Tom Arnold is the first guy to admit that his 30-year career as a standup comic, comedy writer and actor is improbable. After all, he seemed destined for a lifetime of working in a Hormel pig slaughterhouse like his father and countless other men in his hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa, believing that there was no point in dreaming big in life.
Yet, with a lot of hard work and a never-say-die attitude, he has managed to stay on the radar long after his divorce from iconic comedian Roseanne Barr made many consider his career over. He’s celebrating that success this week by headlining a special Sunday show at the Ice House, and also is competing on the premiere of rebooted celebrity competition “Battle of the Network Stars” at 9 p.m. tonight, June 29, on ABC.
“Being a standup was my goal, because when I was a kid, I was raised by a single father and the only time I heard him laugh was at night when there was a Bob Hope special on,” recalls Arnold. “I could hear him laughing, and that sound was good. I thought whatever it is Bob Hope does, I want to do that, because it makes my dad laugh.
“One of the first things I did when I got to LA was a Bob Hope special, and Bob sent my dad a letter and book, and I thought ‘That’s it, I peaked,’” he continues. “I did everything I ever wanted. I joined the USO and traveled the world for troops because of him. I had him on ‘Roseanne’ and was on a couple of specials, and I went to his house a lot even. With that alone, I felt I had a good life.”
The road to Los Angeles was a circuitous one, as Arnold first saved up his money from working the “kill floor” to go to the University of Iowa largely because he knew there would be opportunities to perform there. When he got an offer to perform at a club in Minneapolis, he dropped out and “hopped on a bus with $100 and a trash bag full of clothes” — only to find out that the owner had only booked him for one $15 weekend.
He stayed anyway, finding a job as a bouncer and bartender in a nearby bar while hitting the stage as much as possible at the city’s five comedy clubs during the comedy boom of the mid-1980s. It was during his five years there that he met Barr when she was just another comic on her way up to a coveted slot with Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show.”
“When she went on Johnny Carson, she had me write some jokes for her, and he sat her on the big couch after her set and from then on, she had a career,” says Arnold. “She had me fly out and play her husband in an HBO special a couple years later, then had me come out to write, produce and act on ‘Roseanne.’ What a great first job!
“When we got divorced in 1994, people everywhere said that guy will never work again and will be back in Iowa in two weeks,” he continues. “I started to believe them, but [writer-director] James Cameron said to just hang in there until ‘True Lies’ came out in a couple weeks, and everything changed from there.”
Indeed, his role as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s CIA sidekick in that action-comedy blockbuster instantly made him a star in his own right. The rollercoaster ride he’s taken through Hollywood ever since has both given him an endless stream of funny celebrity stories and kept him humble enough to realize that “when an audience pays for a ticket and drives out to see me, I better be funny for 75 minutes.”
Arnold also devotes a great deal of time and energy to creating charity shows that raise money for numerous veterans’ causes, including an upcoming evening of celebrity boxing. That event will raise money for Gold Star military families, pitting him against three men who have consistently attacked him: Infowars founder Alex Jones, reality star Jesse James and right-wing journalist Mike Cernovich.
The six-foot-two-inch Arnold, 58, is a sports fanatic who has also gained prior fame as the host of Fox Sports Network’s “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.” That passion for athletics recently served him well when he spent a full day taping an episode of “Battle of the Network Stars,” in which he was teamed with fellow sitcom veterans including Bronson Pinchot and Dave Coulier against a team of “TV Kids” that included Joey Lawrence and Lisa Whelchel.
“As a kid in Iowa, I loved watching the original version and seeing people that were genuinely stars competing against each other, and doing this was like Bob Hope, making me realize how my dreams really came true,” says Arnold. “They didn’t ask what we were good at. They just made us decide among things like tug of war, obstacle courses, golf and tennis.
“We got a medal if we won and the money was good, but this came down to the end and we fought like it meant something,” he continues. “But the craziest moment was when I tried to pull [ultimate fighting champion] Ronda Rousey into a dunk tank after I fell in, and she wound up lifting me out and just slamming me to the ground.”
Tom Arnold will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Ice House, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $30. Call (626) 577-1894 or visit icehousecomedy.com.