Like a lot of comedians, Erica Rhodes had big plans for 2020. She was coming off some network exposure on NBC’s comedy competition “Bring the Funny,” she’d released her first album, “Sad Lemon,” and she had a solid hour of material ready for her debut special, which she was set to record at the Tribeca Film Festival. But the COVID pandemic shut down most in-person shows, and the festival was postponed, along with her taping.
The Newton native could have waited for the pandemic to pass and recorded the special in a traditional venue, as planned. Instead, she wound up taping it at a drive-in show in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl last July. The special, called “La Vie en Rhodes,” will be available April 13 on Amazon Prime Video, Spectrum, Apple TV, Comcast, Dish, Google Play, YouTube, and Vimeo.
She laughs about it now, remembering she had been reluctant about the original venue for the taping because the ceilings were too high. Then her manager suggested the drive-in. “And the ceiling was literally the sky,” she says. “So that joke was on me.”
The idea of doing her special at a drive-in show was even less appealing at first, in part because she had never done a gig like that before the taping. But there was no way to know when the pandemic would pass and she’d have more traditional venues to choose from. A drive-in special turned from a consolation prize into an opportunity. “I thought it might stand out more, might be unique and different,” she says.
Some cars at the show were rigged with microphones, so Rhodes was able to hear audience laughter and keep her normal comic cadence. But the honking horns took some getting used to. “What was interesting was that a joke I thought would do well didn’t sound like it did well,” she says, “and there’d be a weird pause, and then suddenly from the back of the crowd there’d be like an eruption of honking. And I’d think, oh so that joke did land.”
“La Vie en Rhodes” is a showcase for Rhodes’s mix of personal and observational humor. She can dissect grammar rules in one bit and address the #MeToo movement in another. When people tell her to have fun and be herself, she says in the special, “For me, it’s one or the other.” She also jokes about the mental toll of pandemic life. “If you’re a depressed person, this has been an even harder time because we used to be special,” she says, referring to friends who would be concerned about her well-being. Now everyone is depressed. “And you’re like, ‘Great, now I’m even more depressed.’ ”
In another routine, Rhodes talks about her father’s multiple sclerosis and how charity events like a walk for MS puzzle her. “It’s just thousands of people showing off what they can do,” she says. “It’s just very rude.”
“My dad hates that joke, too, and I’m always like, ‘Sorry, dad, but when I have an idea, I run with it.’ ”
Her father, Dean Rhodes, died in October just months after she recorded the special. She’s glad it contains the bits about him and the family. She was able to come home for a visit last summer and show her father photos and get his input on the title and logo design for the special. “All of it sort of has stamp on it,” she says.
Comedian and author Tom Papa has been a fan of Rhodes and her smart writing for years. He has taken her on the road to open for him, in part because her brand of comedy makes audiences lean in and listen. He especially admires her ability to lighten up a heavy subject like her father’s MS. “She’s not only being truthful about what he’s going through and what they’re going through as a family,” he says, “but they’re showing you their ability to laugh about it all. Which is tough to pull off.”
Rhodes, 38, has been in almost perpetual career transition. She started acting in commercials as a child, studied ballet, and later became a regular on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, but frustrated that she wasn’t getting parts, she tried stand-up comedy about eight years ago. “I basically just did it one night out of spite,” she says. “I was just angry that I had bombed an audition, and I just was like, ‘That’s it!’ It was just pure rage. I started stand-up out of that.”
Now it’s time to move on again. The new material Rhodes has been working on leans more toward personal storytelling than quick-hit jokes and short bits. That includes more stories about her father and subjects that require a different approach.
“What I really enjoy [is] telling a longer bit,” she says. “In the special, some of the longer bits are the most interesting, the ones where you kind of go on a journey. Jokes feel a little bit restrictive to me, where I just have to say the joke the same way every time. I have to get into sort of a rhythm. I sort of like breaking up the rhythm. So you don’t know what to expect.”