Tell polite people that you live in a van, and it's obvious they're withholding questions about what went so horribly wrong in your life to necessitate such a choice. But for some starving artists, the thought of vandwelling doesn't seem so far removed from their already slummy ways. That's something comedian Dave Stone noticed a few years ago.
"I was living with another comedian in Atlanta," Stone says. "It was a regular-sized room, but I started to notice I was spending all my time in a 30-square-foot area. I had a mattress on the floor, a little upholstered chair that was flush against the mattress and a miniature coffee table to set my laptop on. A light bulb went off in my head. I said, 'Man, this little area where I spend all my time could fit inside a van.'"
Stone pauses. "Hey man, can I put you on hold for a second?" he asks. "Sorry about that," he says 15 seconds later. "I put you on hold so you didn't have to listen to me pee in this jug."
Stone actually moved out of his van last month after living in it for more than two years, but he still keeps a jug handy. "Once you get used to it," he says, "having a jug around to pee is just something that stays with you, I guess."
Stone, 36, says he was always drawn to comedy but had trouble getting up the nerve to tell jokes in front of an audience. It wasn't until he spent all of his 20s "in a kitchen or on a lawn mower" that he decided to sell his landscaping business and go all in on the jokes. "I guess that might be what you'd call the 'quarter-life crisis,'" he says.
Stone spent two years working in the kitchen of a barbecue restaurant in Atlanta while trying to move to L.A., but was never able to save enough money to make it happen. The vandwelling epiphany proved to be the turning point: After moving into a van in January 2012, he made it to L.A. within three months. Predictably, friends and family didn't know what to make of it.
"At first they thought I was joking," Stone says. "Then they thought I was crazy, but I knew I could do it. I got a lot of patronizing pats on the back from people, like, 'All right then, Dave, you go get 'em, buddy!'"
With some help from comedian buddies Rory Scovel and Kyle Kinane, Stone got a foothold on the West Coast without being slowed by the burden of rent. It's something he's frequently been asked about, including on the YouTube series Modern Comedian.
"Even if I had the money, which I don't…it's hard for me to justify paying the expense of Los Angeles rent when I'm rarely in town or at home," he said on an episode of that show. "It's where the brilliant idea of living in a van came from. Until I get to where I want to be in my career—and I don't necessarily know where that is—I don't want to be too comfortable. I feel like if you're too comfortable, you take your foot off the gas, and I don't want to do that. The van is definitely a constant reminder of how I'm not where I want to be yet."
Stone's act is a careful application of Southern charm, though he prefers to be known as a "comedian from the South" rather than a "Southern comedian," a la the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. His carefully applied self-deprecation makes his kinship with Kinane, who gained fame by targeting tweets at Pace salsa, seem obvious. It's also an extension of his philosophy.
"It definitely makes you change your perspective," Stone says. "To give you a comedy analogy, in joke writing they say you always want to trim the fat. What part of this joke is unnecessary? Just get to the core necessity of this joke and why it's funny. Vandwelling taught me the same exact thing in my life. I realized I didn't need certain things—I didn't need nice clothes, cable TV, or even an apartment. I just needed a way to sustain myself and be in this town. That's where the van came in. At first it was a little depressing, like, 'Oh, I'm so abnormal, here I am in this town where vanity and materialism are so prevalent on every corner.' But I know I don't need any of that shit. I'm not living in a van because I'm a heroin addict. I'm living in a van because I'm executing a plan."
His advice, then, is simple: "Don't let anything stand in your way. Figure out a way to make it happen. And keep a pee jug nearby."
GO: The Bridgetown Comedy Festival runs Thursday-Sunday, May 8-11. Dave Stone appears four times: White Owl Social Club, 10 pm Thursday; Bossanova, midnight Friday; Alhambra Theatre Lounge, 9 pm Saturday; Hawthorne Theatre Lounge, 9 pm Sunday. For more information, visit bridgetowncomedy.com.