baby born on a bus. The crowd was where it wanted to be, a drink or two into a Saturday evening, faces aglow, desserts coming.

A lot of funny people have played the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. Jay Leno used it as a second home. But on this night, the seventh comic in the lineup — Erica Rhodes — was thinking she doesn’t always do well in the small lounge. She preferred the club’s big room. But you take your draw and play your set.

Rhodes stepped into the spotlight in a denim jacket, scarf through her hair. She looked 20, sounded 12. High-pitched syllables needled the air like bee-stings. A few in the crowd wondered if the mike was working right. Did she swallow helium? But the voice became oddly endearing. It fit clever stories of garage door openers, broken romances, downsized dreams and how, under exquisite delusion, owning a headboard could be considered a sign of success.

“We had very little in common except we both really loved him,” she said of an old boyfriend. “This sounds insane, but he actually said these words to me once: ‘I love you more than you love me because I love myself so much. You need to love yourself more so that you can love me more.’ And I was like, actually, ‘I think we both need to love you less ‘cause the more I love you, the more I hate myself for loving a guy who loves himself so much.’ ”

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Rhodes has been doing stand-up for six years. She performs up to 10 sets a week, mostly in Los Angeles, where she moved after studying acting in New York. She is unassuming and self-effacing, and like many comics she runs on curious bursts of insecurity and ego, like gremlins blowing up a spine. A classically trained ballerina and cellist (her mother plays violin for the Boston Pops Orchestra), Rhodes is an astute observer of the slights, whims and idiosyncrasies that confound a woman’s soul.

HERMOSA BEACH, CALIF. - MAY 18: Comedian Erica Rhodes, center, chats while eating dinner next to fel
Comedian Erica Rhodes chats while eating dinner with fellow comedian Feraz Ozel in the green room of The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

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Her voice is innocence concealing a knife, an aria hijacked by a whine. Her jokes don’t feel so much planned as they do small epiphanies alighting around her. A few days before the Comedy and Magic Club set, she showed up at an outdoor café on Melrose Place. She was laughing at a recent reality check. She had been booked to play the Laugh Factory in Hollywood but was bumped by Tiffany Haddish. The club asked if Rhodes could do a Long Beach gig instead.

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“They called and said, ‘Erica, you’re the only one who will understand,’ ” she said. “You don’t want to be known as the girl who understands. Not in this business.” She rolled her eyes, amused. But the bigger name always wins so you hustle down to Long Beach instead of hopping a short ride to Sunset Boulevard.

“I remember my first open mike. I got nothing,” said Rhodes, 36. “It’s humiliating. In the beginning, it’s quite painful. I’ve always had a tiny side of me that enjoys pain. There’s a part of my brain that can detach from it and go, ‘Wow, it’s amazing how bad this is going.’ I get a masochist’s joy out of it. As a comic, you have to love the process of it, and the process includes the bombing. My friends keep telling me, ‘You have to stop telling people when you bomb.’ But I feel as if it’s a notch on my belt.”

She held that thought for a moment.

“I do a lot of self-deprecating,” she said. “It took a long time to realize I was funny.”

She ordered a coffee and found a seat in the shade of a food truck. Sunglasses, blond hair, bobbed, she seemed at once a nurse between shifts or an actress waiting for a call back. Women in yoga pants glided past and young men spoke of this deal or that, of nebulous things yet to happen. Rhodes was raised outside Boston, but her flat syllables have the air of her mother’s Midwestern roots, and one sensed, despite a whimsical wholesomeness, she could hatch a prison break before anyone noticed.

“We look for acts on the clean side,” said Richard Barrett, the talent booker at Comedy and Magic. “Erica comes across as smiley, cutesy, almost naive. But her material is not cutesy. There’s a dark side, a twist to it. She’s bringing something different to a stand-up world that has been dominated by men.”

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At her Comedy and Magic show, Rhodes, who admires Ellen DeGeneres and Maria Bamford, was one of two females in a line-up of 10 comics. Rhodes’ humor runs on unexpected if believable threads, as if she were a roommate returning home with stories from a puzzling night out. She jokes about taking Adderall instead of Ecstasy, wheelchairs (her father has MS), how blondes are not a race and how quickly life passes while we’re trying to make sense of its riddles.

The 20s are a good time, she says in one routine. “But I don’t relate to it anymore, ’cause I’m like, ‘You guys are so cute because you still think you matter. Like the rest of your life is just this really long journey where you find out you matter less and less and less every day, and then, you die. Not to give it away, but that’s what you can look forward to.’ ”

Rhodes began performing when she was 10. Her aunt Jenny Lind Nilsson is a violinist married to Garrison Keillor, and Rhodes was brought on to play the voice of Keillor’s conscience and other recurring characters on his Prairie Home Companion radio show. She occasionally wrote for the program and worked with Allison Janney, Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen and Paula Poundstone. Her last appearance was about a year before Keillor retired from the show in 2016; Minnesota Public Radio fired him in 2017 over allegations of sexual harassment. He has denied the accusations.

“All the things I learned at Prairie Home taught me how to do stand-up,” she said. “I learned how to write in my own voice.”

HERMOSA BEACH, CALIF. - MAY 18: Comedian Erica Rhodes, performs a set on stage at The Comedy and Mag
Comedian Erica Rhodes performs at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

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Rhodes had wanted to be a ballerina, but quit at 16 when she realized she would never be a prima. “I regret that,” she said, “Ballet is unhealthy at that young age. You’re obsessed.” She also abandoned the cello. The instrument helped get her into Boston University, but she struggled with musical theory and knew she would never be first chair. It was her mother’s passion, not hers, but Rhodes still plays Bach Suites alone in her apartment.

She enrolled in the Atlantic Theater Conservatory in New York, where she was told, “You gotta fix that voice.” (Her repertoire includes a teacher warning that it would kill her career.) “I’d always be cast as the little boy in Shakespeare,” she said. She did a children’s theater tour — 200 shows based on the Ramona Quimby books. She moved to Los Angeles, started acting auditions and signed with manager Bruce Smith, who also represents Bamford and Oscar Nuñez.

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“Bruce said, ‘What’s your dream?’ I said, ‘To be on “SNL.” ’ He said, ‘You don’t do impersonations. Get a different dream.’ He’s pretty honest. He taught me how to write jokes. You have to make it specific.”

She has collected anecdotes many in this town could appreciate: “I did web series that got millions of views, but they didn’t credit my name. No one knew it was me. Once, I went to this audition that was asking for medium girls. You know, medium body shape. Only two of us were at the audition, and we’re like, how funny is this that only two girls in L.A. would consider themselves medium?”

Rhodes’ new live album — “Sad Lemon” — will be available on streaming services beginning June 18, and she’ll appear on NBC’s upcoming comedy competition “Bring the Funny,” which will be judged by Jeff Foxworthy, Chrissy Teigen and Kenan Thompson. She recently completed a pilot for E! TV called “Tour Dates,” about the life of comics on the road. She has also appeared on “Modern Family,” “New Girl” and “Veep.”

A failed audition for “Parks and Recreation” led to her stand-up career. She went to an open mike night, venting about her life and replaying the audition. She posted it on Facebook. Her manager called immediately: “Bruce said, ‘Take that down. What are you thinking? Would you post your first cello lesson on Facebook?’ ” After a good cry, she spent the next week writing a 10-minute set and hit the stage.

Rhodes’ writing style has evolved from tight, haiku-like jokes, reminiscent of Steven Wright and Woody Allen, to longer conversational stories. She avoids vulgar humor — “It’s not who I am.” Instead, Rhodes strengths are “relatability and likability,” Smith said. “Stand-up comics often come from a place of putting up armor. They put a shell around themselves. When you do that, you lose vulnerability. But vulnerability, for Erica, is trademark.”

HERMOSA BEACH, CALIF. - MAY 18: Comedian Cristela Alonzo, of Beverly Hills chats with comedian Erica
Comedians Cristela Alonzo, left, and Erica Rhodes at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

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The applause was good after her set in the lounge at Comedy and Magic, but Rhodes, ever the doubter, texted, “Lol got the check drop.” She walked down the hall, past photos of Leno, Bill Maher, Arsenio Hall, Bill Burr and her, with longer hair and a microphone held to a smile. “This is the first club to put up my photo,” she said, looking over the wall the way one might study a scrapbook of cool kids.

Other comics were eating dinner in the green room, including Bobby Collins, a New Yorker with impeccable timing who skewers traffic, car chases, Santa Ana winds and the eccentricities that flash and coil through the Los Angeles psyche. Collins has been around long time, a brash, mix-it-up guy, who has toured with Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton. He looked at Rhodes and quipped, “I see her, and I want to bring candy.”

Rhodes picked at a plate of salmon and green beans. Her next set was in the big room, formal with a bit of class and neon, the kind of venue that brought to mind sharkskin suits, Doris Day and cigarette haze. Rhodes opened her blue notebook, a journal of jokes and random musings. The big room filled. Waiters in white shirts skimmed tables. The lights dimmed. The clock ticked and the comics went up.

HERMOSA BEACH, CALIF. - MAY 18: Comedian Erica Rhodes, performs a set on stage at The Comedy and Mag
Comedian Erica Rhodes performing at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

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Michael Yo, who called himself a “half-black brother with a Korean mother,” killed.

So did Collins.

Rhodes took the stage. She told tales of poor grammar, failed love and how her mother, once so sure her daughter would marry young, now thinks that a homeless man with a possible drug habit might not be such a bad husband. Life was about expectations, early hopes that turn into insidious whispers. Rhodes played on them, knowing the fine line between despair and hilarity.

The laughs were stronger than in her earlier lounge act. She had the crowd; over their dinners and drinks on the night of a yellow moon, just a block from the ocean, Rhodes brought the big room to her. She waved and exited. She headed for her car. She had a slot at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, but she wasn’t quite sure about the set she just finished. She texted: “The wheelchair jokes usually do better.”

HERMOSA BEACH, CALIF. - MAY 18: Comedian Erica Rhodes, poses for a portrait at The Comedy and Magic
Comedian Erica Rhodes
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com


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