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.