IN 1989, STRUGGLING COMEDIAN RICK Reynolds moved his family from Los Angeles to Petaluma, a small town north of San Francisco, where the sky is clean and, as he puts it, "none of my neighbors have written a screenplay." Newly settled in a rambling Victorian home with a potbellied stove, he faced his computer, erased his entire repertoire of jokes and started writing the opening lines to an all-new monologue:
"Hi, I'm Rick Reynolds. I was born in Portland, Oregon on December 13, 1951. I stand 6'2½" tall. I weigh 195 lbs. I have a big nose. I have large hands. I believe my penis to be of average size. I'm losing my hair."
Welcome to the very strange world of Rick Reynolds, comedian—sort of. His angst-ridden, self-flagellating, 100-minute stage show, Only the Truth Is Funny, presents the stark story of his life, a monologue at times so twisted and sad that audiences can't help but laugh—and cry—at his misfortune. A hit in San Francisco and New York City, Only the Truth opens in L.A. next week at the Canon Theatre and will air on Showtime next spring, much to the delight of the no-longer-struggling Reynolds. "In the last two years my income has doubled each year," he says. "If that continues for five more years, I'll be rich!"
Not at all surprisingly, Reynolds's managers, the powerhouse team of Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, think that's going to happen. "When I first saw him [at a San Francisco comedy club in 1990] I knew in five minutes that he was going to be something," says a cigar-chomping Rollins. "You run across it so rarely, and when you do, you have to dive in." While that sounds like so much hype, it is, at the very least, hype from a team with an impressive track record at handicapping comics. Over the years, Rollins and Joffe have helped discover and nurture Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and David Letterman. What Reynolds has, says Rollins, is indefinable: "Woody had the same brilliance. Robin had it." And, says Reynolds's pal, Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey, "he has a great story to tell."
As recounted onstage, it's a tale that would make Kafka cringe. When Rick was 6 months old, his father, Jack, a painter, drowned at a family picnic while he, his mother, Pauline, and 3-year-old brother, Mike, looked on in horror. Several years later Pauline married Len, who, Rick claims in his routine, "whacked the back of my hand with a steak knife" while Rick sat at the dinner table bleeding and crying. Rick's mother divorced Len and married stepfather No. 2, Don, a gentle, sensitive man whom the family loved—until, as Rick tells it, "Don started robbing banks." (He was arrested and served four years in prison.) Nor, through all this, was Pauline the perfect mom. Rick says she was a manic-depressive and that she sometimes beat Rick and his brother severely. Remarkably, Rick says he and his mother remain close. His upbringing, he says, was the wellspring of his career: "I have a theory that I have always used my comedy as a defense mechanism. Laughter masked the ugly things in life."
It didn't always work; sometimes the ghosts of his childhood seemed insurmountable. At 22, while studying philosophy at Portland State University, Reynolds attempted suicide by closing the windows of his apartment and opening the gas cocks on his stove (he survived after being rescued by neighbors who smelled the gas from next door). "It was a goofy, sophomoric thing to do," he says now. After graduating from Portland State in 1976, he worked a series of odd jobs before he entered a Portland comedy contest "on a whim" in 1981. He won ("everyone in it was just a little worse than I was"), and the sound of applause convinced him that comedy was his calling. He then moved to San Francisco, where he met his wife, Lisa, 30, who waitressed at the comedy club where he was performing. (One tidbit Rick leaves out of his show is that he was married previously, in college: "It was like we could have gone to the movies, but instead we got married.")
Lisa and Rick wed in 1983 and moved to L.A., where he made a living toiling on the comedy circuit, rising to a guest appearance on an HBO comedy special. After five years Reynolds moved to peaceful Petaluma to escape fetid L.A. and revise his act. Relocating with him was his collection of 40,000 oldies singles, which he houses in a specially built addition to his home. This year Lisa bore their son, Cooper, a.k.a. "the Pooperman." "It's ironic," says Reynolds, who is as intense in person as he is onstage. "Here's a guy who wanted fame and then just got really fed up and moved to Petaluma. But then you give it up, and that brings you this happiness—and then that brings you this chance for what you gave up. It's like a fairy book."
Despite his successes Reynolds is troubled by people who doubt his story. "They'll come backstage after the show and say, 'Is it really all true?' " says Lisa. "He's baring it all, and it upsets him that people doubt him."
If Reynolds has his way, he'll be an even bigger target for the skeptics: He has acquired, he says, a "sick lust" for fame. "I don't want to die an unknown comedian," he says. "If I was stabbed to death right now, the newspaper headline would say: MAN STAINS CARPET. If I do something substantial with my life and people knew who I was, they would print: RICK REYNOLDS FOUND IN POOL OF BLOOD. I like that."
SUE CARSWELL in New York City
- Sue Carswell.