Out of the Bayou with Theo Von
Both professionally and geographically, comedian Theo Von has come a long way from his hometown of Covington, Louisiana, a small town about one hour north of New Orleans. But as a current resident of Los Angeles, Von is still holding on to his Louisiana roots. After touring the country extensively for over a decade and earning spots on Comedy Central, TBS, Last Comic Standing, and CollegeHumor, Von returned to Louisiana last year to film his one hour Netflix special, No Offense, at New Orleans’ Civic Theatre. In his lingering drawl Von told me, “It’s cool that I get to mention my hometown. I get to say, ‘Covington, Louisiana,’ during the special. To me that truly meant the world.” I talked to Von about the new special (which premieres today), his self proclaimed white trash upbringing, and what it’s like to go into debt to pursue your creative dream.
As a kid coming up in Covington did you ever think you would have a shot at doing anything in the entertainment industry?
Not when I was young, I don’t think. I was pretty good at being a loudmouth. I weighed 40 pounds forever. All I could really do was talk smack. That was around the time of In Living Color. I would impersonate those characters and stuff.
Did you grow up in the country or in town?
It was kind of white trash. It wasn’t redneck. Rednecks live a little further out. It was just kind of white trash. Respectable white trash, if that’s a term.
Do think the term white trash is a slur or does it just represent the way a certain demographic lives and exists?
That’s just kind of what our little neighborhood was. When you’re more redneck or country there’s a little more camaraderie. When you’re white trash it’s more every man for himself.
Did you self-identify as white trash?
I wear that name as a badge of honor. I wouldn’t have any of the stories I have today if it wasn’t for growing up in Covington.
You got your first exposure to the entertainment world through MTV’s Road Rules and the Real World/Road Rules Challenge.
I did that on and off for five years and then decided… I really liked standup comedy. I saw my first comedian in Baton Rouge. I liked it and decided to start talking about stuff. Eventually I said, “I’ve got to let go of the reality TV stuff and focus on this job. I think I have a talent, so I’m going to try to do the hardest thing.” People always say that standup comedy is the hardest thing. It took about nine or ten years before people stopped judging me from reality TV and really started to recognize me as a comedian. I don’t know if you’re ever fully a comedian because you’re always learning, seeing people better than you and striving to get better. I’ve been out there touring now for 10 to 12 years, at least 25 weeks a year. I think the most I ever did was 40. I do feel like I’ve put in my work to substantiate any accolades I’ve been given.
You said the first comedian you ever saw was in Baton Rouge. Do you remember who it was?
I think it was this guy Mark Gross. He was really, really funny. And it just amazed me that it was a real job. I don’t think I had ever seen a standup comedian before I went to college.
You realized it could be a real job, but I imagine that after you started you realized that there are so many dues to pay and that it takes such a long time to get good enough to even begin to get paid gigs. When did you feel like comedy was really starting to take hold as an actual career and not just a hobby?
I went almost $35,000 in debt doing a lot of touring because I would take gigs that cost me more to go do than I would recuperate. But when did I feel like I finally kind of… you know, there have been some different things. Like I did a Half Hour with Comedy Central a few years ago. But when I got passed as a paid regular at the Comedy Store out in California, that really meant a lot. It meant that I didn’t have to prove myself anymore and I could get to be myself.
So you come out of the South. You’re touring, putting time in on the road, then end up in Los Angeles. A lot of comics who come to LA from places that have a specific regionalism to them — like parts of the South or Midwest — get out there and have a hard time getting assimilated or being taken seriously because of maybe the way the carry themselves or their accents. Did you have any trouble being taken seriously as a Southern guy when you first arrived?
Yeah, the Southern thing is tough. If you go up and sound a little Southern, a little slow, kind of like you’ve got syrup in your mouth all the time… but I wouldn’t trade my path at all, man. It’s been miserable, wonderful, disheartening, depressing, positive, and nurturing. It’s been everything. It’s been good and this is just part of it.
Do you feel like the tables have shifted now to where things are leaning more positive and less disheartening? Do you feel a little more in control of things now?
Now I’ve at least achieved enough to where I can say that in my life I was a standup comedian. That’s a nice feeling. A man who builds houses, when he finishes a house, can say, “I’m a homebuilder.” I feel like I can put it on my resume now and not wonder if people are going to go, “Ok, you’re really a comedian?”
In an interview a few years ago you said that now that you’re in Hollywood you worry because you can’t say certain things there. You said, “At home it would be a joke, but people here think you’re making a statement.” Can you give me an example of something that you have a hard time getting to translate outside of your home base?
I use the term homosexual a lot. When I was growing up, if somebody was gay, sometimes people would say they’re homosexual. To me that’s just a synonym. I run a podcast called Allegedly with one of my best friends and he’s gay. I’ll say, “That’s my buddy Matthew. He’s a homosexual.” People look at me like it’s a crazy thing to say. But that’s not weird. People make things weird. It’s too much. I think we’re starting to see a little bit of a swing back though… people speaking their minds. That’s something I’ve embraced the past couple of years. I just say, “Fuck that. I’m going to be myself.” I’m going to talk the way I talk. I know I’m a loving person. I know in my heart that I don’t hate or dislike anybody. I have friends of every color and creed. I’m over that shit. If I’m going to go down I’m going to go down selling my wares.
Is that the reason you decided to call your Netflix special No Offense?
Yeah, I think so. Everybody gets a little dose of it. In the end, it’s definitely tongue-in-cheek a little bit. It’s very well thought out. Anyone who takes it 100% seriously is a fucking idiot and they need to be blasted off the earth into the stratosphere.