MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's been a hard year. I think most people agree with that and we could all use some laughs, so we decided to launch a new series called Make Me Laugh. All summer long, we are going to be talking to some of the country's most popular entertainers who have brought their unique comedy styles to film, television, stand-up and more.
Today, we are joined by a man who brings the laughter through the telephone. Thomas Miles does prank phone calls on "The Steve Harvey Morning Show." As co-host, he entertains millions of listeners daily with his Nephew Tommy routine and some of the calls are controversial, so we want to warn you of that in advance.
Here he is pretending to be a deacon calling a man who's heading into surgery.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE STEVE HARVEY MORNING SHOW")
THOMAS MILES: We ask that you take that pancreas and you remove it out successfully, close him back up like it was never - been entered in before.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Walk with me.
MILES: That's what we asking. We asking, Lord, at the same time...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.
MILES: ...that they removing this pancreas, Lord, we ask that you reach around his back side and we ask that you touch his kidney, Lord. Touch his kidney and make it whole. Make it 110 percent. We want you to make that kidney like it's been the best kidney.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Excuse me, deacon. Deacon. That's deacon who? Deacon Patterson?
MILES: Yes, yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, you're saying - no, sir. There's nothing wrong with my kidney, deacon. I'm doing - I'm doing fine. The Lord is - the Lord has been made - well, he going to work on my pancreas. That's what the doctor's operating on.
MARTIN: Sorry. I was trying not to - I was trying not to laugh. Excuse me. OK. That was hard. Thomas Miles has also branched out as an actor, producer, entrepreneur and host of this year's Essence Music Festival and nephew Tommy, Thomas Miles, is with us now.
Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
MILES: Thank you, Michel. Thanks for having me. I appreciate being here.
MARTIN: Now, of course, we're going to talk about all that, but I did want to ask how you got started. How did you go from being a classically trained actor to doing stand-up? And then I do want to mention for people - I think a lot of people will know this who have followed your career, but you were the exclusive opening act on the Luther Vandross (unintelligible). So how did you - how did that happen? How did the stand-up transition happen?
MILES: After school, I went out and did stage plays, so all of these plays that you see, like Tyler Perry, I was way before that whole era. I was with this guy who's - his name is Michael Matthews. He was considered the godfather of black plays.
You know, during my down time in the summer, a couple of my friends were saying, hey, why don't you do some stand-up? And I'm like, I'm an actor. That's not what I do. But they challenged me and pushed me hard enough and I went out in Houston, Texas, to this open mic night and I actually won. And, after that, I just kept doing it, kept doing it and, next thing I know, I was doing "Showtime at the Apollo." I was making an appearance on BET's "Comic View."
And, while being out doing the stage plays, one of the - a behind-the-scene guy who - production manager and he was also the production manager for Luther Vandross. And he asked one of the guys. He said, didn't you guys say that Thomas is funny? He does stand-up? He said, yeah. When we go to the city sometime and get through with the plays, he'll go to a comedy club and we'll go watch him. He's pretty good.
So he says, why don't you tell him to send me a tape? He says, Luther's opening act has something to do for a week and I need to fill in that week. And I sent a tape. Luther and his manager sit down and watch it and he says, I love him. He says, let's bring him in for a week.
The first day, we're in Rochester, New York, and I opened up for Luther Vandross and, when I get done, I'm on the side of the stage with tears running down my face because I can't believe I just opened up for the baddest singer in the world.
And, at the end of the week, I'm a little sad because my week has come to an end and his road manager comes over and says, hey - hey, kid, you want to go on the road? And I was like, yeah. He says, boss wants to keep you. I said, OK. But what about the dude that - he said, you want to worry about him or you want to go on the road?
MILES: I was like, I want to go on the road. And for the next three years, I was opening up for Mr. Luther Vandross. Took me to Europe and everything and I could not believe the experience that I took in and I think that's where I got trying to be a perfectionist is from being around that guy because that's exactly what he was.
MARTIN: So then Steve Harvey really is your uncle. Right? Do I have that...
MILES: Yeah. That ain't nothing to lie about.
MARTIN: He really is your uncle, so - and...
MILES: That's not something you go around bragging about. I don't get this hardcore mentoring from him just on a lie. Trust me. He is who he is.
MARTIN: So how did that connection come about? And forgive me because I didn't mean to glide by the fact that Luther Vandross passed away and...
MILES: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: ...that's a very, you know, large loss, even to this day.
MARTIN: So I didn't mean to gloss over that, but...
MILES: No, no. Let me fix it for you.
MARTIN: You know - yeah.
MILES: Both stories actually tie into one another. So, after we come back from Europe, we come back and he's going to go on hiatus for about six to eight months and he's going to write a new album, we're going to go back out on the road. So I decided to, let me go out to Hollywood, and my buddies, they have a crash pad there, which is four or five guys in a two bedroom apartment. We're all actors and everybody's trying to make it. And so I get there and I call Steve's manager and I say hey, I'm in town. If you guys got something let me know. Because every time I would go to California, his manager would say hey, go audition for "Sister, Sister." Go audition for this and that and I would always get the job. I would always get a guest-starring role on these sitcoms.
So I come in this time and he says hey, why don't you come up to the radio station and hang out with Uncle Steve? I said, what time? He says well, get here about 5:30. I say, cool. When I get through with dinner I'll come on up. He's like no, no, no. We're not talking about dinner, buddy. We're talking 5:30 in the morning. I said, you got to be kidding me. Are you serious? He says, yeah. Just come up and talk smack with each other like you guys always do. I said all right. So I go up and I talk smack with Uncle Steve on the radio for about a week and Los Angeles just loves it. Who is this nephew of his that's just crazy? It starts blowing through the roof and finally they say hey, we want to give you a job. And was like OK, but let me tell you guys, I work for Luther Vandross.
MILES: And when he gets ready to go back out on the road, I can't be playing with you all on the radio.
MARTIN: Excuse me. Yes, he has to be your uncle because nobody else would say that to him, except family.
MILES: I said directly to his face. I said look, I got no time to be playing with you. This is nonsense.
MILES: And, you know, it's amazing how God will give you a job when you didn't even know you needed a job. During the eight-month period that I stated that Mr. Vandross was going to be, you know, going on hiatus and going back out, he got sick and never went back out. And, you know, of course, he passed away. And, wow, it was an incredible transition - not a good one, but a good one for as far as my career. But I enjoyed thoroughly being with Luther and I'm enjoying, oh man, just as much is being with Uncle Steve.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're launching our Make Me Laugh summer series with Thomas Miles, better known as Nephew Tommy. He is a comedian and co-host of "The Steve Harvey Morning Show."
See, I find myself even wanting to say "Steve Harvey Morning Show," the way they do that.
MARTIN: Is there something - what happened? What just happened just now?
MILES: That means you've been listening to the show.
MARTIN: All right. We have to play a clip from one of your famous prank phone calls. Here you are pretending that somebody broke into your house. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE STEVE HARVEY MORNING SHOW")
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) Somebody done broke in my house.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, why you whispering?
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) Because they in the house right now. I'm...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You're saying somebody done broke into your (bleep) house and they still in there?
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) Yes. I'm in the closet and I'm trying to get somebody to...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hold on. Hold on.
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK. Where you live at? Where you live at?
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) I'm on 36th Street.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Because I'm at 32 and a half. You know where - hold on. I'm fixing to call the (bleep) law now. But, you know...
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What?
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) Don't call the police.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You saying your (bleep) to the house, somebody's, you know, sitting up here going to kill you and you're talking about you don't want them arrested?
MILES: (as Raymond Henderson) (Whispering) We got some illegal stuff in the house. Don't call nobody.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. That's so ridiculous.
MILES: Can I tell you, that that is Uncle Steve's favorite prank phone call. That is called "Raymond in the Closet." That is his all-time favorite.
MARTIN: Yes. I can see. How did this thing come about? Can you tell us without destroying the magic? How did it come about?
MILES: No. No. I can. I can. Prank phone calls, I actually got the idea from Rickey Smiley, awesome comedian who is also a radio personality as well. He has his own syndicated show. And Ricky and I are real good friends. He invited several comedians to Birmingham, Alabama, his hometown, and we were all going to put this compilation CD together. Everybody was going to do two or three prank phone calls and we did. And when I got on Uncle Steve's show, I started doing prank phone calls. And it just, I did a couple of them, Uncle Steve liked it. His executive producer, Mr. Rushion McDonald, he loved it. The hard part now is to have to keep doing them and keep hitting home runs; and it's hard. Every week, my uncle and the executive producer, they want two brand-new prank phone calls. You know how many people hang up on me before I get to a good one?
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
MARTIN: You do other things besides prank calls. You also do stand-up, as we said.
MILES: Oh my God.
MARTIN: This is from, I just want to play something from your comedy special called "Nephew Tommy: Just My Thoughts." You performed it last year in Detroit. You know where I'm going with this, right?
MILES: Yup. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: You're telling a joke about what Michelle Obama did on the first morning after her husband became president. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NEPHEW TOMMY: JUST MY THOUGHTS.")
MILES: That girl got up. Housecoat. Flip-flop. Went down to the Oval Office and just started walking around. Barack.
MILES: Come in here.
MILES: Michelle, what seems to be going on? Let me ask you something, Barack.
MILES: Who you see in here, Barack? Michelle, I, I don't, I don't quite understand what you're saying. Who in the (bleep) do you see in here, Barack Obama? Michelle, we don't use that kind of language with each other. Now, to answer your question, I don't see anybody in here but me and you. That's it. And I better not catch a Monica, a Monique, a ma, ma, ma. I will do like Left Eye from TLC and I will burn this down.
MARTIN: You're a little rough on the sisters.
MILES: A little rough on the sisters.
MARTIN: You're a little rough on the sisters.
MARTIN: What's up with that? What's up with that?
MILES: But I am President Barack Obama fan, so that's my man.
MARTIN: I know. We weren't talking about him. We're talking about Michelle.
MARTIN: Excuse me. A little rough about the sisters.
MILES: We were talking about Michelle getting it straight for four years.
MARTIN: Getting it straight, huh?
MILES: Letting him know how this next four years is about to go.
MARTIN: Is about to go.
MILES: She don't want no nonsense.
MARTIN: How - hmm, how can I put this? The relationships between African-American men and African-American women are often a subject for comedians.
MILES: Right. Right.
MARTIN: And I sometimes think that the sisters kind of come out on the losing end a little bit on that. I could be wrong. But it just, I don't know.
MILES: It depends on the person delivering the message. Like me personally, I talk about cheaters, people who are cheating in relationships. These guys who think that they are these incredible cheaters and I'm like you have no earthly idea what you're doing. And I let them know how females are always one up on us. They always know exactly what's going on the majority of the time. So I'm always in favor of making a balance in my statements.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, you know, "Think Like a Man," which is, you have also done this year's much talked about "Think Like a Man"...
MARTIN: ...based on your uncle's book. Talk a little bit about that experience, you know.
MILES: It was a great experience. It was something that I will say that I have much love to be able to say that I have the funniest line in the film. I didn't expect that because I was not one of the leading characters. But for everybody to come and say hey, you got the funniest - for Kevin Hart, to tell me, you got the funniest line in the movie, and it made me feel really good because, you know, I jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute. And Mr. Will Packer, who is the producer of the show, said hey, I got something for you. I'm going to give you something bigger later but right now I got something for you I want you to do and I think you're going to nail it, and I think I did. And I think we've probably grossed over 90 something million by now so it's a success.
MARTIN: So you just now, you've done it all. You've done Shakespeare...
MARTIN: ...classically trained. You've done the theater, stage, barnstorming kind of community theater...
MILES: Oh my God. Oh my God.
MARTIN: ..stand-up, you know, now you've done film and...
MILES: I've done "Raisin in the Sun"...
MARTIN: "Raisin in the Sun"...
MILES: ...and I've done that in one room.
MARTIN: And now, you know, Essence Music Festival. It is the nation's - it's been called the nation's biggest annual gathering of African-American music and culture. This is your third time hosting it.
So what's fun about that?
MILES: This is exciting. This is top, top entertainment all under one roof and I get to bring them to the stage. And I also get to represent Essence, which is a big, big, big thank you to be able to do something like that and represent them well and hold that 60-something 70,000 people crowd together and rock them every night for three nights straight. This is my third time around. I keep getting better in time. Did an outstanding job the first time and they keep bringing me back. So I must be doing something right and I'm glad they keep bringing me back.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, and you've been really generous with your time so thank you for talking with us.
MILES: Oh, no problem.
MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share? I mean you're still relatively young in your career but you've already done so many things and also so many different things. I just wondered if you had any wisdom to share for people who are listening to our conversation and might like to follow in your footsteps. I mean stand-up is something that a lot of people - it obviously has a very deep role in the culture.
MARTIN: But because of television and other venues, has kind of reached even bigger audiences than ever before. Do you have some wisdom to share?
MILES: What I can say is that if you are aspiring to be a comedian, you have to have dedication. This is an all-out war. This is one of those things where there's going to be some great nights and then there's going to be some terrible nights. You know, there's going to be some nights you're going to say I am the worst comic on the planet. And then there's going to be some days you're going to say nobody can touch me. So you have to have so much determination that no matter which way it goes you're doing this for the long haul. And if you've laced your sneakers up and tied them up in knots and say I'm in it for the long haul, then you're going to win. But you've got to be prepared to go to the gym and the gym is what - it's these little hole in the walls that people have open mic nights, these little places that they let you grab the mic for five to seven minutes. Any amount of minutes that you can get, get them. Get every last one of them and you'll be - that's your practice. Keep going to the gym. That's what's going to make you one of the baddest comedians in the country.
MARTIN: Thomas Miles is also known as Nephew Tommy.
MARTIN: He is a comedian, actor and producer. He's also the co-host of "The Steve Harvey Morning Show." And once again, he's hosting this year's Essence Music Festival. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR member station KUHF in Houston, Texas.
Mr. Miles, thank you so much for joining us.
MILES: Thank you, Michel. Thank you for having me. When you want me again, let me know. I'll be back.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TellMeMore/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.