Noted thespian Rodney Carrington will be presenting one of the prizes at the 2008 CMT Music Awards, and there’s a possibility that he’ll be taking one home, too. His role as an inept Romeo in Trace Adkins’ “I Got My Game On” music video earned him a nomination for supporting character of the year.
Carrington is one of America’s most successful stand-up comics, selling out theaters and auditoriums with his freewheeling stand-up comedy and an array of songs with catchy titles such as “Rhymes With Truck” and “Letter to My Penis.” In 2006, he finished a two-year run with his ABC-TV sitcom, Rodney, and he’s currently filming Toby Keith’s new movie, Beer for My Horses.
Unlike comics or singers who somehow stumble into acting, Carrington has formal training in acting and theater. A native of Longview, Texas, he attended nearby Kilgore Junior College and eventually landed the lead role in a campus production of the play, Noises Off.
“When people laughed for the first time, when I was onstage, I began thinking, ‘There’s something here.’” Carrington tells CMT.com. “I wanted to be the best actor I could be.”
By the late ’80s, though, Carrington was firmly committed to his comedy. Starting off at Sparky’s Comedy Club in a Longview hotel, he began touring the comedy club circuit.
“I was putting together what I thought was funny stuff,” he says. “I had 10 minutes of material. There were places you could emcee, and they’d pay you $200 or $300 a week — just enough to get by. I was 20 years old. There was nothing holding me back. When you’re 20, the world is everything. It’s right there in front of you, and you’ll do anything to get there.
“I think the first five years of comedy is really about how much humiliation you’re able to withstand. Apparently, I had a high tolerance to it. It’s just a matter of finding your way and finding your voice and figuring out how you can sustain things and get better. I thought every year, ‘If I make more money this year than I did last year, I’m gonna keep doing this.’ That was my gauge.”
Like most touring comics, Carrington supplemented his income by selling cassette tapes, CDs and T-shirts at the clubs.
“I would jump off that stage and drag all my stuff over to the door as they were filing out,” he recalls. “I turned into a carnival guy hawking my stuff.”
The grassroots merchandising kept him afloat financially.
“It saved my life,” he says. “Certainly, when I met my wife in ’93, and right away we were having a baby, if it wouldn’t have been for selling that merchandise, I don’t know what we would have done. We bought a lot of diapers and baby formula by selling T-shirts and CDs.”
Carrington still recalls one particular night when he, his wife and infant son were trying to return to their home in Oklahoma following one of his performances.
“We had enough money for gas to get home,” he says. “I was too proud to ask my parents for any money because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t doing OK. We pulled into a Whataburger, and all the money we had was in the ashtray of that minivan we were driving at the time. I took the ashtray in, not thinking it was wrong or bad, but just thinking, ‘This is what we’ve got.’ I dumped it out on the counter and said, ‘What can we get?’ You could hear the cashier’s disgusted sigh while she was counting the money and deciding what we could get.’ She finally said, ‘You can get a hamburger and some French fries. I can get you some water.’
“We went back to the car, and I split the hamburger in half with my hands. That was symbolic of where we were in our lives. We were struggling along trying to make ends meet, but we were still laughing and arguing over who got the bigger part of the hamburger.”
His wife Terri has stuck with him through thick and thin, even though she and her mother are recurring characters in his comedy routines. Still, Carrington says she has never become angry over the outrageous things he says onstage.
“She doesn’t care,” he says. “She knows that what I do for a living is comedy. She knows that’s what it is and that friends and everybody in the family are fair game. If they get their feelings hurt, I can’t concern myself with that. What would I talk about?”
Last year was a prolific one for Carrington. In addition to his King of the Mountains CD and Live at the Majestic concert DVD, he also wrote an autobiographical book, Coming Clean.
Still, the best way to experience Carrington’s humor is at his live performances. During his last appearance in Nashville, he was booked into the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s 2,500-seat Jackson Hall. While other well-known acts have occasionally had difficulty filling the venue, he did two shows — both sellouts.
“I’ve found over the years that selling hard tickets isn’t an easy thing to do,” he admits. “You’ve really got to have something to bring people out. One of the things that has really helped us is the relationships we made with radio through the years. Radio got me a record deal. Radio got me a television deal. I just try to treat it like a business. Your product is really what’s going to make it. You have to deliver. You can get those people there once, but if you don’t make them laugh, they’re not going to come back.”
At his concerts, some of his female fans in the audience routinely expose themselves during his song, “Show Them to Me.” Carrington laughs when it’s pointed out that few men ever have a job where that happens.
“Well, you know, that’s not a bad perk,” he says. “Also, too, it’s smart business. Anytime you can sing a song — and girls pull their tops off — guys are attracted by that. So you get more of them. That means more records and more tickets, so it’s a pretty good deal, I’ll be honest with you.”