Tom Arnold's back where he started, doing standup, bringing top comics and maybe a celebrity pal along. His publicist wouldn't let us ask him a “Fuck/Marry/Kill” question, which might be just as well, because the dude can talk.

Why return to standup? Aren't you too famous for that?

Being famous is a double-edged sword. The audience kind of knows you so they'll give you a five-minute grace period, but after that you'd better be funny or you're in trouble. It's humbling and you can't get away with using those killer jokes you did in the '80s about living in a one-bedroom Minneapolis apartment with six guys, six couches, six remotes and six bongs, although, in the darkest part of my mind I'm pretty sure I'll end up back there. Only without the bongs and we'll be sharing a remote with dead batteries. In my head, I've never stopped doing stand up, but I was lazy, quit working the clubs and just emceed a lot of corporate events. I didn't want to do this because I thought I'm an actor, 60 films, it's a step backwards, yada, yada, yada, but truth be told, I was scared shitless that I would fail the audience. Thankfully, I've had the backup of a lot of young, funny comics while I decide if I have to talk about my first marriage in my act, since it ended over 15 years ago, or if the crowd was too young to remember. So far, it's 50-50.

Letterman loves you, and he started as a standup — do you think you would make a good successor?

When I think of the biggest honors of my career, and I don't think about them very often, I realize how lucky I've been. First job, writer on Roseanne. First scene in a movie: Dustin Hoffman and me, hosting SNL three times, Peabody, Golden Globe, lots of Razzies for balance, but nothing compares to the two times I was asked to fill in for Dave when he was sick. Would I be a good successor? If I worked really hard and was surrounded by extraordinary people, I would never be even close to what he is but I also think I'd be as good or better than most anyone else I've seen. It will never happen but the uniqueness of my career, I spent four years interviewing athletes and they can be tough interviews, plus I understand what a good talk show guest brings and the grind, importance of writers, crew, finding your own voice and then hoping people want to hear it. It's a rough ride and God bless the guys that have made it. I love them all.

Would you ever do a reality show, like Kathy Griffin? What surprising thing would we learn about you?

I “host” a docu-style reality show, My Big Redneck Wedding. It's produced by the guy that created Made, which I thought was the best thing on MTV. I did get my preacher's license on A Very Special My Big Redneck Wedding. I went to Florida and married some folks but now I mostly marry gay friends because it's an honor. As far as having cameras 24-7 or whatever Kathy does. I think it helps if you're cool or wasted or have a bunch of hot sisters, none of which I am or have. I have been offered “Celebrity” this or “Celebrity” that, but the celebrity part scares me. Although, I love that Jesse James is on Celebrity Apprentice. Before he was president of NBC, Ben Silverman and I lived in the same building for a couple years on Ocean Avenue and I heard that Ben and his old partner Howard, our other buddy, were trying to find me to do a show for NBC called Celebrity Cook-off or some shit. But I can't fucking cook!!! No problem, my other friend, Wolfgang Puck, would do all the real cooking. Cut to theater in the round, so much noise my Aspergers kicks in and I cannot even read the menu, it's me, Miss USA and Big from Big and Rich, who was smart enough to include high-alcohol-content liqueurs in his menu and he's so wasted he's fallen down, hard. Anyway while perfect Miss USA prepares her healthy whatever, I am sweating all over my mini burgers, my coat had the mic in it, and as the overhead camera reveals, I cut the end of my finger off so now there's sweat and blood on my food. The esteemed panel of food critics could not see this but they heard the massive groan from the audience when they bit into my apparently extra rare beef. Then came the judging and I almost won, which would've meant coming back. I'm sure it was good television because it was a dark moment in my life … so to answer your question, yes, I would do a reality show if it was funny, made the world a better place and the money was right. People would be surprised that I'm taller and not as fat as they thought. That's what happens when you do a sports show with 7-foot tall black guys. I also hear “I'm really surprised — you're nice.” Well, yeah, of course I'm nice and if I'm not tell me, so I can make amends. I'm always surprised when people are mean to me. It's so stupid. We need each other!

Where do you go to be alone?

I hide in my bedroom or hotel room on the road, but riding my motorcycle anywhere is kind of like being alone and yet you get to observe life. Life is good.

Do you secretly enjoy all the paparazzi attention?

I must. I always feel the need to “entertain” them. Fifteen to 20 years ago was a different story. Especially before I got sober. Living a lie is hard enough without those bastards lurking around but the truth is, sadly, the embarrassment of public humiliation was one of the reasons I went back into rehab. I mean, I still do embarrassing things but I do less of them because I'm sober, which allows me to feel things like shame, humiliation self hate; sprinkle in some gratitude and flickers of joy and you've got my typical morning.

Proust section, a la Vanity Fair: When and where is your idea of perfect happiness?

Anytime, anywhere my gal Ashley starts laughing uncontrollably. I usually have no idea why but it's infectious and the next thing you know we both have tears in our eyes, laughing like idiots and when she finally does start to explain whatever was funny the whole cycle starts up again and she can't tell me because she's laughing so hard she's choking and fanning her face. That's my bliss.

What is the most despondent you've even felt?

4:15 a.m. on Oct 10, 1981. I was drunk, naked, sitting in the Wapello County Jail. I had just been fired from my job at the Hormel meat packing plant, charged with public nudity after being arrested while streaking through the Jefferson Square Manor (an old folks home) in Ottumwa, Iowa. The sheriff had just told me, with his shit-eating grin, that my old man would be down with some clothes. I was completely naked, surrounded by bad-ass railroad gypsies, as soon as he mowed the back 40. The same back 40, I'd promised to mow the day before. That and 3:15 p.m., March 6, 2009, my 50th birthday. I'd just gotten my mail and my AARP Card was in it and realized I'd blown everything. That my life was one failure after another and worst of all, I've had every opportunity to succeed.
My life was at least half over and I'd screwed up the dream I had since I was 4 and my mom left: Wife and Kids = Unconditional Love, but unfortunately, Ashley doesn't let me wallow in it too long. “You've got me.” “I know, I'm so fucking lucky but you're screwed. You should've got me when I was 30” and then she started uncontrollably laughing and so did I think it was because we both realized that I was kind of a crazy idiot at 30, so maybe this was God's plan after all. I'll ask her what's so funny when she quits crying.

Wednesdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Jan. 16. Continues through Sept. 8, 2008

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