There are two main contexts in which most comedy consumers know Rich Vos. On NBC’s first incarnation of Last Comic Standing the viewing public got a taste of his aggressive, sarcastic style, albeit tamed a bit for mainstream television. Vos is also a regular on The Opie & Anthony Show and served as host for its 2006-2007 Traveling Virus Tour. That’s where audiences got to see and hear the rougher version of the comic, the one who was the first white performer to appear on Def Comedy Jam, who is often on the defense against his fellow comics for his malaprops and who habitually faced down arenas of rabid O&A fans.
It’s that second guy one might expect to hear on his third album, Still Empty Inside. Vos still tosses plenty of bombs and possesses admirable stores of bravado when it comes to interacting with a live audience. But Empty also provides something a little different: Vos is more personal, less in-your-face and even a bit vulnerable at times.
Not that he’s necessarily confessing anything new here. Vos has never hidden his past as an addict, and he has discussed what it means to be a good father. It’s Empty’s tone that is frequently different. When you’ve spent your whole career fending off not only your audience but sometimes your friends (in whose company the premium is placed on busting chops), you only have to open up a little bit for it to seem like a revelation.
Vos kicked off his 2001 CD I’m Killing Here with a track called “Fuck ‘Em.” So opening the new one with the declaration “I Don’t Like ‘Em” isn’t terribly original. However, it does allow for a more direct comparison and highlights the shift in attitude. On the earlier album Vos came out on the attack at full volume. Here he is apathetic from the start. Introduced with blaring music to a cheering crowd, Vos warily demurs, “Stop. Let’s have a big hand for the other two guys.”
There are long beats, and the listener feels Vos gathering the energy to continue. He doesn’t like the first two comics. Or the guy taking tickets. Or the valet guy at the hotel. It’s a cleverly-constructed opening bit, and gives him a callback for the rest of the evening. If someone speaks out of turn, Vos just adds them to the pile of those he doesn’t like. It’s simple but effective; instead of blasting the audience, he can retreat a little in mock disgust and draw people in.
The title refers to Vos’s self-professed addiction to buying things to fill the void in his soul. It’s how he wound up buying a rabbit-fur hoodie, which led him to an unexpected ethical quandary when he was assigned a hybrid at a car-rental lot. It would be hypocritical of him, he says, to drive an environmentally friendly vehicle wearing rabbit fur.
Vos is clearly (and rightly) proud to declare he is 25 years sober. But, he adds, he is out of his mind in every other aspect of life. He’s obsessive-compulsive and just can’t let go of things or even people. One breakup early in his sobriety hit him especially hard, and he sought advice from his fellow 12-Steppers. That included Vos writing a letter describing his personal faults in detail, tying it to a helium balloon and letting it “go to God.” Instead, it went to a fourth floor balcony.
He also can’t let go of resentments and has waited 33 years for the chance to tell a store owner who denied him a cup of blueberry ice cream that he is never going back there again. There’s no real punchline to the story, and Vos might have been able to draw more out of it had he honed the idea a bit more. Naturally it’s still kind of charming in a sad, self-deprecating way.
There are a couple of bits that seem cruel, like calling his 4-year-old a “scribbler” when she presents him with a picture of a house. “Would you live in it?” he asks. Fortunately the bit is less about bashing a defenseless kid than highlighting what a clueless asshole Vos knows he can be.
Some flat-out juvenile jokes are present as well, as when Vos says that he and his wife, fellow comic Bonnie McFarlane, watch so many Bravo reality shows he’s surprised his TV doesn’t have AIDS. There are also a couple of “hot chick” fantasy stories that don’t really go anywhere. Some crude stuff, but it certainly worked in the live context.
His crass onstage persona may be the one credited with the material, but the main takeaway from Empty is a more fully-realized version of Vos, the 54-year-old father of three, divorced and remarried, who beat some serious addictions. He’s the one who lived to joke about all of it.