Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Theo Von's Reality Check

Ten years ago, Theo Von couldn't walk into a bar without someone recognizing him from MTV's Road Rules. Interesting twist on an old punch line: "A man can't walk into a bar."

It was a bar that actually started it all for Von - he auditioned for Road Rules at a college bar at Louisiana State University. And that show changed everything.

"It was some of the best times of my life," Von said about his time on Road Rules (and subsequent MTV spinoffs). "[I] traveled the U.S. and the world, doing insane things, meeting loads of chicks. Being young."

Von was 20 when he was cast, right about the same time he started doing standup. Unlike many reality stars who try standup as a last gasp for fame before their candle burns out, Von's intention was to become a comedian, and Reality TV was just a fun way to spend a few years.

When it came to a career in standup, reality TV didn't always help Von. In 2005 and 2006, I toured colleges with Von as part of "The Immature Tour." Myself, Von, Adam Hunter, and Dan Levy were in our mid-twenties at the time, and Levy, Hunter and I had no real TV credits behind us. But most of the crowds had heard of Von, even though they didn't know he was a comedian. Many nights I watched Von have to overcome expectations inadvertently created by his edited reality persona while crowds adjusted to him being a standup.

"It doesn't matter who you are when you get on that stage, you have to do your act," Von said. "Comedy is comedy."

And while Road Rules gave Von the boost (and the money) it takes to jump start a career as a comic, it was Von's talent that prevented him from going down the road to has-been traveled by so many of his cast mates.

Von's first taste of comedy came while still in college, during a semester at sea. The boat had been at sea for 11 days and the cafeteria was still serving fresh milk. "We haven't seen land in 11 days, milk would have spoiled," Von remembers saying. "What are we milking? Who are we milking?"

It was Von's bizarre take on the mundane and instant likability that ironically led him away from reality TV - to more reality television in 2006, this time on Last Comic Standing. Voted back on as a crowd favorite, Von received major exposure, but this time for his comedy.

His material landed him a spot on Live at Gotham in 2008. Soon after, he performed for ten nights in a row to 1500 people in Johannesburg. And this December, he'll be taping his first special for Comedy Central. Theo Von the comedian is long out of the shadow previously cast by Theo Von the reality star.

"I may have gotten my fill during those years," Von said.

Oddly enough, Von still owes some of his recent success to reality - but a different kind. His website,, has exploded in popularity, broadening his fan base significantly. Though while he's doing the prank texting, no one knows it is him.

So for the first time in ten years, Von can have a bit of anonymity. Until his special airs.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Who Wants Tommy Savitt Now?

On stage, Tommy Savitt is simple. His delivery is slow and measured and his character is the id run amuck.

"You know how many marriages I've saved?" Savitt asks on stage. "Once you cheat on him with me, you'll never do it again." Savitt finishes the bit with his trademark question, "Who wants me now?"

Savitt's career has mimicked his act; it's been a relatively straightforward progression marked by a few sudden and unexpected twists.

Savitt first took the stage in February of 1994 to an easy crowd – he had 75 of his fellow Brooklyn Law students cheering him on. He dabbled for the next eight years in front of less friendly audiences before a move to Los Angeles forced him to pursue road work. It was either that or survive on LA club spot pay – "a whopping $11.50 a set."

Savitt had his share (and perhaps a few other's shares as well) of knocks coming up – including one night in Pennsylvania being chased through the audience by a man threatening to throw a pitcher of beer at him.

"Ironically, this guy was enjoying my set," Savitt said of the man trying to douse him. "I guess they have strange customs in those yonder parts."

That description reminds me of something out of Savitt's set. An accessible explanation mixed with a twinge of education and sarcasm. But it's that accessibility that has allowed Savitt to become one of the more popular acts on satellite radio.

"They recognize me once they hear my voice," Savitt says of the multitudes who listen to his clips several times each week on Sirius/XM's "Blue Collar Radio." "Some people are flying or driving from other states to catch my show. I am truly blessed."

Strange to think of a lawyer from Brooklyn as "blue collar," but Savitt is a perfect fit. While the word has been misused in the last decade as a synonym for "white trash," the actual meaning is a working class American. And a comic that has been chased by a pitcher of beer in the woods of Pennsylvania certainly passes that test.

Blue Collar is perfect to describe a city like Boston. Though also teeming with college students and the finance industry, there is a large contingent of people who could have (and might have) been extras in Good Will Hunting.

"I was low on money and had no expectations of winning," Savitt said of the Boston Comedy Festival, which he almost pulled out of, but later won. "For whatever reason I trudged on because that's just what I do."

It's also what he did that same year in Seattle, winning the Seattle International Comedy Competition as well. And it's also what he did with his wildly successful album, "Who Wants Me Now?," which, unlike most albums on the market, actually sells more copies each month it's out.

Earlier this year, Savitt released a uniquely updated version of the album, with new takes on the jokes that originally made him a cult hero for the proletariat. And as Savitt gains in popularity, his new album is increasing in sales as well. Not bad for someone who has never done a spot on network television.

"I truly believe the universe is allowing me to hone my act without major scrutiny," Savitt said.

Hone quickly, Tommy – while your delivery might be slow, your rise is not.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tom Simmons: The Ultimate Contrarian

Find a sacred cow and comedian Tom Simmons will gut it and serve it for dinner. He's got material criticizing patriotism, supporting Tiger Woods, even lampooning Martin Luther King Jr. for his infidelity. He actually does those last two in the same joke.

"All I care about is Tigers golf," Simmons says in his act, holding back his trademark smirk. "Martin Luther King Jr was famous for cheating on Coretta, does that make his message invalid just cause a couple of his dreams were wet ones?"

Simmons has an uncanny ability to find something that the rest of the world agrees with only to prove them wrong. His logic is methodical and relentless, which makes him impossible to beat. That's especially difficult since he argues with just about everything. He even argued with me when I told him he was argumentative. Really, that happened.

I asked him why he talks politics in his act so often. He said that even though people tell him that constantly, he doesn't feel it's true. I asked him how he feels about being a "comic's comic," and he said that phrase "seems to be a nice way of saying that crowds don't really agree."

I even asked him about his success, and he said he's not successful. This is the same guy who won the prestigious San Francisco International Comedy Competition – a competition that has seen Robin Williams, Kevin Pollack, Ellen DeGeneres, Mark Curry, Nick DiPaolo, Marc Maron, and Dane Cook all finish second.

"I remember feeling like if I could work the road and make $500 a week I would be a huge success," Simmons said. "My goals are higher than that now. I try to make $650."

And while Simmons is kidding about the dollar value of his act, it's a great example of what he does on stage. Simmons finds something the sheeple of the world have accepted, turns it on its head with an exaggeration, and shows the audience why they should wake up and agree.

"Ultimate success for me will be if my son can go back through my comedy CDs and be proud of what I did and said as a comedian and a man," said Simmons. "He of course has that kind money to throw around because his daddy will have made buckets of it selling out theaters touring off his HBO specials."

Simmons is constantly twisting the world around him, causing everyone else to doubt what they previously defined as truth. But ask Simmons about being a professional contrarian, and he humbly won't accept the premise of the question.

"I haven't turned pro yet," said the comedian with five live albums and multiple television appearances. "I just sorta picked up a stage or a gig here or there, lived out of my car occasionally and slowly built places that would let me get on stage."

Every year, those stages grow. And every year, new crowds are finding out what comedians have already known for years – that Tom Simmons is a tremendously funny comic.

I dare you to disagree.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Softer Side of Lisa Lampanelli

Known best for her scathing roasts and even dubbed "The Queen of Mean," Lisa Lampanelli has never been accused of being a nice person. Except by almost everyone she's ever worked with.

"I am absolutely aware that I am a softy offstage," Lampanelli said. "From what I heard, so is Rickles."

Lampanelli's comedy is anything but soft. In the tradition of Don Rickles, Lampanelli is a classic insult comic (her website is even Her act is brash, aggressive, and leaves no stone un-abused.

"It's no coincidence George Hamilton loves the sun. They were born in the same year," Lampanelli said during a roast. "The difference is the sun is actually a star."

Her "Queen of Mean" persona is how she landed on the Comedy Central Roasts, a huge boost for her career. The Friar's Club used to produce the roasts, and Lampanelli was known among its members for her insult comedy.

"The Friars pushed and pushed and Comedy Central finally agreed to put me on two weeks before the taping," Lampanelli said of the Chevy Chase roast, her TV debut. "It was the greatest thing that has ever happened to my career."

Even more amazing was that Lampanelli was at the Hugh Hefner roast the year before – as a member of the audience. Hard to imagine, since she's such a fixture on their dais now.

Her other big break was her association with the Howard Stern Show. Lampanelli's star has brightened by magnitudes due to her regular appearances with Stern, who's influence she's compared to that of Johnny Carson.

"Once Howard makes it known he likes you, his audience buys in and your popularity absolutely rises," Lampanelli said. "I have been the luckiest person ever since I have been associated with him."

My theory is that her warmth off-stage also has something to do with her success. It's why Howard Stern and the Friar's Club and so many others want to work with her, and encourage others to do the same.

In 2004, I ran into Lampanelli at the Hollywood Improv as a wide-eyed 25-year-old, overwhelmed by the glitz surrounding me during my first trip to LA. Though I'd only met her a few times before, Lampanelli immediately invited me over to her table and drove me from club to club the rest of the night, introducing me to everyone. Her kindness was infectious.

There was even a moment that night at the Comedy Store where a disheveled "comedian" approached Lampanelli, looking like he'd just gotten back from an audition for "Junkie #4." He introduced himself and asked if he could crash in her hotel room. Lampanelli wished him luck, encouraged him not to ask any other headliners the same question, and politely said no. She's nice, but she's not crazy.

The same altruism that led her to help me (and politely decline Junkie #4) also led her to one of the more inventive stands against the zealotous Westboro Baptist Church.

Known for their protests of military funerals and "God Hates Fags" signs, the WBC announced that they'd be picketing Lampanelli's show in Topeka, Kansas. Lampanelli promised to donate $1,000 to the Gay Men's Health Crisis for every protester that showed up. That night, the WBC inadvertently raised $50,000 for gay rights.

"We are more than one-dimensional," Lampanelli said of insult comics. "That was one of the most gratifying checks I've ever written."

What a softy.