Stage & Dance

Tom Arnold brings his unlikely career full circle with stand-up comedy show

Art by Chris Ware | Lexington Herald-Leader
Art by Chris Ware | Lexington Herald-Leader

Tom Arnold was never supposed to be famous. In fact, if you ask him, nobody from his small hometown in Iowa was ever supposed to "make it."

"I came from a place where nobody said, 'you're going to do amazing things, Tom. Watch out.' And there was certainly no show business where I came from," says the native of Ottumwa, maybe best known as the hometown of the M*A*S*H character Radar O'Reilly. "The past year, I've been able to finally breathe and say, this is an amazing story."

For Arnold, 52, his story has included becoming a comedy writer, actor, TV host, America's wingman and member of the famous-by-association hall of fame thanks to his previous marriage to comedienne and actress Roseanne Barr. But to say he's caught a lucky break doesn't come close to summing up a career that spans two decades and, to Arnold's frequent surprise, is still going strong.

Arnold got his career started doing stand-up comedy in the early 1980s, and his talents eventually got the attention of Roseanne Barr, who brought him on as a writer for her sitcom Roseanne. The two both came from working-class, midwestern backgrounds, and they were married from 1990-94. It was a marriage that, like many celebrity unions, underwent intense media and public scrutiny.

"People are very suspect of the idea that two talented people could be together. They've got to get in there and figure out who is the lesser," Arnold says. "Boy, you just have to have thick skin, and it's funny how things turn out."

Arnold was primarily known as Roseanne's husband, but he also had six years writing and producing and acting on one of America's most popular sitcoms. If his association with Barr and her show introduced Arnold to the masses, it was his appearance in the hit 1994 action flick True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, that allowed him to break out on his own.

"They just said, 'just wait until July (the film's release date). Everything changes. They'll see you without her, by yourself, doing this. They will say, 'Oh, maybe he is talented. Oh, maybe he is a nice guy,'" Arnold says.

And sure enough, True Lies was a boon for Arnold's movie career. Now, he's been in so many films that he has a hard time getting away from himself.

"I've been in somewhere around 125 movies and sometimes, one will pop up and I'll say, 'Aw s---, I was in this?'" says Arnold, whose website (Tomarnoldcomedy.com) proclaims, "The star of more than one hundred movies, and three good ones."

Outside of merely building up a long film résumé, Arnold has had opportunities in the most unlikely places. One was as a co-host of FOX Sports' The Best Damn Sports Show Period, where he spent four years as the resident sports fan who could "say whatever I wanted" alongside sports journalists and former players. Then, CMT hand-picked Arnold to host My Big Redneck Wedding from 2008-11, which later spawned spinoffs like My Big Redneck Family and My Big Redneck Vacation that Arnold also hosted.

Of course, if you knew about Arnold's work ethic, the fact he's managed to stay visible and remain successful is no surprise.

"I feel like you've kind of got to keep a lot of irons in a lot of fires, because some things work and some things don't," he says. "I'm also a firm believer that you have to do something every day to make it better. In the morning, I have to get up and say, 'What am I doing to help my career?' I feel like it is in my hands."

One of the things Arnold is currently doing to help his career is returning to the stand-up stage. He will come to Lexington to perform at Comedy Off Broadway Friday and Saturday.

While Arnold doesn't enjoy leaving his wife, Ashley Groussman, and infant son, Jax, he says he relishes the unique experience stand-up comedy gives him. Arnold has always been an open book in interviews over the years, spilling his guts about his failed marriages, drug and alcohol abuse and struggles with weight loss. His stand-up comedy, he says, now has become something more enjoyable and special than he ever expected.

"There's a bond there. This is a moment for me too and it's a lot better than hanging out in the dressing room with the comics. You get to meet the folks," he says. "It's sort of private, too. There may be stuff said in that room I wouldn't want any of my friends to know. I feel like I'm sharing with these folks something that's even more intimate."

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