Date of Interview: 07/12/2011

Every weekday morning, Thomas “Nephew Tommy” Miles entertains a radio audience of 8 million listeners as the co-host of the nationally syndicated Steve Harvey Morning Show. Although known primarily for his comedic talents, Miles majored in Theater during his undergraduate years at Texas A&M University; and as a bona fide thespian, his talents were honed through study and work with the Royal Shakespeare Company of London. The totality of these experiences allowed “Nephew Tommy” to foster a career that encompasses – and transcends – radio, television, and film.

In support of the DVD release of his debut stand-up comedy special, Nephew Tommy: Just My Thoughts, Thomas Miles spoke with Clayton Perry about the influence of Charles Gordone, the art behind a side-splitting prank call, and an important lesson learned while touring with Luther Vandross.

Clayton Perry:  Over the years, many people have gotten to know you through your public persona: “Nephew Tommy” on the Steve Harvey Morning Show. Although this persona is well-known in many households, very little information has been shared about the man who brings him to life across radio airwaves. As a trained thespian, with acting experience via London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, give some insight and background information on those early, formative years. In addition, please share any relationships you have found between the world of theatre and the world of comedy.

Tommy Miles:  To try to tie those two together, I would probably say that I went to school and I studied theatre at Texas A&M. I did a little bit with the top Shakespeare company in London. Thespians work like schoolteachers. You’re off in the summer. You’re off around the big holidays. In that downtime with a buddy of mine, I was actually cutting yards. I was a yardman. I had a crew of people. I was working for my cousin who owns a business. I would take a group of guys out. We would probably cut eighteen to twenty yards a day. My cousin was out with me one day and he said: “Hey, you know what? You ought to go do this comedy thing. They’ve got an amateur night going on.” A Thespian doing comedy?. [laughing] But he talked me into it. [laughing continues] I went out. It was an amateur night. I won the amateur night.  I went out and did it. I think that’s what triggered everything. That’s what made me think: “Maybe I can do this.” And the next thing you know, every other weekend I was grabbing the microphone doing stand-up comedy. I was on five minutes, seven minutes. I think after about a year, I probably had about seventeen to twenty good minutes. And here I am so many years later. Now I can go for an hour-and-a-half nonstop.

Clayton Perry:  More often than not, comedians struggle in the delicate move between comedy clubs and alternative outlets – like film and television – that potentially lead to national prominence.  You have been able to do that fairly easily, however. What do you consider to be a crucial component to making a successful transition?

Tommy Miles:  I struggled a little bit at the beginning. I think oftentimes we as comics, when we first start out, we think we’re going to hit this home run. You’ve got to realize that comedy is like working out. You’ve got to go to the gym. And if you don’t go to the gym, you don’t look any better and you don’t feel any better. If you go to the comedy club every other night, and if this is truly your passion, and if you really put the work in, then you are going to see the results. You’re going to see that your jokes are getting funnier and your presence is getting better. Your whole attitude on stage is more confident. You’re going to get all of that. But you’ve got to go bomb. You’ve got to go out – and stay on – when ain’t nobody laughing. You’ve got to go and get booed offstage. You’ve got to go through all of it.  Trust me. When you lose, it’s going to be shocking to you that this is happening. You’re going to be like: “What in the world is going on?” You’ve got to go through the ups and downs. And if you don’t go through it, then you will never know what it takes to get to the top. You’ve got to go through everything. I promise you: every single person who has made it, every single person that we sit back and say are incredible comedians – the Chris Rocks, the David Shapiros, the Eddie Murphys, the entire Wayans family – went through this learning process. That’s what makes you get better.

Clayton Perry:  In addition to comedic timing, what skill have you found to be extremely valuable in bringing a humorous effect to your work?

Tommy Miles:  I think presence is important. I do. I think what you wear is important. I think you knowing what type of show you’re doing. You may be doing a corporate convention, for example, and these people have flown you in, with a particular product or brand for you to keep in mind. Then, you may get a call one day to do the Stellar Awards – and that’s straight Gospel. You have to know when to do this show, that show, and the other show, because you can’t do the same type of show all of the time.

Clayton Perry:  Right! Although I think that would be an easy trap for a comedian to fall into at a certain level of success.

Tommy Miles:  Sometimes I can’t use profanity. It is important for me to know what is – and what isn’t – going to work tonight. I have hosted the ESSENCE Music Festival – with 60,000 attendants a night – Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And guess what, man? Jokes don’t work. You can’t do jokes. You have to have the personality that they’re going to love and say: “We’re going to have some fun. We’re going to do a little bit of this. We’re going to jibber over here. We’re going to jabber over here. We’re going to keep the sponsors happy. We’re going to make everybody happy.” And guess what? There may be some jokes that come out, but it’s not you going out: “I’m going to do fifteen minutes of this.” No, you can’t do that. You’ve got to work spontaneously the entire night. So when Coca-Cola comes on the stage, or when Ford comes on the stage, or when the entire Army force comes on the stage, you’ve got to say: “I’m going to make you guys happy. I’m going to make you comfortable. I know everybody’s nervous, so I’ve got to be that person that’s not nervous, and I’ve got to make everybody happy.”  After ESSENCE, I turned around and did some work with my fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, Inc., for our one hundred year reunion. It was crazy – both weekends back-to-back. Not one curse word flew out of my mouth. But don’t get me wrong. If I go do a comedy club, and they came to see Thomas Miles, aka “Nephew Thomas,” I’m letting it fly; but I’m not letting it fly to the point where that’s everything out of my mouth. That’s not what I’m all about. It adds flavor – and it makes things colorful! [laughing] But sometimes you can overdo it! [laughing continues]

Clayton Perry:  Perfect sense. It is extremely important for an artist to know their audience. As you talk about being spontaneous, I must point out that you are very well-known for your prank calls, which are rooted in spontaneity. At the end of the day, you – and the caller – can not anticipate the actions or words of the person on the other end of the line.

Tommy Miles:  If I’m not on point with these calls, I’m not going to get them. I’m not going to wing it. I’m going to get hung up on them. The objective of a prank phone call is so wild. You’re riding in your car and you’re thinking: “Okay, I would hang up. They’re going to hang up. Why don’t you hang up?” But, if you’re that person that’s going through it, you know what you’re thinking? You’re thinking: “What the hell? Who is this person?” It’s so crazy that you want to keep listening. And I’ve got to keep you engulfed enough where you want to keep listening.

Clayton Perry:  How did this become a signature style for your comedy? And have you ever had a prank call “gone wrong”?

Tommy Miles:  Oh man, I’ve had some great prank phone calls. Don’t get me wrong. But there have been a number that have gone wrong. And keep this in mind: every prank phone call is not me randomly picking a phone number. There’s somebody that has given me this number. There’s someone who has told me about this person. Told me what’s going on in their lives. Nine times out of ten, the prank that they want me to do, it doesn’t make sense. It’s just their thought process. After I keep interviewing the person that wants me to do the prank, and they keep telling me more and more about this person, then I get a little bit more and say: “Okay. I see what you want me to do, but here’s what I think we should do.” And once I tell them that, they’re like: “Oh, my God. That’s good.”

Clayton Perry:  There was one particular prank call where you played the role of a father who called a woman to see if her daughter could stay with his son in a hotel room overnight following prom.

Tommy Miles:  Oh, yes! [laughing] That was a good one! [laughing]

Clayton Perry:  Now, that call was really volatile and high on the stress factor. But it was funny, and quite interesting, how you were able to keep your cool.

Tommy Miles:  But you know what, man? I’ll tell you this. I’m very careful when I talk with the person wanting me to make the prank call and say: “Listen. Do they have a heart condition? Do they have a medical condition?”  Because I don’t want to get anybody’s heart pressure up where they like lose their mind.  I’m always trying to be careful of that. There’s so many different people across the country who do prank phone calls that get sued because they go too far. Because some people do things that are malicious. What you can’t do is call somebody and say: “Hey. Such and such just died.” That’s not a prank. That can mess up a person’s mind and send them into a whole other level. You could go into cardiac arrest. You have to be very mindful of what you’re doing. And then even after I tell the person that I prank phone called them, I’ll ask them: “Hey, are you cool? I want to make sure before I get off the phone you’re cool. Are you all right with me running this prank phone call on the radio?” And they’re laughing so hard. “You know what? I don’t give a s**t. Run it. You got me. You got me.” I say: “But are you okay?” “No, no, no. I’m real good. Run it. Run it.” And I make sure of that. And if they don’t want you to, then you just don’t run it. You just don’t run it. You’ve got to be straight, man.

Clayton Perry:  I am happy to know that you are respectful of people’s feelings – as well as their humanity. During the formative years of your career, you were mentored by Charles Gordone, a playwright and director, who was also the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. When you reflect upon the early years, what personal interactions and professional influences do you still embrace to this day?

Tommy Miles:  You know what, man? It was an honor to be a pupil of Charles Gordone. He taught me everything. Before he came to Texas A&M University, I was about to change my major. I wasn’t able to do things the way I wanted to. When he came in and shined a light on everything, I knew I could do this. As a professor, he had tenure the moment he walked in the door. We did Shakespeare together – and I played his son, Edgar, in King Lear. It was great to work side-by-side with him. But it was beautiful for him to flash-back and talk about people like James Earl Jones.

Clayton Perry:  Based upon your experience, how difficult is it for a thespian to become a comedian? In modern times, we have seen many comedians dabble in the acting arena.

Tommy Miles:  I think a lot of our great comedians have become great actors. Tom Hanks was a comedian.  Roseanne Barr went on to have her own show. Bernie Mac went onto get his. They started out as comics. Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray Romano, he’s a comic.  Martin Lawrence is a great comedian and a great actor. You never know what direction you’re coming from to get where you’re going. Whoever thought that a rapper out of West Philly, like Will Smith, would go and turn into a comedian on a sitcom? All of a sudden he’s more than a comedian. He’s an actor.  I think Richard Pryor was a great actor but also an incredible comedian. Redd Foxx. Comedian. Great actor. It channels into its own, and it happens. It just happens, man. I’ll be honest with you. I’ll give you the best words I can give you for this interview. I am a trained Thespian who found out how to be a comedian. The majority of them are comedians who found out how to be actors. And there is a great difference between them. Does that make sense?

Clayton Perry:  Perfect sense.  Thank you for that insight. As a native of Houston, how did Texan culture – and perhaps the city itself – shape the tone and style of your comedy?

Tommy Miles:  There’s a certain flair about the black culture in Houston that I have poked fun at. When I first started out, I poked fun at the flair of Houston because that’s the only place that I was performing in. I think you have to broaden everything and say: “Okay. So what happens when I go to Colorado? What happens when I go to L.A.?” What we’re laughing at in Houston, they may not be laughing at elsewhere. But let me find out what makes people laugh as a whole, everywhere. And in the United States, I learned to do that. Now, I used to open up for Luther Vandross, and I opened up for him for three years in the United States. And then he said: “Hey, we’re going to Europe.” When I landed, the band members and the crewmembers I hung with said to me: “Are you ready?” And I was like: “Yeah, yeah, I’m going to do my show.” They were like: “No. Your show ain’t s**t.” I was like: “What do you mean? I thought you all told me I had a good show.” “No, you had a good show in the United States, but you need a new show here. They’re not laughing at the same things we’re laughing at over there.” And they scared the hell out of me. But they were right. And I walked around London – for three days – while they were rehearsing. I walked around London, and I constantly asked myself: “What’s funny?” I had a notepad, and I just started writing things down. I came out and I did nothing but London. I did nothing but what I saw. A black man coming to your country, and I don’t get this, and I don’t get that. The first night, I had 75 percent of the people on their feet, and I said: “Okay, this still ain’t good enough.” I went back outside, pen and pad. Came back. Next night, 99 percent of the people are standing up. So when I got through, Luther said: “You got ’em, huh?” And I was doing twenty, twenty-five minutes. I said: “Yup. I got ’em. But if you make me go thirty-five, forty minutes; I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do.” I knew I could do them for twenty-five, and I had them. And I did that, and I blew them away. I have learned over the years to sink my teeth into where I am and what I’m doing. And it works every time.

For more information on Thomas “Nephew Tommy” Miles, visit his official website: http://nephew-tommy.com

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