The Earned Success of Kevin James Thornton

Article by: Robert Dean

People who’ve been in the struggle know that while you’re in it, it sucks. It sucks bad. 

Once the hurricane of bill collectors, rent, and trying to find something to eat off a dollar menu stops, there’s a sense of peace when a comma in your bank account means more than just the phone bill is paid, but you can breathe. 

For Kevin James Thornton, that long, deep breath has been coming. 

Kevin James Thornton headshot

For almost two decades, the comedian has slogged his way through the dead rooms, the stages in those sketchy comedy clubs in the middle of nowhere, the nights of subsisting off lousy bar food and not much else to show for it, but he kept at the grind. He kept telling jokes. 

Speaking with him from an Airbnb in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was relaxed and thankful for his recent successes. “It’s been a hard, long-ass road,” Thornton said. “I embraced that I was going to get nowhere. I embraced that I was going to do nothing. If I think about 15 years spent just wanting this one thing, it’s a lot.” 

Growing up in Evansville, Indiana, Thornton didn’t have it easy. 

He was the gay, funny kid in a highly religious household and community. So, what do you do when you’re a square peg in a round hole? For many, they leave. And that’s what he did. 

In 2008, Thornton gave himself over to comedy, moving to Los Angeles and getting his start working the open mics at the World-Famous Comedy Store (back when Tony Hinchcliffe was hosting the mic). Between there and the Improv, he spent hours developing his storytelling style. 

On his new special, Be Yourself, Thornton embraces who he is, scars and all. “My entire fanbase came from social media. I get a lot of DMs from people. They feel connected. People seem to really be liking it.”

And he’s right. Be Yourself isn’t just a smattering of jokes but a personal journey, one that’s rife with emotional moments that endear the viewer to Thornton. 

“Sometimes, I feel like a sock puppet at the library,” he said, laughing. But you can see some of his influences front and center throughout how he forms part of his bits. 

“My first person who blew my mind was Bill Cosby. My mom bought Bill Cosby’s Himself. I remember rolling on the floor, laughing so hard. It was a core memory. He’s a huge influence. Something is appealing about singing about Chocolate Cake. Steve Martin was another one; something about a singing Egyptian is hilarious to a kid. Recently, I went back and started watching all the Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor stuff. They’re almost not even jokes, they’re stories, which is so embedded in my style.”

At first, Thornton was reluctant to get on TikTok. “Tiktok for comedians is a thing. At first it felt embarrassing, I wanted people to know I struggled, that I’m not some dude who just blew up out of nowhere. But, seriously, TikTok helped so much. I can’t believe I’m on tour in clubs all over the world. I was a little kid staring at the wall and now here I am.” 

With the success of Be Yourself, Thornton is finding his best life. 

All the struggle, the ups and downs made for a person he’s happy to be. “I had a huge life crisis about that question. (About what makes him happy.) Fifteen years ago in LA, I spent every night off I had at the Store or the Improv. I was so broke. I was living in my car. I was like, why the fuck am I doing this? I will be the man I feared I’d become: broke with nothing to show for anything. I decided to quit. And I did quit for a while. I moved to Nashville and opened a photography business. The business was successful. But, internally, it wasn’t working. I didn’t know what the dream was. I was at the bottom, emotionally. My photography was giving me a living, I was trying to avoid comedy. I tried to let it go. But it kept coming back. But , there was something about the letting it go era, where I understood myself better.” 

By letting go of the expectations of a career, Thornton was free, and his perspective changed. So, when he did get back into comedy, the gas was in the tank, and his focus and jokes were better than ever. “Walking out on stage makes people happy, it’s the thing I fought so hard for, it’s delightful. I always think to myself, this is my job, and this is pretty fucking cool.” 

Kevin James Thornton paid his dues. He did have what it took, and the masses didn’t see it for a while there. But now, his name is in bright technicolor, and everyone sees it. 

You can watch his new special, Be Yourself, here
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