Rich Vos made history as the first white comic to perform on HBO’s hit series Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam. The 56-year-old is one of many comedians whose appearance on the show led to him becoming a recognizable talent across various areas of entertainment.
The tattooed, Jewish New Jersey native with high anxiety remembers, “It was probably the most terrifying moment at that point in my career. It was very stressful. There was a lot of pressure. My friends were in the audience, comics I knew, people that wanted to see me kill and people that wanted to see me fail. It came out as good as I thought it would come out,” he says.
Prior to breaking the color barrier on the hit series launched to showcase comedians of color, a fearless Vos’ deadpan humor was a mainstay on New York and New Jersey’s black comedy circuit. Some white comedians perceived him as the “token.” Some black comedians resented him for taking the opportunity since many aspiring comics never got the chance to appear on Def Comedy Jam.
On stage, Vos, the finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing’s first season, delivers unapologetic banter. The nonchalant funnyman’s subject matter typically revolves around his addictive personality, relationships and parenting. He also jokes about actively playing golf and chewing Nicorette gum.
The sarcastic recovering drug addict also celebrates 28 years of sobriety. If one of his ad-libs is funny, Vos will crack his sly pearly white smile and chuckle to himself. In retrospect, Vos regrets not being true to his comedic voice. “Comedy is comedy, and people are people. I did blacken up my voice a little, but you grow as a comic, too. Now I would just talk the way I talk. Maybe that’s who I was then. I’m glad I did all of that because that’s who I am,” says Vos.
Vos’ HBO appearance misled some white comedy club owners. He was often typecast and couldn’t get booked. Black audiences appreciated Vos. He appeared numerous times at the Apollo Theater, on BET and Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Standup. Soon after, Vos was given two half-hour Comedy Central specials and became a regular on both Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn and XM Satellite Radio’s The Opie & Anthony Show.
Relaxing backstage following the first of a three-night residency at Atlanta’s Laughing Skull Lounge, Vos prides himself on knowing his audience. He believes the key to good standup comedy is his approach. “I grew up in the life knowing people. On the urban circuit, I went as far as you could go. If a black audience likes you, they’ll give it up more than a white audience. I can get away with a whole lot more. They’re not as uptight as white people,” says Vos with his hands in his pocket.
Vos doesn’t pay close attention to a lot of standup comics these days. However, his sense of humor was inspired by watching a lot of 1960s and 70s variety shows and sitcoms. Throughout his career, he developed great relationships with many black comics. He wrote for Chris Rock on many occasions including the star’s 77th Academy Awards performance in 2005. “He’s one of the best people to work for. He’s a smart dude. He keeps funny people around him. He knows what he’s doing. He likes to have people around to tweak it,” says Vos.
Vos made a brief appearance in a Chappelle’s Show sketch. He was unclear of his role at the time but had fun listening to Charlie Murphy’s stories. “[Dave Chappelle] had a vision, but the director didn’t translate it to me. They cut all of my lines, so I didn’t know what I was doing. I get checks, but I don’t even know what I said,” he says.
Patrice O’Neal was Vos’ best friend. He hung out with Sherman Hemsley. He opened for one of his favorite comedians, Paul Mooney, on a few occasions. Vos and other comics even threw phonebooks at Kevin Hart when he first started out.
Vos, jokingly calling Hart a “creep,” acknowledges the star comic as a good basketball player who evolved into being funny. “That’s how we got strong – just smashing each other every night. He could hang because he knew how to take a beating. We took him under our wing when he started. You hang around with funny dudes, you got to be funny,” says Vos.
Keeping comedy in the bloodline, Vos and his comedienne wife, Bonnie McFarlane, host a podcast, My Wife Hates Me. When the couple decided to make their documentary, Women Aren’t Funny, they effortlessly got comedians like Joan Rivers, Rock, Michael Ian Black, Joy Behar, Sarah Silverman and Wanda Sykes among others to participate. Vos appreciates comedy for its sense of unity. “Comedy is a whole ‘nother world. It’s a tight community. We help each other out,” he says.
Vos’ third release, Still Empty Inside, is currently available via iTunes and Amazon. While in Atlanta, he plans to record material from the live shows for a follow up release. Even with the opportunities and success Vos has had as a comedian, his HBO appearance is still near and dear to him.
Another season came after Vos’ appearance with a few other white comics appearing. Vos wishes his moment would go untapped. “I’ve done some really cool shit. I would’ve been the only white guy to ever do Def [Comedy] Jam. It kinda pissed me off. I would’ve loved to have been the only white comic to ever do it, but I was the first,” says Vos.
This article was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.