The multi-hyphenate comedian-emcee-bodybuilder credits the foundations of his success with joining the Marines. The discipline acquired in the most notoriously tough branch of the military transferred over to every other facet of life, allowing him to tackle increasingly difficult goals. Here, he shares his best advice for building the life you want.
INTERVIEW BY MATT TUTHILL /// MAIN PHOTO BY PER BERNAL
Robert Irvine Magazine: People who find you online see that you’re a comedian but the next thing they see is that you are a Marine. What made you want to serve?
Tim Wilkins: I always wanted to serve, growing up, playing soldiers. But I was afraid of my own shadow as a kid. I was small. I was picked on. So when it came time to pick a service, I wanted to do the hardest one. Go into the Marine recruiting office, and everybody else was throwing signing bonuses at you, and the Marines are throwing courage, discipline and esprit de corps. That’s how they sell Marines. So I said, “Yeah, I want to do that. I want to be part of a brotherhood.” So instead of $25,000, I picked brotherhood.
RI: What did you get out of being a Marine?
TW: It changed my life path, changed who I was inside and out. There’s a discipline that I’ve transferred through to everything I’ve done, a kind of a force-to-be-reckoned with attitude that I know I wasn’t necessarily born with or definitely didn’t have before the Marines. I can remember driving 15 hours through the driving snow to go sleep on somebody’s hotel floor to meet one person who could help me in my career. And the whole time I’m driving, I’m saying to myself, “Bootcamp is harder than this. Come on now.”
RI: I guess you’ll always be able to say you’ve been through worse.
TW: That’s really what the basis has been. It reshaped me, as they say in the recruiting posters, into someone who can withstand anything. And I’m honored to have been part of that group, to still be part, because you’re always a Marine. I wouldn’t be the same without it.
RI: You go to the Marines straight out of high school, then get out in 1990. You say you always wanted to be a comedian, too. Did you go right into it?
TW: No. I kind of floundered, tried college again, did a bunch of odd jobs. And then one day I was driving around, delivering water with my manager in the truck. He was 37. He’d been with the company 18 years and had no other goals, no dreams. But he was living what most people would think was the perfect American life, two kids, literally a white picket fence. And he said, “I’ve got everything I want.” Then he looked at me sarcastically and said, “What are your big dreams and goals?” And I said, “I’ve always wanted to be a comedian.” And he just went blank and said, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. Why don’t you do it?” And within two days I was at an open mic night at a club down the street and never looked back.
RI: You walk a fine line in your routine; you want it to be clean but still have an edge. Did you always want to be a clean comedian or did you start out a different way?
TW: I started in a different way, like a lot of people do, but I went clean for a couple reasons. I wanted my family to be able to see my show. My grandmother was a huge influence on me and I wanted her to see it. In ’96 or ’97 I started to really clean up my act because there was so much more opportunity opening for bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, and people like Lionel Richie. When you work clean you can also do corporate shows and cruise ships. So I branched out of clubs and that really things changed a lot.
RI: Every standup has to bomb—at least once, but usually more. Talk to me about that. Have you done it? What went wrong and what did it teach you?
TW: I’ve bombed really, really hard, maybe four or five times in 30 years. And a couple of those were on shows where I knew I would have a similar audience the next night. And I would go back and lay all my notebooks out on the bed. I wanted redemption, it’s like a comeback fight for me. I want to come back stronger, better, crush the next night and say that it’s going to be okay. But the worst part of bombing sometimes isn’t even that you’re bombing, it’s that the stuff worked 99 times before and is dying that one time.
RI: It’s audience-dependent.
TW: It could be something that happened. I’ve had natural disasters and human disasters happen right before a show. And the guy at the theater’s about to page the curtain open so you can walk out and they go, “Hey, just so you know, a lot of people in the town over next to us died, and everybody here knows somebody, so they really need to laugh tonight.” And you just suck in deep and say, “This is not going to go well.” And you can’t help that, but I still took it personally.
I always know there’s something in my notebooks that’s going to connect with somebody better than it did tonight and tomorrow night is going to be better. But it would 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, and I’m ripping pages. And a lot of comedians are on computers. I just can’t do it. I’m tactile. I’ve got to have my little comedy notes and I’ve probably got 50 notebooks in a bin.
RI: Talk about failure in a general sense, because you’re someone who seems drawn to these difficult things where it’s not going to go well for you off the bat—be it trying comedy or joining the Marines. Those first couple weeks are going to be so brutal. Do you worry at all about the current generation? Do you think they’re failure averse?
TW: I think one of the biggest problems with this generation is the way they were over parented and the parents didn’t allow them to fail. And didn’t give them the coping mechanisms to figure out how to rectify their failure or to learn from the failure and to revel in the failure. Kids—and adults—need to go out there, put themselves in a progressively harder situation to grow and get knocked down and pick themselves back up. Because the next time you pick yourself up, you’re stable at a higher level.
Right now, I’m in prep for a bodybuilding show, Master’s Nationals. At 53, I’m taking another shot at my Pro Card and it circles back to the beginning of your first question because I was a little guy and I’ve always been skinny and I’ve been fighting my way up. My first time on the bodybuilding stage, I took sixth—and the top five got medals. After that, I looked at my wife and I said, “I’m coming back next year and I’m going to beat one guy. That’s all I want to do. I just want to beat one guy.” And that was seven years ago. And then I progressively got better, and then took a third and then a couple of firsts. And then I looked at her and I looked at my trainer and I said, “I want to go to Nationals and see if I can compete with the big boys.” That’s been another thing. I just continue to put myself in these awful situations and smile and swing and do my best.
RI: As a parent then, how did you give your kids that leash? It’s hard to see your kids in pain, to see them frustrated by something and the temptation to step in and do it can be almost overwhelming.
TW: My second child, my daughter, just graduated college, and she thought she could never survive junior college or community college. And in the middle of college she decided she wanted to join the Army. And rather than talk her out of anything, I just give her the pros and cons and said, “These are going to be the hard parts, and this is going to be the benefit. And if you want to do it, OK.” Then when I get the calls, all I can say is, “I understand what you’re going through, and here’s some ways to fix it.” I can’t pick up the phone and call her commanding general.
And she’s learned to fix things herself, but she’s also learned to use people as resources. And she’s learned that with pain at each level, she’s gotten stronger. She actually competed last year in the Armed Forces National Championship – a bikini competition. It was her first competition, but she did it as a comeback from a car accident. She wanted to prove to herself that she could get fit again because exercise is such a huge part of her life. So she has picked that up—I don’t know if it’s a gene or some parenting—but she now enjoys hard things. She’ll call me and say, “I’m about to do something really hard. And you got me in that head space. You put me in the mindset of challenge myself.”
RI: You compete but you’re also a fan of bodybuilding and you’ve emcee’d some of the Olympia shows. Are you happy with the direction the sport is going?
In addition to competing, Wilkins serves as an emcee at bodybuilding shows.
TW: For me, it’s bigger and better than ever because of all the different divisions. With Men’s Physique that I compete in, it gives people with horrible leg development somewhere to be. If they come out with a division for pants, I’m totally going to win. And then you’ve got 212 and Classic that brings back the lines of all my heroes, like Lee Labrada, Rich Gaspari, and all those guys from back in the ’80s and ’90s. And then you’ve got the mass monsters. Then for the women, there’s like six divisions now. So it was dying off because it was getting so niche. And I think now it’s growing again because they’ve expanded to highlight the more attainable physiques.
RI: People write in to Robert all the time for fitness advice. What is your best piece of fitness advice for someone who’s starting out?
TW: My basic advice for everybody is always write down three days of what you eat. If you see what you eat on paper, you’ll go, “All right. Here’s two changes I can make without doing anything else in my life to lose 10 pounds in three months,” if it’s cut out sodas or sweet teas or nighttime ice cream. And cook at home as much as possible. And research. Look at Robert’s recipes. He’s got healthy foods in stores and exchanges around the world; you can use some of those pieces as your main dish, cook at home healthy, and you’ll save a ton of money and you will change the way you feel. And from there, go into the gym, hire a trainer once every few months to put you on a program. That won’t break your bank, but you can get started with someone that can watch your form and write down four days’ worth of workouts. The diet, though, is 80% of it.
RI: What do you say to the person who feels stuck in their job? They report to an office and they are not happy about it. They’d like to do something else, but the stability of the thing they’ve got is important. Once you’ve collected dogs and kids and spouses and you’re rooted to a place, it has a way of rooting everything else in your life to the same place.
TW: I first met Robert when I was hosting a morning talk show in Tampa on the CBS station. That job was a huge pay cut from comedy. So I had to do a lot of stuff at night and make it work until it took off. So sometimes you’re going to have to do a few extra things to make your dream a reality. Whatever your dream is, we are at an unprecedented age to research that dream. Back then when I was starting out, we didn’t know how to move careers or connect with people in that field and reach out. But you have to put yourself out there, find out the reality of whatever your dream is.
I have friends that came to me and they said, “I want to write a book, but I don’t know anything about it.” I sat down at the desk and I Googled “how to write a book” and magic happened after that. You can Google anything and learn how to make your dream a reality. So pick the dream, research it, and understand it may take some pain. I was driving all over the country doing comedy at night, getting back on the talk show in the morning on two, three hours of sleep, but it paid off 20 years later like I can’t imagine.
So be prepared to put in little extra work to fill in those financial needs. And then when it takes off, you can leave all that other stuff behind and just do your dream.
TIM WILKINS’ PERFECT (HEALTHY) STEAK
A perpetually clean eater, Wilkins shared his easy and healthy Steak and Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes recipe. “I do it almost restaurant style, except without the restaurant butter,” Wilkins says.
TO DO IT:
1) Using a filet mignon (or NY strip), let the steak come up to room temperature. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
2) Oil an oven-safe pan, get it very hot, and sear it for a minute and a half on each side.
3) Put the whole pan in the oven at 425. Depending on thickness, the steak probably needs 6 to 8 minutes to get to a perfect medium rare. “It doesn’t need butter, gravy, or sauce,” Wilkins says. “It’s perfection.”
4) Serve with cauliflower mashed potatoes: mash together cooked cauliflower and boiled potatoes with margarine and almond milk. Season with salt, pepper, and minced garlic.
Follow Tim Wilkins on Twitter and Instagram, and check out TimWilkins.com. His new comedy special, “Pa**word Protected” is available now at DryBarComedy.com.