Never heard of R. Eric Thomas? You haven’t been on the Twitters then. But first things first: Call him Eric. Although his reliably hilarious Elle.com byline hints at a bit of Internet mystery, it’s just Eric. The R is for Robert (his father’s name), but to this day there are a handful of people who think it stands for “Rowdy.” That’s Eric’s fault actually.
“I tell them I’m named after my father, a rodeo clown who was gored by a bull the same day Reagan was shot. There are still people out there that think my name is Rowdy. I don’t know why I do these things,” Thomas said in an interview Wednesday. This from the same guy who writes columns titled “You will never, in your entire life, get the best of Maxine Waters” and “Maxine Waters is back and she’s not here to play.”
Thomas, a 35-year-old playwright whose rise to social-media fame can be traced to his love letters to Waters (they even met in Washington recently), knows exactly why he does these things. For hope and Unicorn Frappuccinos. He explains more here.
At the beginning of last summer, you were a hard-working playwright in Philadelphia, and now Maxine Waters is following you on Twitter. How did the Elle gig happen?
When I tell my kids about how to get jobs in the future, I’ll say, “Oh the Internet will get you a job.” I wrote a Facebook post about Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and the president of Mexico. It was like 100 words about how good they looked, it had like 70,000 shares. The site director at Elle.com messaged me on Facebook out of the blue and asked if I wanted to do this every day. I’m like, “Write funny things about the news? Yeah, I didn’t know that was a job, but I will absolutely do that.”
Are your viral posts aided by the interesting political times we live in? Would things be different if someone else was in the White House?
To be honest, my job would be easier if Hillary Clinton had won. I would write funny bits about Tim Kaine hosting barbecues. It’s not just the darkness of the times but the relentlessness of the news cycle. We’re constantly getting news, and it’s never good news. People are looking just for something that exists a little bit outside of this mad rush to meet a deadline.
So people are looking to laugh instead of banging their heads against a wall?
People are looking for a sort of exuberance and sometimes hope, or in the absence of hope, a worldview that things were going to be okay. That’s kind of what I strive for. And sometimes I’m just like “look at the this great photo of Idris Elba.”
Social-media breaks aren’t in your future then?
My husband’s a pastor, and for Lent he gave up Facebook. He always talks about how much happier he is now, and I’m like “Oh, that must be wonderful.” But the thing is, I kind of love social media. This job gives me the opportunity to look at it within arm’s length. It’s a wonderful way to look at the news. I’m aware of North Korea, but there’s nothing funny about it, so I can put it in my mind’s filing cabinet but not at the forefront. At the forefront is Julia Roberts and Unicorn Frappuccinos. That makes me sound vapid, but those are also things that are going on the world, that make me laugh, and that’s important for me to remember.
We have to talk about Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif), who is having a moment, a moment your columns undoubtedly helped create. When did you realize she was Internet gold?
It was after that press conference where she said that [FBI Director] James Comey had no credibility. What’s great about Maxine Waters is that she generates the excitement. So many of the things I write about I have to tell you why they’re funny. Whereas Maxine Waters gives you all the content and all you have to do it describe it. It’s a huge gift. When I wrote about that conference, it immediately shot to the top. I thought that was a one-off at the time, and then she showed up on Chris Hayes and people started sending me the video the minute it popped up online. That’s when I realized there’s a longer arc to this.
Why are folks so obsessed with “Auntie Maxine” right now?
She is telling the truth in a resolutely truthless time. And she’s not just speaking the truth like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would; she is telling the truth with no pretense. She got the moniker Auntie Maxine, that truth-telling relative, and the reason we love them and fear them is because they have no qualms about telling you something that might make you uncomfortable. That’s important. Don’t people in Washington know that we all know what’s going on? Rep. Waters is the only person who is treating us like we have eyes and ears, and it’s refreshing. It’s liberating.
You two met for the first time last week at a Tax Day poetry slam in Washington. Did you go full-out fanboy?
She’s very quickly ascended to that level of Oprah or Beyoncé or Audra McDonald for me, these woman who are larger than life. She was so gracious and so warm. I haven’t spent a lot of time with politicians, so maybe they’re all like that. But she had a genuine interest in me. It was immediately like we fell into this relationship that does not exist outside of the Internet. I was just filled all the way up. And people were clamoring to get to her. That was incredible to see. I’m trying really hard not to treat her like a meme but like a flesh-and-blood woman who’s worked for 50 years to make the country better.
What’s next for you?
I think we might have reached a zenith on Maxine Waters columns, but you never know. I’m working on a book of comedic essays about my life and about hope and why anyone would even bother to have hope. But basically I’m still toiling away in my bathrobe, just drinking coffee, trying to find funny things on the Internet.