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Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Using Comedy to Help Overcome Addiction

Welcome to the latest installment of Tragedy Plus Time. Each segment will focus on a particular ‘life crisis’ — sometimes globally tragic, sometimes more of a personal affair — and we’ll explore how many of the comedians we know and love have dealt with it.

Though no one has proved it scientifically, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the connection between creative types and recreational drug use. Whether it’s an openness to new experiences, a desire to numb the pain, or just the absence of a reason to get up early the next morning, many artists find themselves indulging at some point in their life. What starts as experimentation can slowly lead to regular use, which can, and often does, lead to addiction.

Comedians are especially susceptible to this behavior, if for nothing other than the fact that bad decisions can often lead to some great material. And while there’s no shortage of hilarious or fascinating stories about all night benders, bad LSD trips or stoner misadventures, there’s an obvious dark side for anyone who doesn’t know when enough is enough.

We’re going to look at five comedians who’ve all dealt with the struggle of addiction in their own unique way, and have come out of it changed for the better.

Marc Maron Apologizes Profusely
There are some who get intoxicated in the company of others and are seen as the life of the party. And there are others that are just seen as pricks. The latter is apparently true for Marc Maron, who spent 25 years trying to make it as a comedian while also dealing with his own self-destructive impulses. Drugs and alcohol were a form of self-medication that did nothing good for his career or his relationships with fellow comedians.

After quitting nicotine, cocaine and alcohol in 1999, Maron has slowly started coming to terms with his personal issues (though plenty of them still remain), and has found tremendous success for the first time in his career in his virtual confessional known as the WTF Podcast.

The podcast has become the primary source for deep insight into minds of other comedians. He’s able to tap into their dark sides: what makes them hurt, what makes them scared, things they’d never share on stage. He touches on topics most interviewers politely stay away from, or those being interviewed would otherwise decline to answer.

The trick to pulling this off involves a comfortable, cameraless environment, well-crafted interviews, and most importantly, the neurotic host who starts each episode baring his soul to his audience, and then later to person he’s interviewing. If his guest is a comedian he’s known from back in the day, he’ll ask them: ‘hey, was I ever an asshole to you?’ and depending on the answer, he’ll follow it up with an apology or a self-deprecating joke. It’s a philosophy not altogether different from Alcoholics Anonymous, and it’s no understatement to say that the podcast has been life-altering for him, career-wise and beyond:

"Because of sobriety and because of the process of the podcast, I was now talking to my peers about things that were important to me, and they turned out to be important to them too. Through the podcast, I was able to sort of reintegrate myself into the community, change my peers' attitudes about me as well as my own attitudes about myself, be a little more accepting of myself and what I was really feeling, and also knowing that it was relatable. So the biggest changes in my career — creatively, professionally, personally, and emotionally — really took place in the last couple of years."

Though the obvious reason to perform comedy is for the rewarding (and in its own way, very much addictive) laughter, there is also a catharsis that comes in letting the world hear and share some of the pain in your life. Marc Maron doubled down on this feeling, sharing an endless supply of personal troubles without worrying about the laughter at all. The move has turned his life around, and with an endless supply of problems to share, and other comedians to poke and prod, he’ll never be at a loss for new material.

Maron’s podcast (which will likely be referenced many more times in this series) can be found here. He also has a new memoir coming out later this year.

Craig Ferguson Feels Your Pain
After a night of reckless drinking that ended in a total blackout and a mysterious bruise on his forehead, Craig Ferguson vowed to give up alcohol forever. He was fourteen years old at the time. Unfortunately, the vow didn’t stick. Instead, a lifelong troubled relationship with alcohol was born.

As Ferguson was building his career as a comedian, he was also using alcohol to fight off his inner demons. On Christmas morning in 1991 he woke up in a storage room over a bar covered in his own vomit and urine. Divorced, depressed, and broke, he decided that he was going to kill himself that day, jumping off the Tower Bridge in London. The only reason he says he didn’t was because someone else insisted on having a drink with him as he attempted to leave the bar:

“This time I would not mess up. I would walk to Tower Bridge and swan-dive into the Thames. Except I hadn’t figured on one thing. The landlord, Tommy, had slept in the bar. He was awake when I was trying to exit the building and my life. ‘Where are you going?’ he said. I saw he had poured us both glasses of sherry. I didn’t want to be rude. God help me but I can still taste how wondrous that sherry felt going down. >As the warmth spread through me as if from a thousand loving suns, I completely forgot about killing myself. And I don’t even like sherry.”

Alcohol saved Ferguson from an untimely death that day, as it slowly continued to ruin his ongoing life. He managed to finally swear off alcohol forever a little over a year later on February 18th, 1992. His career took off shortly after he moved to Los Angeles and started to gain momentum as a standup comedian and actor in the United States, eventually becoming the host of the Late Late Show on CBS.

In February of 2007, several opening monologue jokes (the staples of any good late night talk show) were handed to Ferguson and his writing staff on a silver platter when Britney Spears began a series of bizarre antics, shaving her head and checking in and out of various rehab clinics. As it was also the fifteenth anniversary of his sobriety, Ferguson decided to avoid the easy punchlines and instead explain to the audience exactly why he wasn’t going to make fun of her. He went on to tell an incredibly personal story, admitting to his own struggles that persisted to that very day. If you watch no other videos from this piece, definitely watch this one:

Even after fifteen years of staying clean, it seems the mind of a former alcoholic is still tempted in a way that defies all logic:

“Alcohol ruined me financially and morally, broke my heart and the hearts of too many others. Even though it did this to me and it almost killed me and I haven't touched a drop of it in seventeen years, sometimes I wonder if I could get away with drinking some now. I totally subscribe to the notion that alcoholism is a mental illness because thinking like that is clearly insane.”

Ferguson recounts many of his struggles with alcohol, drugs, and of course, life itself in his 2010 memoir American On Purpose.

Richard Pryor Stops Running From Himself
Legendary comedian Richard Pryor was as open about his supposed recreational use of drugs and alcohol as he was about everything else. But there was a life-changing incident on June 9th, 1980 when, while drinking 151 proof rum and freebasing cocaine, he somehow managed to light himself on fire. He tells the story in a famous bit during his 1982 Live On The Sunset Strip set, detailing what it was like to fear for your life, running around like a madman while engulfed in flames:

The bit is hilarious, in part because it feels emotionally honest, something that Pryor had always been praised for. But he glosses over why the whole situation happened in the first place, joking that he was simply dunking a cookie into some low-fat, pasteurized milk. Naturally the audience can infer that Pryor was probably not sober by the time there was fire involved that night. But he’s glossing over more than just the drugs and alcohol in the room and in his system at the time. In an interview with Barbara Walters four years later, he confesses (after lying to her in a previous interview) that he was actually contemplating suicide when he purposefully lit himself on fire:

Pryor admits to a deep feeling of shame at the realization that despite how successful and lucky he’d been, he still couldn’t shake his addiction. Even after nearly burning himself alive, he still found himself going back to drugs. He lamented having the money to purchase a limitless supply of them. Eventually he had to admit to himself that he had a problem, and combined with AA and a new wife and child, at that moment he finally seemed ready to take responsibility for his actions and deal with his addiction.

The entire interview above is worth watching for this rarely seen humble, candid version of Pryor. At 5:35 Barbara Walters asks him: ‘do you think you need problems your life to be funny?’ He quickly brushes off the question (which is a shame because it’s a good one, for any comedian), but it does lead to a very honest confession about his own self-hatred:

“I have found that most people like me who become successful always feel like it’s a cheat like they pulled something over on somebody…and there’s somebody gonna chase ya. You know? And I always used to feel that some day they were gonna catch me. Well, the thing I was running from caught me. And it was me.”

Pryor may have kicked drugs, but sadly, less than a year after the interview he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or M.S. (“more shit,” as Pryor called it) and had to largely retire from comedy until his death in 2005.

Mike DeStefano Becomes A Part Of The Healing Process
“I am a stand-up comic. Before that, I was a drug counselor. Before that, I was a drug addict. Before that, I was 12.”

While turning a crappy life into hilarious material is part of every comedian’s manifesto, Mike DeStefano made a surprisingly smooth transition from a place much lower than most people start. Hooked on heroin at fifteen years old, it wasn’t until fifteen years later — a full second lifetime for him — that he was able to kick his habit and start turning his life around. He started his post-addiction life off as a drug counselor in Florida, but once he started speaking in front of others, he discovered he had a knack for making people laugh.

DeStefano started performing stand up full time, using his dark past and his addiction for material as he toured the standup circuit making a name for himself. After appearing on Comedy Central’s Live At Gotham, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, he had his biggest break yet on Season 7 of Last Comic Standing, where he ultimately finished in 4th place.

While it would have been easy enough to tell endless jokes about the junkie he used to be, DeStefano never fully abandoned his post as a drug counselor, performing at over 100 substance recovery events over the years. He branded himself as a ‘recovery comic,’ and later would go on to executive produce and perform in ‘Comics Anonymous’ a show with several other comedians who had all been sober for 10 years or more. The special was dedicated to comedian Greg Giraldo, who had recently died of a drug overdose.

Tragically, DeStefano suffered a heart attack at the age of 44 on March 6, 2011. He was just days away from performing in a one man show entitled ‘A Cherry Tree In The Bronx.’ Though his life was cut short, he left behind a legacy of a gifted man who was able to turn his life around and in the process inspire many others do the same.

Bill Hicks Discovers True Fearlessness
Rebelliousness is the cornerstone of any good comedian. It starts at a young age, seen in the antics of the class clown cracking wise, pulling pranks, or just pointing out the ridiculousness of something normally revered. This spark was especially bright in Bill Hicks, who knew he wanted to be a comedian when he was just thirteen years old. By sixteen he was already on stage performing regularly at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas, honing his craft while many others were just trying to figure out which college they’d be attending.

Hicks was constantly tweaking his act, doing his best to bridge the gap between himself and his idols, like Woody Allen and Richard Pryor. Sober throughout his teens, he started experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms, cigarettes and alcohol seven years into performing comedy once he noticed how much of a component these drugs were with other comedians and their routines. According to his recent documentary, the first night he decided to drink he asked a fellow comedian what he should order, and was recommended a margarita. He went to the bar, ordered seven margaritas and downed them all, back to back. Then he stumbled up on stage, drunk, and let out a side of himself neither he nor the audience had seen before.

Alcohol lowered Hicks inhibitions and drugs opened his mind, all of which he felt improved his act. A pro-drug routine emerged a short time later, where he wondered aloud to his audience why it was that the fair, objective news never reported on any positive drug stories.

Hicks’ routine had bite now, but he wasn’t as in control as he would have liked to be. During some sets he would just scream, or stumble and stammer on drunk. His behavior got him booted from several clubs. After a few years of watching his career slide steadily downward, he finally had to admit that he was being held back his newfound habit. He quit drinking in February of 1988 and drugs a short time later. He also decided to leave Houston for New York in order to escape the culture that had sucked him in.

After spending six months sober (Hicks claimed he needed that long to be funny again) he re-emerged in the comedy scene with a clear head and a message for the world. Hicks actually did continue smoking (which you’ll notice in just about any video or photo of him), perhaps as the one last addiction he couldn’t shake, or else, just to have one last vice connecting him to his former self. Either way, after this tumultuous period of his life, he finally had found his voice. The rebel inside of him was officially reborn, free of any fears or regrets. Hicks’ new routines were sharp and scathing, speaking out on the topics of free speech, anti-intellectualism, and naturally, drugs. Here’s a great quote that sums up a lot what Bill Hicks had to say:

“If you want to understand a society, take a good look at the drugs it uses. And what can this tell you about American culture? Well, look at the drugs we use. Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.”

Though his material was off-putting to some, many regarded him as one of the most brilliant comedians of our time, and all who knew him were devastated when he passed away in February of 1994 at the age of 32 to pancreatic cancer. His prolific work lives on in various recordings, videos, and the aforementioned documentary on his life. Russell Crowe has also been pegged to direct an upcoming biopic on his life, which, uh, hopefully will be good.

* * *

I should reiterate here that the list is a mere handful of the known, and in most cases openly recovering comics who have dealt with addiction. A handful of well known personalities have died tragically before their time as a result of their addictions. Chris Farley, Greg Giraldo, John Belushi, Mitch Hedberg and Lenny Bruce all warrant mentioning, and several articles on this site have covered their stories in depth. Many other living comedians have or currently do struggle with their own addictions, including, but certainly not limited to: Richard Lewis, Jane Lynch, Andy Dick, Robin Williams, Darrell Hammond, Russell Brand, Artie Lange and Colin Quinn. Though it doesn’t always affect their material, the stories behind each one of them are worth checking out if you’re interested.

Matt Shafeek is a writer and performer living in Astoria, Queens. He performs at the Magnet Theater in NYC, and has blogs about life, productivity, and Batman. His love for comedy is matched only by his love for games. He'd love it if you'd follow him @mattshafeek.

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  • wallrock

    One minor correction: Maron quit smoking but not nicotine.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shaun-Robinson/533145373 Shaun Robinson

      Yeah, he talks about his nicotine lozenges all the time.

  • http://twitter.com/BlackandBlueMan Black and Blue Man

    A very powerful, moving and thought-provoking article.

    The Craig Ferguson video had me in tears.

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  • Asmodeus

    It's such a strange mutual relationship between drugs and comedy. Bill was always in control of his narcotic use but not so much alcohol. Got clean, even quite smoking – then got terminal cancer. Not fair at all. Greg Giraldo had it in him to become Bill Hicks' or even George Carlin's heir apparent but tragically he could not handle all the pressure and drugs overtook him. It rings true with Giraldo as it did with Hicks when in the "American" Doc they say Hicks was, "just too smart for it all."