Theo Von is the human embodiment of a small town success story. Born Theodor Capitani Vonkurnatowski in Convington, Louisiana (about 45 minutes north of New Orleans), the 34-year-old comedian began slinging jokes at a local coffee shop in 2003, driving 40 minutes just to perform seven minutes worth of material. “It was just a bunch of young guys trying to tell jokes, Von tells Laughspin. “I was all fired up.” Young Theo was hooked and knew he had to move to Hollywood. After landing memorable appearances on MTV’s Road Rules, its spinoff series Real World/Road Rules Challenge and the fourth season of Last Comic Standing, Von become firmly embedded in the national comedy scene.
Two years ago, Von became the host of Yahoo! Web series Primetime in No Time, the most-watched daily Internet show and landed his own half-hour comedy special on Comedy Central. And since last year he’s been hosting the Howie Mandel-produced prank series Deal With It on TBS. So, we here at Laughspin thought it was time to check in with Von, which is what we did. The proof is below.
I thought it’d be nice to get started by hearing about your origins. How did you get into comedy?
They had a bar — really, a coffee shop — that served beers back in Louisiana. And this is in 2003. It was real nice. You could go there and get seven minutes of comedy. Sean Patton was over there, he’s a popular comedian now. There’s was just a bunch of young guys trying to tell jokes.
That sounds like a lot of fun.
It was fun. I would drive over there to get to the show, and it was about 40 minutes from my house. I was all fired up, I’d tell my jokes and go home.
Were there any comedians or performers who you were exposed to as a kid or saw in places like that that inspired you or that you admired a lot?
In terms of comedians I saw perform live, I think it was Mark Gross. Really funny guy, good writer, good comedian. And I couldn’t even believe that this was a real thing that people were doing. I was like, ‘Wait, you can really just go up there and say stuff and people laugh and then you go home?’ It’s definitely a lot harder than that, I think.
It seems like a kind of dream job, when you put it like that.
You know, there are moments where it really, really is. It’s brought me a lot of blessings. It definitely makes some things very tough. It makes a traditional life very tough.
Have there been any moments where you thought, ‘Well, maybe I got in over my head’ or ‘This is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be?’
Once things started getting a little more Hollywood, it starts getting a little trickier. You have to monitor what you say. That kind of stuff’s been an adjustment.
I can imagine that, especially if you’re coming from such a different environment like Louisiana.
That’s true. It’s funny, my friends think my life is a lot more exciting than I do.
It seems like a lot of folks equate comedians from the Southern states with red neck comedy or blue collar comedy. Have you found that people have similar preconceived notions about your work? Is that an association that you’re working to shake or working within?
I think people definitely do have preconceived notions there, but now that I’m in Hollywood, you start worrying because you can’t say certain things here. But at home, it’d be a joke. People here think you’re making a statement. These aren’t political statements: in the end, we’re all guys who tell dick jokes for a living. Very few comedians are making real statements.
Speaking of Hollywood, you have a new show called Deal With It on TBS going on, how did that come about?
Well, I started a website called Crank Texts, which is all about texting strangers and Howie Mandel hosted this prank show. I also host a show that’s on Yahoo! called Prime Time in No Time everyday. So it was a perfect little storm. I had this texting website where I was pranking, I was hosting this extremely popular daily video, and Howie Mandel needed someone to help prank people for this new show. And they said, ‘Well, this guy likes pranking people and hosts enough,’ so here we go.
I’ve watched Deal With It bit of it and it’s really a funny premise.
It’s great. It’s a simple premise.
Have you always been a prankster?
I like to see the struggle. I like to just say something more in front of people that they’re not going to expect. I’m more of a verbal prankster, I think. I’m really just kind of piloting a lot of Howie Mandel’s mind and a lot of the other guests’ minds. It’s been a blast. In my personal life, I would do dark pranks. Before we went on a camping trip for a week, for example, I would make sure I was the last one to get there before we left, and I would tell everyone that Jay Leno died. So then the whole time in the woods, for a week, we are living in a microcosm where Jay Leno doesn’t exist anymore. So that was fun, because I knew all week that he didn’t. I’ve told people that I’ve had a twin that I never had. I’m talking to a girl right now who thinks I was an orphan. I’m kind of figuring, depending on how things go between us, I’m figuring, when do I need to be like, ‘Surprise! My parents.’ [editor’s note: hopefully the girl in question doesn’t read Laughspin]
And at what point do you end up seeing those verbal pranks about your life on your Wikipedia page as truth.
I don’t know! It’s a good point. My Wikipedia page hasn’t been very damaged by people. Sometimes I’ll see stuff pop up on there.
Have any reactions to the pranks on the show been particularly surprising to you? Any ‘Oh shit’ moments where you thought things might go off the rails in a bad way?
You know, we had a couple — I think it was a mother and her son — and the mother had the earpiece in, so this other dude kept trying to show the son that the mother was in his religious cult, and the son was not buying it. He wasn’t liking that guy. Eventually the guy got some Kool-Aid and tried to get the mother to drink it. The son was all ready to beat this guy’s ass.
And I figure, look, somebody really gets their ass beat, that’s not good. So I was ready to let him go. There are a lot of rules and regulations out there, standards and practices, so we couldn’t do that. One time, because we pick random people, we picked this couple who was walking down the street, get them to sit down, and we realized it was a pimp and his employee. We’re trying to get the game going and they’re arguing about stuff, and he’s looking in her phone, and accusing her of banging all these different guys. And everybody’s like, ‘Okay, we can’t do this.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean? This is the best ever.’ You know? But we ended up bailing on that just for safety concerns.
It seems like your tolerance might be a little higher than a lot of folks’ at the station.
Sometimes it is, but sometimes I’ll be surprised. Howie will surprise me with his tolerance. He’s done it so much, he has so much experience. He and the producers have seen it all, whereas I’m still seeing some of it for the first time.
Right, I imagine you’d get a sense for how things can go with more experience.
Yeah, I mean, he hasn’t been wrong. Gotta give those guys credit. They are 99 percent of the time, 100 percent of the time really, right on.
This is one of many projects that you have in the hopper at the moment, at least in your performing life— what other projects are you really excited to dive into?
I’m trying to meet girls, I’m trying to find me a wife here. I’m looking for a serious relationship. Dating out here is tough. It’s tough out here in LA.
In what way?
Well, everybody’s working. Everybody is constantly working, everything is work.
How do you find a balance?
I don’t know, that’s a great question. That’s one cool thing that you get out on the road a lot. I was home for Easter, I got four nieces and nephews, so I Skype with them, watch them cry and watch them get spanked over Skype. So I don’t know, I go to the gym a lot. I don’t know. I’m thinking about getting a little dog.
That’d be fun. I’m a big dog fan.
You got a dog?
No, no. I’m a grad student, though, and my dissertation chair has a dog that he lets me borrow a lot, which is really nice.
Is that fun?
It’s really fun. I get all the joy of hanging out with her, but none of the responsibilities: having to find a kennel, having to buy food… all of the pleasure, none of the obligation.
Yeah, I guess that’s what I need to look into… I need to find that somewhere out in the world. Basically, I need either a pet or a girlfriend at some point.
Well, that seems doable, right?
Or maybe they should have that program where you can have a girlfriend for a couple of days.
Like Netflix for people.
Like you’re doing, yeah. For a day or at least a night or something. I wouldn’t mind going on a date, doing the whole to-do.
Sounds like a fool-proof business plan.
I mean, look dude, I’ve done a lot of crazy businesses. We used to sell guinea pigs outside of raves when I was growing up.
Wow, can I ask why?
Oh yeah, because you sell so many of them. That’s the reason.
Would never have guessed.
Everyone at the rave just wants a warm little animal. They want that.
That makes sense, I guess. That’s really astute business acumen.
At a Green Day show, we made about $640.
How much per guinea pig were you charging?
$20 a pop.
Wow. That’s like 32 guinea pigs. That’s impressive.
You push them. We had to find a way to get in on the action. I wish they had Instagram back then so I could see what happened to all those cute little animals, but they didn’t.
I wonder if there’s a way to send an Internet missive to say, ‘If you ever bought a guinea pig at a concert or rave, send me your story.’
Yeah, I don’t know, that’s a good question.
Maybe a perpetually unanswered question.
Sometimes when I lay in bed at night, I pretend they’re still raving.
Let’s hope so.