Starting out sucks. If I could skip all the failure and uncertainty and powerlessness I feel when trying something new, I would. Fuck learning, let’s get to the glory. But even the greats had to start somewhere. Before Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and got his portrait on money, he was an ugly, depressed kid in the rural Midwest. Before Kim Kardashian turned fucking an R&B singer into a hundred million dollars, she was Paris Hilton’s whipping boy or whatever. And before Andrew Dice Clay sold out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row, he was Andrew Silverstein, a nobody in search of a persona, bombing in front of grim-faced fellow aspiring standups in outer borough dive bars, just another wannabe at an open mic.
I’m not ambitious enough to run for office and I don’t know Kanye West, so I’m learning how to do standup comedy. At least once a week I practice at one of New York City’s many open mic events. I go to a bar or comedy club and wait for my turn to recite whatever notes I typed into my phone to a barely listening audience hoping that one of these ideas might be funny. I watch other comedians do the same. Some of these comedians are working comics trying out new material. Others, like me, are just starting out. All of these comics are telling raw and often unfunny jokes. These events happen every day of the week, from the middle of the afternoon to late at night. They are usually attended by approximately two dozen comics who perform for two to six minutes each. Laughs are fleeting and sporadic, but occasionally a fortunate comic will have a moment of clarity and allow some killer bit to break through for a few glorious seconds.
Open mics are a place where a need for therapy is both met and created. The comedians who attend them are depressive, anxious, insecure misfits who are terrified of failure, embarrassment, and being judged. These are guys who will whip their dicks out and say “isn’t it small?” I know, because I am one of these dudes and I suffer from all of these emotional afflictions, if not the physical ones. But I’m not the only one. Like them, I am spurred to do something that magnifies and intensifies the same traits that I spend the rest of my time trying to get away from.
It’s the week before school starts in January 2012. I moved back to Brooklyn a few days earlier, and I have the evening free. So I’ve decided that tonight is the night I make my standup debut.
“What am I gonna do?” runs through my mind continuously.
“You’re gonna fuck this up,” I answer.
“Oh, right. Why do I want to do this, then?” I ask myself.
“Let’s go down the list,” I answer. “One, you think you’re funny. Two, you want people to pay attention to you, but you want to control why and how. Three, you have no marketable skills other than writing, but writing doesn’t offer much instant gratification. Because four, you love instant gratification. This is the only action you can think of that combines all these things.”
“Huh. That makes sense, I guess. Can I ask you something else?”
“Do I want to be Louis C.K.?”
“Of course you want to be Louis C.K.”
“Can I ever be as good as him?”
“Maybe? Don’t get ahead of yourself. But probably not.”
A few hours later, my internal conversation has turned into a one-line monologue: “Don’t forget your material.” I repeat my jokes aloud over and over as I pace around my empty apartment, and whisper them to myself as I ride the train to The Creek and The Cave, a Long Island City bar with a late night Wednesday open mic that I’ve chosen to take my standup virginity. I’m going to this particular bar for two reasons: one, it has an important place in recent comedy history, as successful young comedians like Donald Glover and Aubrey Plaza started out there, and two, it’s a couple of blocks away from a coffee shop I was fired from. I’ll show them.
It’s eleven o’clock on a windy January night, the kind of night that freezes your pants and makes walking painful, and I see no other people as I trudge from the train to the bar. No one would think it was weird if I turned around and ran back down the stairs to the train, because no one would see. But I stay the course, and soon I’m in a small, cat pee-scented basement lounge writing my name on a slip of paper and dropping it in a lottery bucket. About thirty-five other people are there, mostly men in their twenties and early thirties. There are a handful of women and one fiftyish gentleman who I will later find out has to drive back to Long Island to take care of his kids. Some guys make fun of each other in a just-kidding-but-not-really way. Others stand awkwardly by themselves. All of them are comics waiting for stage time.
I sit on a couch, my shaking hands gripping the Diet Coke I’m sipping to keep some moisture in my mouth, and watch dude after dude talk about his problems. “Okay,” I think, “I’m pretty sure my masturbation joke will go over better than his. Oh, shit, this guy’s lonely the same way I’m lonely. Now I can’t tell my loneliness jokes.” The show’s hostess has provided a bucket of free beer to the comics, which I can’t stop looking at enviously. A drink would calm my nerves, but I can’t have one. My purpose here, in addition to doing comedy, is to not drink.
A guy forgets what he’s saying and is silent for what feels like twelve hours. There are maybe eight genuine laughs the whole night. After twenty-eight comics, I’m still waiting for my name to be called. “This is it,” I think. “This is happening.” Finally, the hostess calls my name with a note of “let’s get this over with” in her voice. I know how she feels. It’s time.
Every comic has his or her origin story. All of these tales have the same structure: some need was going unfulfilled until the person got onstage and found the only place he or she felt at home. I don’t know if standup is my calling. I’m too new at it to tell. But I certainly know a lot about unfulfilled need.
I grew up in Rosendale, New York, a small town two hours and a million miles away from the city. Rosendale is a decaying former limestone-mining town of six thousand people, one main street, and not a lot to do. There are four gas stations along a half-mile stretch of Route 32, the state highway that runs along the periphery of town. Rosendale is a place for passing through on the way to somewhere else.
I was a somewhat weird kid. I had been to therapy for two separate issues by the time I was eight: occupational therapy for my motor skills and talk therapy for my coping skills. I couldn’t tie my shoes or let my mommy out of my sight. But I could make people laugh. I had a precocious vocabulary and an imagination that tended toward absurdity. Teachers and moms loved me, and my classmates thought I was funny enough that I didn’t get bullied despite being small and sensitive.
By the time I began high school I had started a band. We were called Preferably Tapioca, and I was the singer. For a high school band, we were pretty good. We won a few Battle of the Bands and recorded an album called The Girl Scout Pocket Songbook. Most people knew me as a quiet, polite, nice boy. But when they saw me onstage shrieking like Black Francis and twitching like David Byrne, they saw something unexpected. A mild-mannered reporter goes into a phone booth, a charismatic and capable superhero comes out. I loved having a surprising side. And writing lyrics was cathartic. Being onstage felt comfortable. While the rest of the band was tuning between songs, I would banter with the crowd and try to make them laugh. I still remember some of the things I said that got laughs: “shut up, Max, I’ve seen your MySpace!” “What are you all doing here? Go home and read Harry Potter.” “YEAH!” (shouted very sarcastically after a tepid response to a song).
My first band practice was in December 2003, and I got drunk for the first time in January 2004. That night my cousins and I drank some old whiskey we found in my basement. My cousin Kevin passed out and I put a spoon in his butt crack, which judging by my other cousin Jay’s response is still maybe the funniest thing I’ve ever done.
Alcohol made me into a person I was more comfortable being. I loved the instant gratification, the ease with which it allowed me to interact with and be accepted by strangers, and the vacations from anxiety it gave me. It was such a good feeling that I wanted all the time. It allowed the chattering Robin Williams routine that is my inner monologue to move at a much cooler, more Dave Chappelle-ian pace. I was funnier, more relaxed, more personable. To a point. I would inevitably get weird.
At one memorable rum-drunk school dance, I danced with the prom queen, made friends with strangers from neighboring schools, and tricked my friend Riley into taking boner pills I had stolen from the doctor’s office where I worked. A funny teen sex comedy prank. Unfortunately, after the first few relaxing drinks, my behavior took a turn for the gross. The dance ended with me knocking pictures of Hillary Clinton off the restaurant wall and cutting my hand, and then leaving to sit alone in the passenger seat of someone else’s car until my friend took me home, where my dad smelled my breath and yelled at me. “I can’t trust you at all,” he said. “What’s the matter with you? You like being a fuckup?” I wrote a song about that night called “Get Sloppy.”
I graduated high school in 2008. The band broke up and I moved to New York City for college. I was eighteen, aimless, lonely, and my drinking started escalating. The depression and anxiety that had always existed inside me attached themselves to women, feelings of inadequacy, insufficient funds, etc. I went home in the summer of 2009 and couldn’t find anything to do. I applied for a job cleaning rat cages at a science lab and didn’t get hired. So I drank to pass the time. It seemed like the only option.
In August I moved into an apartment in Bushwick that had two twenty-four hour bodegas that didn’t card at the closest intersection. I also started regularly attending improv shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, where the performers’ wit and fearlessness blew me away. My roommate had done some comedy in his hometown, and he regaled me with tales of killing onstage and writing hilarious sketches with his friends. I had always enjoyed comedy, but now I was becoming fixated on it. I started writing jokes but never told them to anyone. I was too afraid to even mention that I wanted to try comedy. What if someone hears my jokes and doesn’t laugh?
The story of the addict comedian has been a cliché since at least when Lenny Bruce was found naked on his bathroom floor. There’s a famous picture of his body gleaming under the flashbulb, a syringe and a burnt bottle cap next to him, dead from a morphine overdose in the Hollywood Hills at the age of 40. Since then, it feels like every comedian has had some struggle with drugs and/or alcohol. Some survived and came out the other side with stories to tell: Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine and drinking Bacardi 151, and ran screaming out into his quiet suburban street in Northridge, California. Two years later, during what may be the greatest standup special ever, Live on the Sunset Strip, he waved a lit match and said “what’s that? Richard Pryor running down the street.” During a blackout, Rob Delaney crashed a car into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He woke up in jail with two broken arms and both knees ripped open to the bone. He’s now Twitter’s greatest Tweeter, one of comedy’s foremost one-liner craftsmen. Moshe Kasher had been in and out of rehab three times before he turned sixteen. He recently published an uproarious memoir called Kasher in the Rye that I hope does well, so when I pitch this project to publishers I can say my book is like his.
Others didn’t make it. John Belushi and Chris Farley are linked inextricably as the saddest clowns, the fat guys from SNL who died after shooting speedballs. Sam Kinison had maybe the weirdest drug-and-alcohol related death of any comedian. He claimed to have gotten sober in 1990, but cocaine and Valium were found in his system when he died in a car crash on April 10, 1992. His car was hit when a 17-year-old drunk driver crossed over the center line. He was an addict who died from alcohol, but not directly. I’m still gonna count it. Greg Giraldo died of a prescription drug overdose on September 29, 2010, my 21st birthday. I spent that night in a blackout. I’d started drinking at home alone, and then was late to my own birthday dinner that I had organized. All my friends were there, and I had a terrible time, because I thought I got stressed out in social situations (I didn’t really get more stressed out than anyone else. What I actually always did was find excuses to drink more). I ate half of my steak and took the rest to go, which I lost at some point. My cousin’s boyfriend gave me $10 to take a cab home, which I probably used to buy more alcohol, because I didn’t have it the next day. I have a vague memory of getting thrown out of the Bushwick Country Club. At some point I drunk dialed my mother, who told me the next day that my speech was incoherent and the only thing she could understand was a bus driver yelling at me. It was a rough night. Meanwhile, 40 miles away at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Greg Giraldo was taken off life support and died. He had been in a coma since he was found unresponsive in his hotel room on the 25th. He had no-showed two performances, one of which was a recovery benefit.
This is what happens. Alcoholics and addicts either get sober or die. Comedians are not exempt. And it was starting to seem like I was going to die before I got a chance to be a comedian. So now I’m trying to join the lineage of alcoholic comedians, one way or another. I’m either going to stay clean, like Delaney or Kasher, or, best case scenario, I’m going to die in a New Jersey hotel room.
Giraldo was the perfect gone-too-soon comedian. He had a devoted and sizable cult, but he wasn’t a superstar. He was talented, but no one believes he had realized his full potential. His death was shocking, but not entirely unexpected. He was exactly the type of comedian whose death is made into a symbol by writers trying to use someone else’s misfortune to make a self-serving point about comedy and tragedy.
I don’t want to die from drugs or alcohol. But if it happens, I want to leave something behind. I don’t want to die before I give myself a chance. I’d rather die like Greg Giraldo than die like Liam Mathews circa 2010.
I drank myself out of New York City before I got a chance to try comedy. There are approximately three consecutive days in November of 2010 that I only remember snapshots of. I remember meeting a friend for brunch on a Sunday morning. The restaurant was chaotic and my hangover was like influenza and my omelet tasted like I had already thrown it up. I couldn’t handle it. I went home to do some work, but I stopped at the bodega and bought some beer on the way. This was the first time I drank in the morning. I remember sitting at my desk, drinking, telling myself I was going to start writing when I finished this beer. And that’s the last thing I remember for awhile.
Other flickers of memory from those days: turning my phone off. Putting a sheet over my bedroom window. Pretending I wasn’t there when my roommate knocked on the door, going so far as to hide under the bed. Lying on the couch, feeling sorry for myself.
On Wednesday morning there was a knock on the apartment door. I mustered up the courage to answer it. It was my cousin, who lived downstairs from me. She told me that my mother had called her, crying, almost beside herself, because she couldn’t get ahold of me. So I called my father, because I would not be able to talk to Mom.
He answered on the first ring.
“Hello.” His voice was hard.
I wanted to say, “Dad, please help me. I’m out of control. I’ve been drinking for days and I can’t handle my life.” What I said, because I’d made my brain stupid, was “hi.”
“What’s going on? Why haven’t you been answering your phone?”
I don’t remember my answer.
There was a long pause on his end.
“Your mother and I are coming to get you. Get ready to go.”
A few hours later, after I had showered and thrown away the bottles and cans and made myself relatively presentable, my parents arrived from Rosendale. As soon as I opened the door and saw my mom’s face, we both started crying. We sat down on the couch and held each other and sobbed, unable to speak. I had a glass of water on the table, which she picked up and sniffed, which annoyed me. Because at this point, I was still telling myself that my problem was depression. Like, if I was drinking, which I wasn’t at that precise moment, it was because I was depressed. Alcohol was part of the solution, not the problem. And I could control it, because I wasn’t drinking. At that precise moment. My dad was in a suit, because he left straight from work to get there. I will never forget the heavy click of his dress shoes as he slowly walked through my apartment, appraising the wreckage I was living in.
I took a leave of absence from school and went home to Rosendale. For the first three months I was home, I only left the house to go to therapy or to the bar. Neither was making me feel any better. I got back the job I’d had in high school and lost it two weeks later.
The only thing that gave me any non-chemical relief was comedy. My daily routine was to wake up around noon, never change out of my pajamas, and play my favorite comedy albums and watch porn. I would listen to Patton Oswalt’s depression commanding him to “put on your bathrobe for eight days straight!” John Mulaney describing blackouts as “when your brain goes to sleep, but your body gets all ‘Eye Of the Tiger’ and keeps going,” and Eugene Mirman fantasizing about employers being okay with his way of saying “thank you” for taking a chance on him, which is to “get drunk and not go to work.” These guys could take their pain and turn it into something funny and cathartic. I wanted to be able to do that. If I couldn’t control my life, I could at least make fun of how shitty it was.
On March 26, 2011, I managed to rouse myself from my in-home viewing booth for long enough to go visit my friend Sarah at Mt. Holyoke College. I was planning to have sex with her roommate Caroline, with whom I had hooked up a few weeks earlier (I was a mess, but I was fuckable). To get in the mood I listened to the Jeremy Irons-read audiobook of Lolita on the drive to Massachusetts. I was wearing my new white acid-wash jeans.
We spent the evening at a house party in Northampton, coincidentally also attended by the aforementioned prom queen, who was a student at UMass. The girls got very drunk, but I was taking it easy because I was driving. I only had a 40 of Olde English. At one point, Caroline and I were standing in the driveway, and she said, “I like to drink in a way that I gives me an idea of what it’s like to be an alcoholic,” which made sense to me. We left the party and went back to their dorm, where I went to work on a six-pack of 18-ounce Narragansetts while Caroline rolled a joint. I didn’t like weed because it made me paranoid and sad, but I still smoked it when I was drunk because I didn’t care. After we smoked, Caroline and Sarah passed out, which was perfect, because I had crossed the alcoholic threshold and I had no control over how much I drank. Sex was no longer a possibility and I could completely devote myself to drinking. I finished off the beer and started on a bottle of Grey Goose I found in Sarah’s freezer. I decided to listen to music, so I poured the rest of the vodka into a travel mug and went out to the car. The last thing I remember was sitting in the passenger seat listening to Iggy Pop.
I woke up at 6:30. “Cool, I’m getting an early start today,” I thought, until I looked at my phone and realized it was PM, not AM. I had a dozen missed calls from Sarah, Caroline, and my parents. I was now in the driver’s seat in a different part of the parking lot than I had been last night. My white acid-wash jeans were covered in slimy brown puke. I fled the scene without telling Sarah and Caroline.
I think had been more than twelve hours since I had passed out, but I was still somewhere between half-drunk and hungover. I was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike when I noticed my rear bumper flapping in the breeze. It was like realizing a three-legged Doberman was chasing me, frightening but also pathetic. I couldn’t go on. I checked into a motel. My phone had died, so I had an excuse not to tell my parents where I was and what had happened. As I lay under the sheets I shivered like I had been rescued from a capsized boat. I watched the news on TV and envied the people who had been murdered that day.
I don’t know why I didn’t get arrested or total the car or kill somebody that night. Maybe if I had done any of these things I would have stopped drinking right then. Instead what happened was that I was scared enough to agree to go to the outpatient treatment program recommended by my parents and my therapist, but not scared enough to stop. I continued to drink for another two months. Group met Monday-Wednesday-Friday, so I would drink those nights and on the weekend so it would be out of my system by the time I was Breathylized. I saw no problem with going to treatment for alcoholism while drinking. I wanted to learn how to drink safely, but I didn’t want to stop.
This is a common desire among alcoholics. There’s a line in the Big Book, AA’s Bible, that says, “if a man can do the right about-face and learn to drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him.” Most alcoholics, whether they’ve read the book or not, feel this sentiment at some point. It’s the point that comes between recognizing that there’s some sort of problem, and then finding a solution to that problem. I still enjoyed drinking every seventh time I did it, so I wanted to make every time like that. I also wanted to not crash my car anymore.
One morning I went into group and admitted that I had, indeed, drank the night before. A sigh of disappointed frustration went through the room. Most frustrated of all was Pete, who looked me in the eye and asked, “do you want to die?”
Pete and I had been friendly before this. He was a comedy fan, and we would quote Mitch Hedburg jokes to each other. His favorite was “I used to do drugs… I still do, but I used to, too.” Mark had been an active alcoholic for thirty years. He was also an HIV-positive heroin addict whose every clean moment was a hard-earned struggle. He had been clean for almost a year at this point, but he still looked fucked up. If he was this unwashed and greasy while living in a house and capable of having a job, he must have been a nightmare when homeless and strung out. He had a mouthful of rotten teeth, a spongy red nose, and a left leg that dragged, giving him an uncertain, perilous limp. His gut always hung out from beneath his ratty black t-shirt.
What I respected about Mark was how realistic he was. I remember him complaining about someone who owed him money, and he said, “I’m angry that I’m forty-five years old and thirty dollars means so much to me at this point in my life.” In a room full of people trying to get custody of their kids back or trying to not go back to prison, the mundane indignity of that complaint stood out as one I could imagine happening to me. Thirty dollars was about a quarter of my net worth. If I continued to live like I was, that figure wasn’t going to change much. Everyone’s story started like mine, with erratic employment and a bad attitude. It became clear that I would not be exempt from hospitals or jail or death.
Mark was a man well acquainted with death. He had alternated between periods of sobriety and relapse for years. His most recent relapse began when he and his sponsor started doing dope together, and ended when his sponsor overdosed and died. The fact that Mark was still alive was unreasonable. So if he saw early death in my future, it must have been a real possibility. He wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t. At that moment, the reality of my situation set in. Depressed people don’t black out and crash cars. People without drinking problems don’t get sent to treatment for alcoholism. I honestly did not understand that concept until that moment. But that day, I accepted the fact that I am an alcoholic, and if I continued to drink, it would kill me. I wasn’t ready to die yet. I still had so much to say about air travel, dating, and the differences between black and white people. That was Wednesday, May 25, 2011. I’ve been sober since. And I started out just tryin’ to fuck.
Those first few months were a time of tremendous growth. I learned how to live a new life. Some days were incredible, and I felt better than I’d ever felt before. I was able to get up early in the morning, eat breakfast without nausea, and go about my business happily and responsibly. The thought of drinking was repulsive. I took a job working as a waiter in a nursing home, which was good for my self-esteem; the old ladies loved me. Other days were awful, and all I wanted to do was drink. I missed it and romanticized it. I would get mental and physical cravings. I would obsess about how I was already a failure: I had ditched school, moved home, was working in a nursing home while my friends were getting record deals or jobs at the New York Times. My life was bullshit. How could drinking make it worse?
As I accumulated days, the bad days and cravings happened with less frequency and were less intense. Today, cravings happen randomly and occasionally and they pass. But there has never been an hour where I haven’t thought about drinking, either positively or negatively. So what does that say about me?
It’s hard to be sober. One thing that’s hard is that I’ve had more energy, and no idea what to do with it. I’ve had to find new ways to pass the time. Doing open mics is a stimulating way to spend an evening.
“Liam Mathews,” says the host of Buckets O’ Buckets at The Creek and The Cave. I get up from my seat in the third row and walk up the aisle. “I can’t believe I have to pee again,” I think. “I just went.”
I place my soda on a table next to the stage. The stage is big for a bar, more like a black box theater than a traditional bar stage. It’s large enough to accommodate a sketch troupe. It’s completely empty except for the mic and the stand. I clamber up to polite applause. I pop the battered SM58 out of its taco-shaped holster and look at the audience. The spotlight is bright and I can only make out the shapes of people in the dark room. Thank God I can’t see their faces. I stand silently and stare for a couple of seconds. I’m hoping to give off a vibe of “I’m not scared of you,” but this pause surely has the opposite effect of making me look terrified. If my silence doesn’t give me away completely, my vibrating hands sure do. I begin.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I say. “’Here’s another Jew, coming up here and trying to tell us jokes.’” Dead silence. This is the set-up, but I expected at least a chuckle. “The thing is, though, I’m not even a little Jewish. There is not a drop of chosen blood in my veins.” This line may have gotten one small laugh, but I don’t remember exactly. All I can see is the bright white light, and all I can hear is the slight echo of my amplified voice. I’m holding the mic in my right hand, and I have no recollection of what my left hand was doing. I continue.
“People think I’m Jewish all the time, because, apparently, I conform to many Jewish stereotypes,” I say. “I love bagels with lox and a schmear, I love to kvetch, and I love the films of Woody Allen and the music of Steely Dan.” The part about Steely Dan is completely unplanned and I have no idea what it is supposed to mean. Do Jews like Steely Dan? Apparently I think they do. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, because nobody laughs. “I don’t like not touching women, but with the amount and frequency that it does happen, my name may as well be Rabbi Menachem Schneerstein.”
I was certain that this line would be hilarious. I had written it months ago, and had been waiting for precisely this moment. This was going to be the moment in my set where people went, “this kid’s got something.”
Okay, so that didn’t work. But this next line surely will, because my friend laughed when I said it to him:
“But, there are two main things that make me not Jewish: I love bacon and I love my foreskin. You see, when I play penis guns, I have a silencer – pshew pshew!” I make a gesture like my dick is a handgun.
There is a single sharp guffaw that sounds more like a laugh of derision than amusement. The joke is over forever.
“Is it weird to masturbate to dead actresses?” is how I start the next joke. I feel weird saying it, and I feel that the audience doesn’t want to go there with me. There’s a squirm of uncomfortable energy through the room. I realize immediately that this joke does not need to start so graphically. It’s not even a masturbation joke. So I start thinking about how I’ll do it differently next time while I’m doing it the first time.
“I was watching 8 Mile with Brittany Murphy,” I say, when someone in the audience goes, “yeah!” I can’t tell if he’s being supportive or heckling me, so I say, “you’re a Brittany Murphy fan, huh?” and move on. He may have said, “she’s hot!” or he may have said nothing. Either way, I’m even more rattled now. The words I’m saying stop coming from my head. I have very little control, and I stammer a little bit.
“Yeah, so, yeah, I was, I was watching 8 Mile, with Brittany Murphy, and I started thinking about Scarlett Johansson,” I say, “and it’s such a shame that she’s dead.” I feel a little perk of interest, so I keep going.
“Remember when she was in The Horse Whisperer, and she was just a kid, and then she did Lost In Translation and she was so beautiful and soulful and so clearly going to be a huge star, and now all of that potential is gone, and she’s buried in the ground.”
There isn’t laughter, exactly, but there’s some kind of eye-rolling appreciation from half the crowd. The other half is confused. I’m amused by this confusion. I got the reaction I was looking for, so I’m having fun. This bit is working, I think. There’s something here.
“And she died on the set of her last movie, We Bought A Zoo.” I’m still not sure what’s funny to me about this. Is the fact that We Bought A Zoo would have been her last movie what’s funny, and this is a joke about the futility of artistic creation when faced with the inevitability of death, or am I just allowing the ridiculousness of the title to be a punchline? Again, it doesn’t matter, because no one laughs. Fuck ‘em, though. This is funny.
“Okay, that’s it.” I get off the stage and return to my seat. There may have been some more polite applause. I’m still shaking. No one looks at me, and I don’t try to talk to anyone. I notice that I’ve left my soda on the table next to the stage. I’m embarrassed. I hope no one else notices.
There are a few more guys, and then the show ends. It’s one AM, and all the tired, slump-shouldered comics silently file out onto the sidewalk. I light a cigarette and call my sponsor as I walk back to the train. He doesn’t pick up, so I leave a message on his voicemail.
“I just did it,” I say. “Wow. I did it.”
I had been waiting for years. It took two minutes. I’ve done standup comedy for the first time.
I’m sitting on the bench waiting for the train when a guy from the show sits down next to me. He’s wearing headphones and reading a chemistry textbook, and is off in his own dejected head somewhere. He bombed terribly with some jokes about how girls don’t like him even though he made a bunch of money trading stocks.
“Rough night tonight,” I say.
“Yeah, it’s like that a lot,” he says. “Comedy is really hard.”
“Tonight was my first time,” I tell him.
“You’re fucking with me,” he answers. “Really? Congratulations.” He doesn’t mean this, I know, because I did better than him.
“It takes three years to get comfortable on stage, and then another four to get good,” he tells me.
“How long have you been doing it?”
The conversation awkwardly trails off, as so many between open mic-ers do. I go home and write some notes, what worked, what didn’t, and get ready to go again tomorrow.
I wish this story ended differently than it does.
You just read that sentence and thought, “oh no! He relapsed!” I didn’t; I just started like that to freak you out. In the comedy business, we call that a misdirect.
But I wish I could tell you that my standup career is taking off. It’s not. I don’t do comedy as often as I’d like. You won’t read my name on any “Hottest Young Comics” lists or catch me at a club near you. The evenings I’d like to spend doing standup get derailed by AA meetings. Fortunately, I get to practice anyway.
When I tell you, “AA meetings and open mics are exactly the same,” know that I did not originate that concept. At the first open mic I went to as an audience member and not a participant I heard a guy say that. No one laughed, because it wasn’t funny. It was – it is – almost a premise for a joke. But on its own, it’s too plain a statement of fact. It’s not a funny observation, just a true one. That guy was unsuccessful at comedy, but he was dead-on at life. So I plagiarized his material. Not for my standup. I would never do that. But in life, as a statement that encapsulates the important things in my life, I’ve written my name on it and claimed it as my own.
AA meetings and open mics: both are places where people gather to talk about their day. In AA meetings, the filter is “this is what happened to me today through how it relates to my alcoholism. I wanted to drink, or I behaved alcoholically, and I overcame it this way.” In open mics, it’s “this is the funniest version of what happened to me today.” Everyone waits for their turn to speak, and when they’re up, they try to fit what they have to say into the time limit, which is usually three minutes at meetings and five minutes at open mics. With both it’s always the same core group, with new people constantly coming in and heading out. Members get to know other members intimately in a very specific way. In meetings, I get to know the depths of people’s emotions, fears and traumas and triumphs, without ever learning their last names. In mics, I become fully acquainted with people’s points of view, their opinions, dislikes, and passions, without ever having had a conversation with them. The ultimate goal in meetings and mics is the same: to connect with other human beings, and through connecting with them, connect to a higher power. In AA, the higher power is a Higher Power, aka God. In open mics, the higher power is laughter (some comics say “I swear to George Carlin” when they’re being serious, because “I swear to God” means they’re lying). Mics and meetings are the inverse of each other: open mics are full of drinking, and not necessarily funny, and AA meetings, supposedly devoid of drinking, are usually hilarious.
I once heard a guy in a meeting say, “I’ve had the worst week of my life. On Monday, I went over to a woman from Craigslist’s house, because my wife won’t have sex with me anymore. I need release! I got there, and she was about twenty years old. She was too young. So I left. The day after that, I deadlifted 400 pounds and got a hernia. My ball is the size of a grapefruit. Yesterday, I went back to the Craigslist bitch’s house. I’m entitled to change my mind. Whatever. But then, when she saw my swollen-ass nut, she wouldn’t fuck me. So now my balls are hurting and I still need release!” This man did a professional-quality standup routine in the voice of a character that it would take a working comedian years to flesh out, and he was just being himself. The layers of his character and the complexities of his storytelling weren’t an act. He didn’t need to pretend, because his life is semi-intentionally funny enough. I’ve never seen as complete a performance at an amateur standup show. He killed effortlessly.
I've never killed at an open mic. I’ve gotten laughs, but I’ve never had an audience locked in, hanging on my every word, howling with laughter. But I have killed at an AA meeting.
I always start my shares with a joke: “I stopped growing at fourteen, both spiritually and physically,” or “it’s good to be here in a Catholic church, because the Catholic church has done more to contribute to alcoholism than maybe any other institution, and it’s nice to see them trying to help for once.”
Some things get big laughs in the meeting that would never work onstage. Take the phrase “I started eating a lot of beets so I could convince myself that that was why my shit was red, and not because I was bleeding internally.” I heard a friend of mine say this in a meeting and crack everyone up for a good twenty seconds. I heard him say this in conversation with a non-alcoholic and get a horrified stare in return. There’s a “you had to be there” quality to a lot of alcoholic humor. Certain experiences are unique to alcoholics, but all alcoholics have had them. Waking up under a bush is terrible, but looking back, recovering alcoholics can see how ridiculous and absurd it was. Things that weren’t funny when they happened become comedy when they’re retold in a roomful of people who had the same shit happen and felt the same way about it. It’s the laughter of people who don’t have to cry anymore.
So that’s where I’m practicing my standup: “in the rooms.” I’m learning how to talk about my life and my feelings in a way that people can relate to. Every day I get better at articulating my alcoholic experiences. And as I get better, I’ll get better at articulating experiences from the totality of my life. And then I’ll appeal to more people and get better at comedy. That’s the plan, at least.
The best comedy tool I’ve learned from sharing in AA meetings is a tricky one: speak from the heart. Before I open my mouth, I have an idea of what I want to say. Maybe a phrase, maybe just an idea. But I don’t know how I’m going to get there. It’s only through the talking that I start to figure it out. And it’s only from being listened to that I can make anyone else understand what I mean. AA meetings have taught me how to keep material fresh. Improvise, riff on a theme. Don’t recite the material from memory. It gets stale that way. The material has to be lived with, the way emotions have to be. That’s what honesty means in the rooms. Always, always speak honestly. It doesn’t work otherwise.
I sat in a car and told my sponsor every shameful, embarrassing, borderline criminal thing I ever did. Except the time in middle school I smashed my thumb with a hammer to avoid playing a saxophone solo I hadn’t practiced for. I forgot to tell him that. But now I’ve confessed it here, so everything is out. I talk to this man almost daily. He does not use anything I’ve told him against me. So why should I be scared to tell strangers about some shit I made up? Or about some shit that really happened? AA has made me unafraid to speak to whomever about anything.
The last time I spoke I did pretty well. It was on a Sunday night, the second best night for open mics in the city (the best night is Tuesday, probably because it’s an off-night for bars). But I wasn’t at any of the mics; I was at the detox at Beth Israel, performing for an audience of eight, some of whom were nodding off. Since the lights were on and heckling was encouraged, apparently, I got to know everybody pretty well.
My entrance entailed getting buzzed in through a locked door into the detox ward on the ninth floor. I was going to literally have a captive audience. A staff member led me down the hall to rec room where the meeting was to be held. I noticed out the window the beautiful view of the sun setting over Manhattan. A patient was in the room watching The Simpsons, and I felt bad about making her turn it off. The woman who brought me in made an announcement over the loudspeaker, “the AA meeting is here. Everyone who wants to attend, please proceed to the rec room.” Slowly the patients shuffled in. They were all in sorry shape, which was no surprise, considering the fact that they were withdrawing from drugs and alcohol. I could tell this was not going to be easy. How would my story, which is short, with a relatively high bottom (meaning I was never imprisoned or shot or had any unimaginably fucked up things happen to me [although maybe it’s all unimaginable until it happens, and then it’s like, “oh, that’s no big deal”]), mean anything to these people who are so different from me? Because they were different in every observable way: brown skin, gray hair, missing teeth, hospital gowns and slippers, hard or distant eyes. What could I say?
I started at the top: my name, my sober date, how happy I am to be here and thank you for welcoming me. I guess I seemed unsure of myself, because a Ray Liotta lookalike with his scrub shirt open to show off his bony chest said “don’t be nervous.” Immediately my guard went up, because a few minutes earlier I heard this guy say “who fuckin’ farted?” and pull his gown up over his nose. A wiseguy, in both smartass and mobster terms. But then I thought, “no, we’re all in here together. This man is my brother, and I want to do well for him, just like he wants me to do well for myself.” I didn’t actually think such a corny thought, but that’s the mentality that gets me through interruptions and assaults on my ego.
“Do I seem nervous?” I said. “I don’t feel nervous.” By this point that was true. I started to get more invested in telling my story.
I told the story that you’ve just read. I talked about how uncomfortable I felt as a kid. How the inside of my head was a scary, anxious place that I needed to escape from. When I discovered alcohol, I found the solution. I told an anecdote about a very fun night drinking in the woods with my friends until I threw up spaghetti, got really sad, and passed out. I talked about the escalation and the isolation. I talked about the morning my parents came to take me home from New York, my mom crying and my dad walking slowly through my apartment. When I got to the part about crashing my car, a woman interrupted me and said, “God kept you safe.” I nodded.
When I was talking about being in treatment, a dazed old man who had been shambling in and out of the room like the ghost of a zombie tried to sit down and missed his chair. He hit the floor, and I thought “I’ve seen this disruption before, at Standup NY. How do I address it?” I asked, “are you alright?” as Ray Liotta helped him up.
“Yup,” he mumbled. I went back to my story.
At this point I was at the Steps. I talked about Step One and the necessity of admitting my powerlessness over alcohol, about how once I start drinking, I have no control over how much I drink. I talked about Steps Two and Three and my spiritual development. I talked about all the things I’ve gotten, and how I’ve gotten it entirely as a result of AA. When I said, “I’m graduating from college next month,” they applauded. I said how grateful I am. When it was over, everyone had kind words for me, and they all talked about various points of my story they related to. I’d been worried for no reason. All alcoholics have the same feelings, even if the details are different.
This is how I practice standup comedy, even if I’m sitting down and not being funny. I practice telling the truth. If I can speak in this room, I can speak in a club. I feel comfortable doing it. I’m doing what feels right and is right.
The only thing worse than starting something new is staying in the same place forever. Move forward. Or as my sponsor tells me, “you have to change, or else you’ll drink again, and you will die.”
And I’m not tryin’ to die right now.