Exit interview: The creator of 'Auntie Maxine' meme says goodbye to Philly
"This story ends in tragedy," Thomas says of his departure. "That's not true - the Baltimore Tourism Bureau would hate that I said that."
Philadelphia is about to lose one of its funniest online voices — as a permanent resident anyway.
You may know R. Eric Thomas, 36, from his popular column at Elle in which he roasts the day's news, covering everything from Rep. Maxine Waters' rise to prominence ("Maxine Waters Is Back and She's Not Here to Play") to Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama's good looks ("This Photo of Three World Leaders Is the Only Light in a Dark Universe") to Taylor Swift's online high jinks ("I Am So Here for Taylor Swift Stealing Focus from the Eclipse"). He has also recently veered into the serious ("What I'm Not Going to Do Is Befriend a White Supremacist.")
Many of those columns have since gone viral, especially in regard to Waters, the congresswoman from California who became something of a meme after Thomas dubbed her "Auntie Maxine." As a result, Thomas has been profiled in the Washington Post. He has written for the New York Times. He has become one of the most prominent voices at one of the nation's leading women's magazines. (He has also written for the Inquirer: "The 5 best dog parks in Philly for people who don't actually have dogs.") He has 16,000 Twitter followers (including Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, and, of course, Waters). And it all started on a whim, says Elle editorial director Leah Chernikoff, Thomas' editor, who asked him to write for the magazine's website after she saw a Facebook post of his go viral.
"It was brilliant, hilarious, timely, and thirst-filled — just the kind of thing I was looking to bring to Elle.com," Chernikoff says of Thomas' writing. "It was that easy. He's one of the funniest, smartest, and quickest writers I've ever had the pleasure of working with."
Thomas is leaving for Baltimore, his hometown, and starting a full-time gig at Elle's New York City offices. But don't worry too much — Thomas says he plans to come back to Philly regularly, even if it leads to an epic commute between Baltimore and New York (Thomas likened it to the movie Snowpiercer, in which a postapocalyptic society travels in an infinite loop via train in order to keep society alive).
Locally, Thomas is known for hosting the storytelling series The Moth, as well as for writing plays, including the 2016 Barrymore Award-winning Time Is on Our Side, 2014's Always the Bridesmaid, and 2013's (in)voluntary Commitment. Thomas hopes to open a new play, Mrs. Harrison, about a black playwright in conflict with a white stand-up comedian, in May with the Azuka Theatre.
Thomas' theater work and Elle column led to his recent Best of Philly award for best humorist. Unfortunately, we're losing him. So, ahead of his departure, we caught up with Thomas to talk about Philly's influence on his writing, what's next in Baltimore, and how stalking Patti LaBelle kept him in town for so long.
How did you end up in Philly?
I bought a one-way ticket to Honolulu because I was depressed living in Baltimore and wanted sunshine. A friend's housing situation changed, and she said, "Want to move to Philly instead? We went to a good concert at World Cafe Live once." It was a nice concert. I don't remember the band, but that's the reason I moved to Philadelphia.
What made you stick around?
One reason is the theater community seemed promising, so I thought this was a place I could grow as a writer. The other reason is I was stalking Patti LaBelle pretty actively. So, I thought, "I have to stay until I meet her," and I did, eventually. But by then, I was already sold on the city.
Where did you end up meeting Patti LaBelle?
I met Patti at Pod in University City. Someone called me one day, and I ran to the restaurant. She was getting ready to leave when I arrived, and I babbled to her about being obsessed with her. After that, she came in five more times when I was there. I was like, "You need to stop stalking me. Get away. That's enough."
You ended up finding a home in the theater community. How did that start?
About seven years ago, I was working at a law firm in New Jersey, and I had to take an hour-long train and walk a mile to the office over a rickety bridge. Eventually, I thought, "Are you going to be Ally McBeal? Why are you doing this?" So I had to stop and find something else to do.
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I interned at 30 years old for PlayPenn, and that changed my life. One of the interns was a guy named Jared Markman, and he commissioned me to write Time Is on Our Side. He directed that play, and it went on to win two Barrymores last year. It all started lugging boxes around the basement of the Adrienne Theatre. That's progress.
But you’re leaving Philly at the end of the month for Baltimore?
I am. This story ends in tragedy. That's not true — the Baltimore Tourism Bureau would hate that I said that. I just also came here to meet a husband, and did, so I said, "I've done all the things. Got to go. I've peaked." He's a pastor and was called to a church in Baltimore, so we're moving.
Is leaving the city bittersweet?
It is. Philadelphia is not only a city that transformed my life, but it saved my life. It's a city that's up its own [keister]. You can't walk a block in Philly without seeing some sign or museum or person telling you about what happened there. That's exciting — to be in a place where narrative is valued, and history is in the soil. For a writer, that is gold. Everything is a story.
After columns like your coverage of Rep. Maxine Waters, you’ve become something of an internet celebrity lately. That must be weird.
A couple years ago, people started coming up to me saying, "Hey, I follow you on Facebook. You're funny." I'd say, "Oh, thank you. That's terrifying." It's this weird thing where you're semianonymous. I work from home, so I'm sitting around by myself all day making myself laugh, and saying, "I hope the internet loves me."
Did you expect the “Auntie Maxine” stuff to take off like it did?
I did not. I knew it would be a good column because she is just such great material. Sometimes, I write about things I think are hilarious and people don't care at all. You never know. She's taking advantage of a moment to speak truth to power, and I respect that. Part of it is me, and part of it is her. We're tag-teaming to change the country.
Being in Philly, do you feel separated from the celebrity element?
Actually, it's nice to be in the cities where you can be appreciated. I was named one of Philly Mag's 38 Philadelphians they love, which is fantastic, and very well deserved. That wouldn't happen in a city like New York. What I do is random and weird. I sit in my house, or sometimes at [a coffee shop], and write funny things. That's a harder category.
What was your path to Elle like?
If I were to write a self-help book about how to get famous, the first page would say, "Girl, I don't know," and then the rest would be mandalas you can color. I wrote a Facebook post a little over a year ago that went viral, and my editor reached out to me over Facebook and said, "Do you want to write stuff like that for the magazine?" I said, "That's not a job. What are you talking about?"
What purpose do you think your column serves for readers?
People are looking for a path back to hope, and one of the ways I find hope is by recontextualizing the narrative through comedy. The column reminds people you can laugh, and there's always something funny. Making people laugh when talking about things that make them angry or sad is a great way of reminding them a small part of them is alive.
Alleviating that existential dread, even for five minutes, seems like a worthy pursuit.
I am obsessed with elevating the frivolous. I will talk for hours about a movie trailer or a great brunch. It's not the Affordable Care Act, but I can do both. The reason I have health insurance and go to the doctor is so my lungs will be clear so I can scream about Beyoncé. That's why I want to be alive. Otherwise, screw it — who cares?
What’s next after the move to Baltimore?
Trying to ingratiate myself to the Baltimore community so I can get Best of Baltimore next year. My ego demands I not take any demotions.