Just Getting Started: Kevin James Thornton’s super second act

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Kevin James Thornton shot to fame over the pandemic, when his TikTok videos about growing up gay in his small town, fundamentalist church community went viral. He has more than a million followers on Instagram and TikTok with combined views nearing one billion. Thornton has a special called Be Yourself out now on Amazon and a podcast called “This Ends in Paris.” He recently headlined for the Netflix is a Joke festival and also has a show at City Winery coming up on May 26.

AO: Give us the run down on how you got here.
KJT: I grew up in a small town in Indiana in a religious community. That became a problem in my teenage years when I started to realize that I’m gay. I left my hometown and had sort of a worldview crisis for many years. I eventually turned that conflict and that experience into stories and comedy. I think that was my version of therapy. You know, I’m Generation X. So we didn’t know what therapy was. I worked out all my troubles through stories and writing and comedy. In my younger years I did it professionally, but it was a long struggle. I did theater festivals and comedy festivals and small clubs for about a decade and did okay. But I was tired of being so broke and ready for something different in life. Eventually I settled in Nashville, Tennessee. I opened a photo studio and sort of lived very quietly for several years. And then the pandemic happened, and a little photo studio is not a good pandemic business. I was on pandemic unemployment for a hot second. And I started, just out of boredom, really, making TikToks. And they blew up really, really fast. That changed my whole life. I signed with an agency early on and when they found out that I had done stand-up for many years, They were like, ‘Oh, you have an audience now. So get back out there.’ And I, you know, I was like, ‘Okay, this is it. I guess we’ll try it.’ I’ve been on the road for the last three years all over the world. It’s been this wild second chance. I’m 50 years old, I’d already sort of made peace that some big career entertainment wasn’t going to happen, but here I am. It’s happening.

AO: Who are some of your influences?
KJT: when I was a kid, my favorite TV show was Evening At The Improv, and which is also wild because that’s one of the main Comedy Club chains that I perform. And so every time I’m standing under that sign against that brick wall, I think ‘when I was 10 years old like this was my favorite TV show.’ And now, you know, there’s no TV show, but I’m on the stage. There was an era of stand-up comedy in the ‘80s that was Robin Williams, Steve Martin. Steve Martin, especially, I feel like you can see that influence in my act because it’s like silly songs. Really absurd. That’s my favorite stuff. So definitely those early comedians and that ‘80s era, for sure. For more modern For modern comedians, I love Suzy Izzard. I love Tig Nataro. I love the absurd and I love storytellers.

AO: What are you drawing inspiration from lately?
KJT: In my current stuff, I talk quite a bit about my life in real time. I just went through a breakup of the longest relationship I’ve ever had, so in my current show, a lot of it is about being 50 years old, and sort of starting over in a lot of ways. You know, I have found that among newly middle-aged people, we’re not done. I don’t know how it was before, but I talked to so many people in their 40s and 50s that say ‘I’m just getting started. I feel good. I’m not ready to retire.’ I think a lot of us feel like that.

(Photo from Kevin James Thornton)

AO: So, what’s next for you?
KJT: I’m actually taking a long break from the stage after this round of shows. I’ve got 25 more cities so I’ve got a long way to go. But that wraps up this summer and I’m going to take at least a year off. I’m going to Europe because the last time I was there, I was riding around on a train in the UK, and as much as they like to complain about their trains, I found it really meditative and peaceful and, you know, I was like, ‘God, if I ever wrote a book, I would love to just sit on this train for eight hours and just look out the window and write,’ so that’s what I’m going to do.

What’s Kevin Into?
Kevin James Thornton’s entertainment picks

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

“This is a super old book. I remember in college, all my friends were like, ‘have you read Running With Scissors?’ ‘No, I haven’t.’ And then I just never did. It’s real quirky. I love it.”

I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War On Drugs

“It’s got it like, almost Bob Dylan influences, but if like Bob Dylan fronted a cool indie rock band. It’s really nice stuff, especially if you’re a fan of driving-down-the-road mood rock.”

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