Those are the first, slow, deliberate words from a man wrapping up a breakneck week. When we got a chance to talk, the 54-year-old stand-up comic/iTunes chart topper/writer/Opie and Anthony regular/Woodstock 99 host had just recorded the fifth installment of his new podcast My Wife Hates Me with life partner and fellow comedian Bonnie McFarlane.
“Who the fuck’s gonna listen to this crap?” asked Vos. “People listen to it. It’s just me and her and I go ‘Who’s gonna listen to this?’ We talk for like an hour and 20 minutes and I go, ‘How empty is someone’s life that they’re gonna listen to me and her talking?’”
Vos knows a thing or two about emptiness. Still Empty Inside is the title of his first album since 2001’s I’m Killing Here. A lot has changed since then, including how he tracks his success. When the album hit the top spot on the iTunes comedy chart, Vos snapped a photo of it and relished the triumph over dummy enthusiast Jeff Dunham for about a day or two.
“Who would buy the CD of a ventriloquist? You would really have to be trustworthy. Every 45 seconds during a CD someone is saying his lips are not moving. I don’t know anything about Jeff Dunham. Obviously I know his name and he’s a big act. But Louis C.K. is number one now. And I could see that. He’s brilliant, funny, ok? But if you’re beaten by a ventriloquist’s CD you’re going, ‘What happened to this country?’”
Vos has been dishing out a confrontational, raw, honest Jersey style of comedy for 28 years, the past 25 of which have been sober. (Cocaine was his drug of choice). It’s a daily struggle, one he says he needs to constantly work at to win.
“The real addiction is mental, obsession and compulsion,” explained Vos. “Eventually for anybody that gets sober that compulsion and obsession is lifted. Some people will take longer than others. Every now and then you think about it and go ‘Oh that would be nice.’ But it wouldn’t be nice because it would be a fuckin’ nightmare.”
You don’t have to be Dr. Drew to understand addiction is the misguided pursuit of filling a void. After material ranging from Vegas to his daughter’s desire for a black baby, Vos touches on spiritual emptiness on the road, recovery, and being leered at by gay drug dealers in his youth. Vos says the cover of Still Empty Inside is a metaphor for the pursuit of happiness and failing.
“The picture on the cover is all kinds of stuff I’d buy in life. You know, golf clubs, car, anything that you would buy to fill the empty void that lies in the bottom of your stomach. Instant gratification. It’s the same as any addict,” Vos said. ”I’d gotta go to Marshall’s and buy this and that to try to get it all. I’d look at it, throw it on the floor, and lay in the fetal position and still cry because that’s not gonna fill the emptiness.”
It’s About Respect
Any of the bullet points on Vos’ quarter century in comedy would be enough for lesser comedians to say they’ve made it. He’s done all the comedy specials. He wrote for Chris Rock at the Oscars. A million people on YouTube have watched him destroy a heckler while being the first white guy to perform on Def Comedy Jam. There was the 100,000 deep crowd at Woodstock 99 and of course, Last Comic Standing. All are nice, but it all boils down to respect for Vos.
“There was always a point where I go, ‘I want to quit,’” said Vos. “Comedy, and I guess any art form, you never really make it because you never stop. You’re always striving to get ahead. You’re always striving for a joke or finding a better voice. You’re always striving to be better. You have a sitcom? That doesn’t mean you’ve made it. To me, making it is when you have respect from your peers. I know this sounds stupid and corny, but you know, there’s musician’s musicians, there’s comic’s comics. If I’m with Colin or when I was hanging out with Patrice, I go, ‘These are real comics to me.’”
Vos counted Patrice O’Neal among his closest friends. Though the loss is still fresh, Vos talked about his lasting relationship in comedy with Patrice and what the late comic would have thought about Still Empty Inside.
“He wouldn’t listen to it. He’d throw it out the car window. I wouldn’t expect him to listen to it,” the comic said. Vos says Patrice wouldn’t need to listen because he’d already know what he was getting. Mutual respect and admiration were earned in the clubs of New York and on shows like Colin Quinn’s Tough Crowd.
“He’d stand in the back of the room and I’d watch him. He’s the only one who got it. We’d talk on the phone and he’d say stuff like, ‘You’re a funny motherfucker.’ And I knew he was funny. I don’t have to listen to Patrice to know he’s one of the funniest people, was one of the funniest comics ever or around. Just sitting at a table with Patrice, you know how fuckin’ funny he is.”
In addition to O’Neal and Quinn, Vos includes his wife Bonnie, comics Jim Norton, Joe DeRosa, Ralphie May and Bob Kelly among his crew of friends not just in comedy, but those he can rely on outside of the club as well.
“I go, ‘These are some funny dudes.’ And that’s what initially attracts certain comics to hang with certain comics,” said Vos, adding that, “Because you’re on the same type of wavelength or you have the same type of dysfunctional past or functional past. I don’t know. Funniness is what attracted but what builds is the relationship. It’s friendship over time. I’m gay. I really sound gay.”
He’d Do it Again
Vos has plenty of gigs lined up to support Still Empty Inside but no official tour in the works. With the podcast, his recurring role on the Opie & Anthony Show and everything else in his life, there’s no need to grind like that. Vos is long removed from the paying-your-dues ethos that is required of any comic who wants to do this for a living.
But there is one thing he’d do again.
“Of course I would do it, it’s network television. I wouldn’t turn down network television.”
Despite feeling that way now, Vos almost didn’t do Last Comic Standing. When the first season of the NBC show came calling, the comedian had a lot on his plate.
“I was already doing Tough Crowd, Opie and Anthony, I almost turned it down,” the comic revealed. “I was like, ‘Well I’m not doing this,’ which would have been the biggest mistake ever.”
Vos says his season on Last Comic Standing was more a reality show. While it featured some funny people (comedian Dat Phan won it all), it’s not the way most comics catch a break.
“The standup on the show, I didn’t really care about that as much, even though I did as much as I had to,” he says. “But I didn’t care because people aren’t going to remember. They’re gonna remember the guy in the house who was ironing, or the guy who took a bath with the other guy. That’s the kind of stuff that was great for Last Comic (Standing) because it was more of a reality show than a comedy competition. Then it turned into a comedy competition without the reality behind it.”
You Can’t Be Funny in Rhode Island
“Being in LA and being in New York is going to make you a better comic. Because that’s where the best comics are, in one place,” Vos said.
Last Comic Standing was nice. There’s a chance you might get discovered on YouTube. But Vos says the true way to grow and succeed is to go where the comics are – New York or Los Angeles.
“In Rhode Island there’s probably four great comics. That’s it. But when you move to New York or LA you really gotta step up your game,” explained Vos. “At least you get stage time because you’re competing with the best. And you hang out. That’s what helped make me a stronger comic was hanging with great comics. When you’re hanging with Colin and Patrice and Norton you’ve got no choice but to get funny.”
When asked about rising comics people should keep an eye on, Vos mentions Nate Bargatze, who performed at this year’s Bonnaroo and recently won the New York Comedy Festival. Vos also gave a shout-out to Mike Vecchione, who had a run on Last Comic Standing in 2010 while also racking up appearances on Comedy Central.
Vos doesn’t have one takeaway moment from 2011, besides maybe playing the San Francisco Golf Club. Instead, like he’s done for 25 years, he’s just happy to make it another day. Still Empty Inside is the name of his CD, but after talking with the man for more than 30 minutes, it’s clear there’s a lot flying around in his head.
“For half this interview I was having an anxiety attack,” Vos said, very seriously. “And I didn’t take any anxiety medicine so I got through the interview. I hopped off a podcast, got in a car and it was very stressful because my wife wouldn’t shut up during the interview. She was making fun of me. I was trying to hold it together through an anxiety attack so I’d like to say on a 1 to 10 scale when you edit it I think it’s going to be at least an 8.”
I think I speak for everyone at AmericasComedy when I say it was all that and more.
You can download Still Empty Inside on iTunes here. Do it so Rich can lord over a pile of shamed Jeff Dunham dummies one more time.
About the Author: Ben Lacy has worked up and down the west coast as a tv news producer over the past decade. His favorite funny people include David Cross, Will Ferrell and Hannibal Buress. 2012 will mark the 20th anniversary of him getting a single base hit during the entire season for the North City Expos little league team. He's on twitter @misterlacy