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In ‘The Golden One,’ Whitmer Thomas Mashes Three Forms of Comedy Together

In his hourlong HBO special, the comedian becomes the latest performer to separate himself from the ever-growing streaming comedy pack by successfully experimenting with structure

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Comedy and music are mutual pressure valves. The former is a space where social norms are suspended in the name of laughs, allowing for casual cruelty and subversion alike; the latter is a channel for feelings mere words can’t express, hence the old canard about dancing and architecture. Alone, both allow for catharsis. Together, they amplify each other’s emotional payoff.

That’s the idea behind The Golden One, the hourlong special from Whitmer Thomas now streaming from HBO. Musical comedy is an established form with well-known practitioners from Tom Lehrer to Weird Al to Rachel Bloom, but Thomas puts his own spin on the genre. (The Golden One is also produced by Bo Burnham, who himself knows a thing or two about setting jokes to song.) Rather than a front-to-back collection of hooks and melodies, The Golden One is a collage of musical performances, more traditional stand-up, and interstitial segments featuring Thomas and various family members in his home state of Alabama. Despite its digressions, The Golden One always circles back to its central theme: the premature death of Thomas’s mother, Jenny, a musician whose achievements never fully lined up with her aspirations and who succumbed to alcoholism shortly after Thomas moved to Los Angeles.

The same adjectives that have characterized many of the past decade’s breakthrough works of stand-up also apply to The Golden One: “raw,” “real,” “personal,” “innovative.” But Thomas’s approach still stands out for how seamlessly, or rather, how un-seamlessly, the chosen format reflects his emotional state. The Golden One is an attempt to process, or at least convey the act of processing, an almost unspeakable trauma. Rather than choose between the caustic, ironizing distance of comedy or the disarming, unfiltered earnestness of music, two readily available ways of working through pain, The Golden One toggles abruptly between both; the abrasiveness of the tonal shifts is very much the point. Which is how you end up with the singalong chorus “Now I can’t party / ’Cause my mommy partied to death” right next to an observational bit about the standard vocal tics of emo songs.

Shot at the Flora-Bama, the Pensacola venue where Thomas’s mother and aunt performed as the sibling act Syn Twister, The Golden One shares a spiritual kinship with a handful of recent specials that disregard the conventions of their medium. Like Jenny Slate’s Stage Fright, it’s as much a documentary as a live performance, with field interviews and testimonials that make the central figure into a subject as well as a performer. And like John Mulaney’s Sack Lunch Bunch, The Golden One’s idiosyncrasies are organic outgrowths of its auteur’s specific interests. Despite a tagline—“A children’s musical comedy special from a man with neither children nor musical ability”—that emphasizes its unexpectedness, Sack Lunch is a direct extension of Mulaney’s career-long interest in the hilarious helplessness of precocious youth. The Golden One, meanwhile, uses the art Thomas inherited from his parent to pay homage to her. The interplay between music and comedy starts to feel like an actual dialogue between mother and son.

Comedians are, in general, not rule followers, and so formal experimentation in stand-up has existed as long as there were rules to break. But the streaming-funded flood of the past half-decade has almost incentivized comedians to test the art form’s boundaries. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette hijacked a comedy show into a methodical deconstruction of comedy. Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes reclaimed its namesake for survivors. Julio Torres’s My Favorite Shapes is a carefully guided walk-through of its creator’s brain. Drew Michael’s self-titled 2018 release eschewed an audience altogether. Distribution plays a factor in exposure, but even on a hub like Netflix or HBO, an easily legible difference helps a show rise above an ever-growing pack of internal competition.

The acclaim around these specials can feel a little backhanded, praising their novelty as a way to skirt around the question of whether or not the work actually gets laughs. The Golden One is clearly not trying to opt out; even more than the tonal balancing act, the most impressive part of Thomas’s music-comedy fusion is how skilled he is at both. Though he easily reprises the high-pitched whine of his adolescent emo years (“You could slit my throat and I’d say THANK you for TOUCHing me!”), Thomas’s typical singing voice is a smooth, booming baritone. If you tuned out the lyrics, you could almost pretend you’re listening to some long-forgotten ’80s tune. If you listen in, you’re treated to Thomas’s treatise on oral sex as a last-ditch cover for failing to get it up.

Not all of The Golden One’s structural gambits pay off. The scenes filmed in Alabama add useful context as Thomas goes to a gun range and tools around a golf course with his once-absentee dad, but some heart-to-hearts end up feeling more natural than others. A conversation with Thomas’s older brother Johnny reveals a fascinating split: Johnny grew up resenting music for taking up so much of their mother’s time, while Whit idolized her and internalized a need for external validation. (“I always remember being a little kid and thinking, like … ‘Well, that’s cool that your mom does that, but my mom’s actually famous, so.’”) An on-camera reconciliation with his estranged aunt feels more like an engineered arc, capturing everything from a tentative phone call to a candid reunion. The scenes don’t come off as disingenuous, just an awkward fit of a complex, yearslong conflict into a few minutes of screen time. If anything, they only emphasize the accomplishment of The Golden One’s more successful hairpin turns.

Thomas doesn’t have to work to find the humor in his tragedy; as countless others have observed, that juxtaposition is already there. In the special’s cold open, Thomas plays one of the last surviving tapes of his mom’s music for longtime collaborator, childhood friend, and Golden One co-director Clay Tatum; the moment is slightly undermined by the song’s chorus, an extended riff on the phrase “makin’ sweet love.” “Yeah, all right,” Thomas mumbles, the grin on his face faltering with flawless comic timing. “Most of her songs were about fucking.” The Golden One takes its name from some of Jenny’s last words to her younger son, a stirring moment of kinship—spiritual, not just literal—between one dreamer and another. Thomas lets the story hang for a moment, before adding one final beat: “... which was awkward, because my brother was standing right there.” Life writes its own punch lines.

The most affecting parts of The Golden One are Thomas’s reflections on the psychological impact of following in his mother’s footsteps. “It’s just impossible for me not to compare myself to her,” he admits at the hour’s beginning; “I have an example of what it looks like to fail,” he confesses toward its end. Thomas’s mother gave him the gifts of idealism and ambition, but she also demonstrated firsthand their risks. That duality runs through The Golden One, from its structure to its tendency toward sly self-deprecation. (From the opening number: “My identity is ‘My mother died’ / Anything to distract from being straight and white!”) Like all the best gambits, The Golden One’s form follows its function: reflecting the singularity of a particular creative life.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.