Tom Arnold: Don't Call It A Comeback

Oct 5, 2018

Before Tom Arnold was a comedian, he worked in an Iowa meatpacking plant. "If you work at a meatpacking plant, especially on the kill floor, two things are for sure," Tom Arnold told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another. "One, you will get very drunk every night, and two, you'll have crazy dreams like you're best friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Arnold did eventually star alongside Schwarzenegger in 1994's True Lies, but befriending, let alone meeting, Schwarzenegger seemed unlikely for someone from Ottumwa, Iowa. Though he wanted to leave his small town, Arnold first found himself following in the footsteps of the men in his family. "My grandpa worked in the meatpacking plant for 50 years, my dad worked there, I worked there for three years to save money to go to the University of Iowa."

Arnold knew he wanted to break into comedy, and decided on the University of Iowa because its student union had a stage for student performance. He recalled thinking, "If I get on that stage, I can become a comic and everyone will love me." As a student he opened for Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, who told him to find his own voice in comedy. After school, on the midwest comedy beat in Minneapolis, Arnold met Roseanne Barr and began working with her.

Arnold went on to write for Barr's eponymous sitcom, Roseanne. While writing for the show, Arnold featured as the warm-up comic for the pilot episode. He said he was not well-received by the audience. Arnold joked, "I worked my way up. I was so bad at each job that they made me executive producer."

Arnold said he was unpopular among audiences following the end of not only his tenure on Roseanne, but also the dissolution of his marriage to Barr in 1994. However, the same year, Arnold starred in James Cameron's True Lies. Arnold said the role saved him from what could have been the end of his career. "Because of James Cameron, because of Arnold Schwarzenegger... it changed people's perspective of me, being in a piece of art like that."

Now a father, Arnold's career has changed course. He told Eisenberg, "I'm a 59 year-old guy with a 5-and-a-half year-old son and a 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, you know I'm not going to live forever, there's only so many times I can stand up for them and do something." Arnold said this is one reason behind The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, a Viceland series documenting his search for various recordings of of Donald Trump.

He said his lack of journalistic gravitas is actually an asset when it comes to dealing with critics. "Ignore the threats of destroying your credibility, honest to god, I have zero credibility, that's what they do, they try to destroy that. But if you have none... it's amazing!"

For his Ask Me Another challenge, Arnold played a game about one of his favorite subjects: legendary sports comebacks.

Heard on Tom Arnold and Jill Sobule: Nostalgia Kills.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our first special guest. He starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in "True Lies" and hosted "The Best Damn Sports Show Period." His latest project is "The Hunt For The Trump Tapes." Please welcome Tom Arnold.



TOM ARNOLD: Oh, my gosh. Thank you for having me.

EISENBERG: I know that you're traveling right now doing standup.

ARNOLD: Yeah, feeling it out, you know.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And you started stand up while you were at University of Iowa.

ARNOLD: I did. I mean, my whole dream growing up was to get out of Ottumwa - not work at the - my grandpa worked at the meatpack plant for 50 years.


ARNOLD: You know, my dad worked there. And three years - I worked over three years to save money to go to the University of Iowa. And if you worked at a meatpacking plant, especially on the kill floor, two things are for sure. One, you will get very drunk every night. And two, you will have crazy dreams like you're best friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger. And then you wake up, it's 4:45 A.M., and you realize, oh, my God, I live in Ottumwa, Iowa. I work at the Hormel meatpacking plant. I would never even meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cut to 10 years later, you're best friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

EISENBERG: You're best friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

ARNOLD: So anyway - no, but - I saved money to go to the University of Iowa because I knew they had a - like a student union with a stage.


ARNOLD: And I thought, boy, if I get on that stage, I could be a - I'm a comic. And then everybody would love me. Half of that is true.

EISENBERG: That's how it always starts.

ARNOLD: But no, I love it. I've been doing it since 1982 or '81, you know.

EISENBERG: So your first comedy routine...

ARNOLD: Oh, yes.

EISENBERG: ...Is a prop comedy routine.

ARNOLD: Well, it's an animal - live animal.

EISENBERG: It's an animal. It's "Tom Arnold And The Fabulous...

ARNOLD: Goldfish.

EISENBERG: Goldfish Revue" (ph).


EISENBERG: And what did you do in this revue?

ARNOLD: Well, there was a comedian named Joel Hodgson. He created this thing called "Mystery Science 2000" (ph) - or "3000" (ph).


ARNOLD: And he came to Iowa City. And he was a great comic. And he performed, and I opened up for him. And he said, Tom, you need to be different than other comics. You need to have a hook. And I was in my - my house there in - on Gilbert. And I was sitting there, and I thought, I got to be different. I looked around my room. There's a fish tank. And I - a goldfish tank. I said, I'm going to be the goldfish comic. And so I started using goldfish tricks (unintelligible) - this is for real.


ARNOLD: And one was, you know, sword swallower. And one did an impression of the pope. One rode a motorcycle through a ring of fire. And - for real. And, you know, as the act went on, I realized people actually care about goldfish. Like, you know, they started to get angry because bad things were happening to them. You know, after working in a meatpacking plant, you think, oh, my gosh - wow.

EISENBERG: You were like, goldfish?

ARNOLD: But yeah, it was a goldfish. They did tricks and stunts and, you know, had - it was a fun act, you know. But that's what I did at first. I realized, oh, I got to be myself. Plus, I was exactly like Joel Hodgson. I talk like him. And when I moved to Minneapolis, you know, to start my career, he actually came and saw me and goes, oh, yeah, yeah, you're exactly like me. I go, I know. He goes, so you can't do that.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right. You can't be like that at all.

ARNOLD: Yeah. I didn't know.

EISENBERG: Now, you starred as a warm-up comic for the pilot episode of "Roseanne" in 1988.

ARNOLD: Yeah. Well, actually, first, she came to - in 1983, she came to Minneapolis to perform. She was a comic out of Denver. And she wasn't famous yet, but she was so funny.


ARNOLD: And I opened up for her. You know, she was killer funny. And she said I was funny, which, by the way, if you want a guy to like you, we already know we're good looking, so you tell us we're funny and we're forever. That's all. And I said, you want to go party? And then like three days later, we let the MCE (ph) have her car back. And it was like - but then, you know, she said, do you want to write some jokes for me?


ARNOLD: I'm going to start going on TV. And I did - in 1985, she went on Johnny Carson and used some of the jokes I did, but she killed. Like, she was so funny. I remember being back in Minneapolis, like, that's my friend. Look how amazing she is. And then she said, I'm going to have a sitcom, would you write on it? And I said absolutely because I'd been writing her material for her. And I knew her character. And I came out in 1988 to write it. And I also was the audience warm-up on the pilot. I was the worst audience - well, audience warm-up is a hard job.

EISENBERG: Super hard.

ARNOLD: Yeah, I was terrible. So basically, I got - I worked my way up from audience - I was so bad at each job, I just eventually became executive producer.

EISENBERG: Exactly. Right. And you were also the character of Arnie on the show.

ARNOLD: And then a husband. And then lost it all in one day. It was good.

EISENBERG: So I'm just trying to think. So '92, you know, the show is doing amazing. It gets a Peabody. In 1994, two years later, you star in "True Lies."

ARNOLD: Well, thank God because I got fired, right? Here's the thing. In April of 1994, Roseanne files for divorce, and I lost my job the same day. I know it's a weird coincidence. And I remember...


ARNOLD: People unanimously were like, he has no talent. He rode her coattails. He'll be back in Iowa in two weeks. And I'm like, you know what? They're probably right. But you know? I got best stories ever for my grandkids 'cause I got to work for six years on one of the best shows on television ever. I had the best experiences. I got to produce, write, act with the best actors for real. And Jim Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger are like, F those people. "True Lies" is coming out in two months. Man, you're going to - I'm like, oh, God, I wish I wish I could believe that. But honest to God, thank God I had done that movie because it literally turned people in their tracks because I had done that film while we're filming that - my last year of "Roseanne."


ARNOLD: And it's one of those rare times where you just do something, and it's that good.

EISENBERG: It's - right. It's such a great movie. And purportedly James Cameron, who never lets anyone improv a line...

ARNOLD: Right.

EISENBERG: ...Let you ad-lib...

ARNOLD: Right.

EISENBERG: ...Most of it.

ARNOLD: Well, first of all, I had no idea how lucky I was to get that movie. And I had no idea that Jim Cameron went to bat for me with the studio. It was the most expensive movie we ever made. And he had to go tell Fox Studios, hey, great news. We can start the movie because I found the guy. And they're, like, that's great news. Do you have - who is it? Tom Arnold. Oh, no - that is - no, no, no. That's horrible news.


ARNOLD: And he had to say, OK, well, I'm taking the movie to Paramount. And I didn't know that. And when they screened the movie the first time, and they came Arnold Schwarzenegger, yay; Jamie Lee Curtis, yay; Tom Arnold, people booed.


ARNOLD: Like, booed. But by the end of the two-hour movie - they scored it - I was the favorite person in a two-hour movie because of James Cameron, because of Arnold Schwarzenegger allowing it. It changed people's...


ARNOLD: ...Perspective of me. And a piece of art like that - be good. Thank God I was good was what....


ARNOLD: ...You know? And that's what something like that could do with a genius filmmaker. So...


ARNOLD: ...Boy. How lucky am I, right?

EISENBERG: That's a great story.


ARNOLD: So I assume every movie's going to be like that.

EISENBERG: Of course.

ARNOLD: And I've done a hundred since. And it turns out none of them are like that.

EISENBERG: It's special.

ARNOLD: (Unintelligible).

EISENBERG: So now you are doing this show on Viceland called "The Hunt For The Trump Tapes."


EISENBERG: Is that - now, did Viceland come to you, or is this your idea?

ARNOLD: No. Well, I - they apparently saw my Twitter feed, which I don't recommend unless you're - well, you know, I'm living my life. You know, I'm a 59-year-old guy with a 5 1/2-year-old son and a 2 1/2-year-old daughter. And, you know, I'm not going to live forever. And there's only so many times I can stand up for them and do something. And it turns out I know the guy, this president - I've known him 30 years. I'm able to go, what the hell? And at this moment, I feel I can do something for my kids. That's what I've been doing. And Viceland is, like, well, we see your Twitter feed. Hey, would you like to do a show? And I'm like, yeah. I'd love it. Hey, I'd love to have some cameras on this journey for a little while.

EISENBERG: You know, on your show - because you know everybody in show biz, you have a lot of interesting people on the show with you talking.

ARNOLD: I know.

EISENBERG: I mean, a huge range. Judd Apatow's on it...


EISENBERG: Maria Bamford is on it.

ARNOLD: Oh, my God, she's amazing.

EISENBERG: DeRay Mckesson, who we had on the show recently...

ARNOLD: Oh, yeah. He's amazing, right?


ARNOLD: He's got that one vest, too.

EISENBERG: He's got the blue puffer vest.

ARNOLD: He wears that vest a lot.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.

ARNOLD: I love this guy. And one time - and, you know, Maria Bamford and I have mental illness in common. I love her.

EISENBERG: Yeah. She's fantastic.

ARNOLD: You know, and she's - how much crap has she put up with? I mean, how many death threats? By the way, that's her thing - ignore death threats from these guys. Ignore the threats of lawsuits. Ignore the threats of destroy your credibility. I have - honest to God, I have zero credibility. That's what they do. They try to destroy that. If you have none, it's amazing.


ARNOLD: It's amazing, I tell you. I'm not even kidding at all. I'm, like, oh yeah. That...


EISENBERG: Tom, how would you like an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?



ARNOLD: Oh, my gosh.

EISENBERG: So, Tom Arnold, before the show, we asked you, what would you like to play a game about? And you said that you're obsessed with sports comeback stories.

ARNOLD: I had no - yeah, because I have no hobbies. That's my main hobby, is...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) So - yeah, so your game is called Everyone Loves A Comeback. And if you do well enough, listener Laura Langan (ph) from Minneapolis, Minn...

ARNOLD: Oh, my God.

EISENBERG: Is going to win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. OK. The biggest comeback in pro football happened in 1993. It was a playoff game known as The Comeback. Who were the teams?

ARNOLD: Was it Houston, and was it Buffalo?



EISENBERG: That's right.


EISENBERG: That's right, Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers.

ARNOLD: Houston - I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: That's right.

ARNOLD: Yeah, that was crazy.

EISENBERG: Do you want - you could just guess this if you don't know. How many points where the Buffalo Bills losing by before they turned it around to win in overtime?

ARNOLD: Was it 35? I don't know, I'm sorry.

EISENBERG: Oh, my God, 32.

ARNOLD: Thirty-Two.

EISENBERG: Yeah. That was great.

ARNOLD: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.


EISENBERG: Well done. OK. The biggest comeback in hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs happened in 1982 known as the Miracle on Manchester. Do you know...

ARNOLD: Well, that's got to be the Kings.

EISENBERG: Yeah, and...

ARNOLD: Well - oh, geez Louise. OK.

EISENBERG: It was the Canadian team where Gretzky came from.

ARNOLD: OK. Edmonton - it has to be Edmonton - and the Oilers, and what was the...

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.

ARNOLD: Yeah, I know it's the Oilers.

EISENBERG: And the Los Angeles Kings. You're right.

ARNOLD: Yeah, yeah, OK.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ARNOLD: There you go. OK. Thank you.


EISENBERG: OK. How many points were the Kings losing by in the third period before they turned it around to win in overtime?

ARNOLD: I'm going to say the crazy seven. That's insane.

EISENBERG: Very close - five.

ARNOLD: OK, well, five's - yeah, that's....

EISENBERG: That's good.

ARNOLD: That's insane.


ARNOLD: I'm just guessing because...

EISENBERG: Yeah, they were losing 0 to 5 at the beginning of the third period. The final score was 6 to 5.

ARNOLD: I know. That's amazing.

EISENBERG: OK, got a couple more for you. During the 2004 baseball post-season, a team came back from a three-game...

ARNOLD: Boston Red Sox.


EISENBERG: That's right. You were so excited you actually leapt from your stool.


EISENBERG: That was the biggest comeback in...

ARNOLD: Yeah, in the world - in the world.

EISENBERG: In the world.

ARNOLD: It was impossible they did that. That's crazy.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Here's your final question. Who stars in the HBO series "The Comeback"? (Laughter).

ARNOLD: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

ARNOLD: Lisa Kudrow, who I love...

EISENBERG: That's right, yes.

ARNOLD: ...Who played my wife in "Happy Endings." I love her.

EISENBERG: That's right.

ARNOLD: How great is that show?

EISENBERG: So funny.

ARNOLD: It's a fact.

EISENBERG: That's awesome (laughter).

ARNOLD: All right.

EISENBERG: OK. Congratulations, Tom.

ARNOLD: I know it.

EISENBERG: You and Laura Langan won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes. You did it for Laura.


ARNOLD: That's amazing.

EISENBERG: "The Hunt For The Trump Tapes With Tom Arnold" airs on Viceland.

ARNOLD: It does. It's...

EISENBERG: You can watch...

ARNOLD: It's really hard to find, apparently.


EISENBERG: It's all hard to find. Give it up for Tom Arnold....

ARNOLD: Thank you, guys.

EISENBERG: ...Everybody.

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