Depression, Drugs and Stand up Comedy
I started comedy 14 years ago at The Comedy Store, home of some of the darkest, most tortured and most brilliant comedic minds in history. From the age of 15 it was a dream of mine to be a part of the institution that gave the world such geniuses as Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Robin Williams and the list goes on and on. Something always appealed to me about the place and the comedians who came out of it; the rock and roll vibe, the drugs the drinking the unfiltered raw insanity. It was pure, real comedy. And I wanted in. I always believed the greatest artists, comedic or otherwise were dark, depressed and fueled by a death wish.
This belief was shaped by popular culture romanticizing the tortured artist. Tales of the greatest rock stars writing their best songs thanks to such muses as heroin and cocaine. Stories of how the greatest comedians grew up in broken homes, had no friends, lived in abject poverty and only were able to survive by escaping the cruelness of reality with their imagination and humor. They were parts of every story. It seemed like a prerequisite.
As a child, I somewhat identified with these sad, misunderstood creatures. I grew up in a lower-middle class immigrant household in the suburbs of Los Angeles. From the day I started public school I stood out as different. I didn’t have nice clothes, my parents spoke a different language, my ethnic features looked different, I had a different sounding last name. All that coupled with some light molestation left me very confused, angry and afraid and depressed. I was socially awkward and didn’t know what to do. I kept to myself and slowly developed a resentment for anyone or thing that represented a normal state of happiness I thought I could never have. The world was unfair and my way of letting everyone know was by acting out. I yelled at teachers, ditched school smoked cigarettes and by the age of 13 I started drinking alcohol.
Beer was a magic elixir. I didn’t drink it a lot but when I did it gave me confidence to be the person I thought I should be. I was funny and entertaining. I made new friends (mostly other angry troublemakers who enjoyed negative attention as well), but I didn’t care. It felt good to belong. My depression and thoughts of suicide slowly started to fade. The problem, which I didn’t realize until much later, was depression and addiction ran in my family. Back in the 80s and 90s though, mental health issues and addiction weren’t talked about in our media with the seriousness they deserved. And if you come from a family of working class immigrants, the only therapy you believe in is hard work and finishing the day off with half a bottle of whisky and some WWF wrestling.
By the time I was 16, I had been arrested, kicked out of my high school and was heading nowhere fast. I didn’t care though because I was committed to starting and pursuing standup comedy for the rest of my life. I thought it was the only path to happiness. I could express myself creatively and be at home with other rebellious broken individuals. In 2003, I had been doing open mics for about 3 years when I got a job at The World Famous Comedy Store. At the time, standup comedy in general was on its deathbed. Long gone were the days of multiple clubs in every city, money and cocaine falling out of the sky and the fame and fortune that went with it. Some of the comics from that era were still there walking around like ghosts from a bygone era. Along with them was the longstanding belief that comedians needed to be dark and tortured to make it. You would hear quotes such as “Pryor grew up in a whorehouse. That’s why he’s a genius.” At the same time, I was looking at the countless headshots that lined the hallways of the club of other comics who came from broken homes and hopeless childhoods. They weren’t geniuses. In fact, I had never heard of most of them. Occasionally these older ghost comics would tell you stories.
“So and so killed himself,” they would mutter.
“But this guy went on to be a famous director. And that guy played Batman. This woman disappeared and was never heard from again,” they would add.
The cautionary tales blended in with the success stories. We all kept up the illusion that the more raw and damaged you were, the more likely you would be a famous genius like Richard Pryor. Comedians wore damaged goods patches like proud boy scouts.
“Whatever man, I was molested by like 4 different people,” one would proudly exclaim.
“Oh yeah! I drink every day AND night because I want to be dead by thirty. That’s how all the greats go out,” another would offer.
That kind of environment allowed a lot of us to all live in excess and treat ourselves, and one another, like garbage. Hell, we were being supportive if anything. This was the path to our collective success.
As I entered my late twenties, I had been inching along in the entertainment world. I booked a few roles on some TV shows and a bunch of commercials. I wasn’t reaching the heights of success I imagined after ten years in the game. I was working hard. I wrote jokes and performed all over town every day and I was working the road a little too. I had the respect of my peers. I was even out partying and living the life of all the icons I looked up to, but the only thing I was feeling was more and more pathetic and miserable. Every day was as empty as the one before it. I wasn’t making any career strides either. I was miserable. The depression and hopelessness I felt growing up had started to come back. I started drinking more. I became sad and lonely. I started to contemplate suicide.
As I approached the age of 30, I started to freak out. I had just ended another failed relationship, due to the selfishness and misery and drinking. I wasn’t happy. Thoughts of suicide had started to dance around my mind more and more. I didn’t want this life anymore. Around 2008, I took serious notice of how the world of entertainment had been evolving. Comedians were no longer all on drugs and hoping to die by 30. They were openly discussing the importance of mental health, sobriety and getting the help you need to live a happy life and be an artist at the same time. Comics I looked up to when I was younger were sober, in therapy and happier and more successful than ever. I had been romanticizing a lie. The simple truth is there is no denying that the escapism of the creative arts draws many of those who believe the world is unfair to write and sing and dream of a better one. The reality is this: most do not. Statistically, depression and addiction prevent most people from achieving their dreams. It happens all around us: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Elliot Smith, Robin Williams, Greg Giraldo. The list is long. A lot longer than the list of entertainers who drank and snorted their way to fame and fortune and happiness. We rarely heard those stories though. Ironically, for many years, they were only memorialized on the walls at The Comedy Store- a black and white 8x10 checkerboard graveyard of misguided people who didn’t seek the help they truly needed.
This realization scared me. It shook the foundations of everything my naïve mind thought was the one true path to artistic salvation. But what was more important was that I didn’t want to be miserable anymore. I didn’t want to lose another girlfriend or become more distant from my family and friends who were constantly reaching out and trying to understand why I was so isolated and miserable. I didn’t want to kill myself.
On April 2nd 2012, I got sober. I didn’t go to AA. I have mixed feeling about it. But that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is there are programs like that out there in many forms and seeking them out is the most important first step. Now two and a half years of sobriety does not make me an expert on the subject by any means, but as we’ve been seeing over the years, no time is long enough. There is a constant struggle. I write about this now because most of the articles I’ve read are by people who have been sober 10, 15, 20 years. That number can be overwhelming. I’m 2 1/2 years in and so far I’m happier than I’ve ever been and funnier than I’ve ever been too. I have more confidence and less fear of failure. Instead of being down on myself when my creative pursuits fail (which there have been many), and drinking and being sad, I go work out. I talk to my friends. I’m learning you can be inspired by both the dark and the light. It has made me more driven and creative than ever. I care about my own well being now.
This is only the beginning of this new journey and I’m still learning and growing. I’m looking into therapy and getting on depression medication. Because they work. Successful and hilarious comedians all around us are on them and they’re alive, happier than ever and at the peaks of their creativity. Comedy is different now. Funny people come from all walks of life. Happy sad, rich, poor, black, white, Indian, gay, tall, short, thin, fat, pretty and ugly. The old model is out. There are more successful sober, medicated and happy comedians who are proving you don’t need to be tortured and miserable to be a great artist. And I want to be one of those. I only get this life once and I want to make it count.