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, Cranktexts.com, 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.