Two Knuckleheads Walking Around Talking

The filmmakers, comedians, and musicians Whitmer Thomas (platinum-blond mop, hopeful smile) and Clay Tatum (thick-framed glasses, downbeat vibe) have been best friends since the sixth grade. Growing up in the early two-thousands in Gulf Shores, Alabama, they bonded over skateboarding, comedy, and punk rock. But living in a small town had its disadvantages. “We were never able to go full scene, because we didn’t have the right gear,” Thomas said the other day, from behind the wheel of a rented Honda Pilot S.U.V. “We could only get, like, Rustler jeans at Walmart.”

“We didn’t have skinny plaid pants,” Tatum clarified.

The friends had arrived in town the night before from Los Angeles, where they live, to begin an East Coast tour of small clubs, with Thomas, who is thirty-four, singing and Tatum, thirty-five, playing guitar. (They perform their tragicomic pop rock under Thomas’s name, although “sometimes we call ourselves Clay Tatum and the Whitmer Thomases,” Thomas said.) It was raining, and the car was inching its way toward New Jersey, to pick up tour merch from a screen-printing shop. “This is literally my dream,” Tatum said, peering out the window. “As a kid, I wanted to be walking in New York in a fucking blazer, talking to my friends. I always wanted to seem smarter than I really was.”

“The Golden One,” Thomas’s 2020 HBO standup special, which combined music and comedy, was edited and co-directed by Tatum. Centering on the death of Thomas’s mother, a bar-band singer who’d struggled with alcoholism, it was released just before COVID hit. “At the première, fancy people were telling us, ‘When this comes out, your life will change,’ ” Thomas said. “And then the special was, like, completely forgotten.” He veered onto the Garden State Parkway as Tatum fiddled with the defogger.

The pause that the pandemic provided allowed Thomas and Tatum to act in “The Civil Dead,” a film that they co-wrote and that Tatum directed, which was just released. In the movie, shot for thirty thousand dollars, Thomas plays a clingy ghost invisible to everyone but Tatum, leading to high jinks as existential and cringey as they are funny. As in real life, Thomas’s character is more emotional, and Tatum’s is ironically detached.

“We knew exactly what we wanted to do, but it took us fifteen years,” Tatum said, of making a movie. Influenced by “Jackass” and by Blink-182’s pop-punk shenanigans, the pair had got familiar with camerawork by shooting skate videos and comedy sketches in high school. After graduation, Thomas moved to L.A., with dreams of acting, and Tatum enrolled in the Savannah College of Art and Design. Jealous of Thomas, Tatum soon headed west: “When you’re in the middle of Georgia and your friend is, like—”

“One time, I saw Conan at Tower Records,” Thomas broke in, deadpan. He took the Paterson exit.

Tatum moved in to Thomas’s Santa Monica studio. “We’d go to Hollywood Boulevard and walk around. We didn’t know you were supposed to go to Echo Park or nothing like that,” Thomas said. “We lived in a place where everybody wore a deep V-neck and a fedora.” For four years, Thomas and Tatum delivered pizzas. Wanting to be taken seriously as an actor, Thomas moved away from sketch comedy (“I didn’t tell a single joke the first year I lived in L.A.,” he said. “I wanted to be smoldering”); Tatum tried making dramatic shorts, but found it so embarrassing that he deleted them all. Things began to click when, with money Thomas inherited from his mother, they rented a black-box theatre and began doing a weekly comedy night with a couple of friends, called “Power Violence,” which they continued to run until 2018. They started to find their voice.

“Comedy saved our asses,” Tatum said.

“Without it I’d be just some pathetic bleeding whatever, and Clay would be even more pretentious,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, we’re dumb. Hopefully we remind people of their cousin, or something.”

This goofy spirit animates “The Civil Dead.” “It’s about two knuckleheads walking around, talking,” Thomas said.

“Which is all we care about,” Tatum added. After pulling into a parking spot near the printing house, Thomas wandered off. “Whit has this vibe where easy things don’t come that easy for him,” Tatum said, as he watched his friend amble from one side of the building to the other, unable to find a door. “Like, he’ll drive a car and the bumper will all of a sudden fall off, and I’m, like—” he laughed. “ ‘Why does this sort of thing happen to you all the time?’ ” ♦

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