This post was originally published on August 27, 2015.
“So who’s drinking tonight?!?!”
If you’ve been to a comedy club ever in the history of comedy clubs, you’ve most likely heard this phrase uttered from the mouth of the person on stage. Everyone cheers, rounds of shots are ordered and someone usually sends the comic a drink. Albeit hacky, he or she usually follows up with something like, “Keep drinking. I’m funnier after a few beers!” Stand-up comedy and alcohol are as synonymous as pearls and a Southern sorority girl. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, many comedians usually end up getting sober; turns out there’s connective tissue between alcoholism and a career begging for strangers’ approval.
I am a stand-up comedian. You’ve never seen me on TV and I’m not remotely famous, but I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into the art form for over nine years. I have traveled all over the country and even as far as Djibouti, Africa (yes, it actually exists and maintains currency) to tell jokes. I used to say some version of “Who’s drinking tonight?” or express my love for the liquid in joke form. My stand-up reel even has a beer bottle proudly displayed on the stool behind me. But these days, if I say something along the lines of, “I quit drinking. Any non-drinkers here tonight? Where my sober peeps at?!” I usually get one or two claps. Ah, how the tides have turned for this former lush clown.
I used to love drinking while watching or performing comedy. I never needed a drink to get on stage. For better or worse, I’ve been an attention whore obsessed with public speaking since my first grade play. Talking in front of people has never been an issue. But I never passed up the chance to imbibe when booze was being served, and it’s served a hell of a lot at the bars, theaters, laundry mats, restaurants and casinos where comedy shows are run. And when I started working professionally as a road comic, you better believe I enjoyed the free alcohol that often came with the gig. I drank when my show went badly and I drank more when it went well. God forbid I ever just genuinely feel the misery of a set that bombs and/or the joy of a set that kills.
Drinking is a form of bonding with the other comics and the staff too. Drinking with the headliner after the show is almost a rite of passage. I have featured (the middle act between the host and the headliner) for an ungodly number of middle-aged Caucasian male comedians and there is nothing they love more than to tie one on and wax poetic about the good ole days of working the road. But, like my drinking career as a whole, my comedy club drinking was initially fun…until it became not so fun. You don’t know true hangover-depression until you’re experiencing that hangover-depression in a shitty Crowne Plaza by the San Antonio airport.
I was rarely drunk on stage but occasionally walked a fine line on the weekend late shows. And like any good alcoholic still trying to “control it,” I’d always start the week saying I’d only drink after both shows were over or I’d only drink the last night. But I’d inevitably have a great Wednesday night set and immediately reward myself with an ice cold Blue Moon. It’s easy to get away with boozy behavior in the stand-up world but that doesn’t always spare you the embarrassment. I got drunk and smoked pot with a headliner once and then immediately had a panic attack where I accused him of hitting on me. I stormed out of his hotel room and got back to mine before realizing I didn’t have my room key. I had to march back to his room at the God Knows What Inn & Suites in God Knows Where, Indiana and face my own intoxicated blunder. I was never good at marijuana to begin with but I was especially bad at it with three vodka sodas and five beers under my belt.
Toward the end of my drinking I went to the Middle East to entertain the troops. It was a two-week trip and although a lot of the countries and military bases did not allow booze, some of them did. I decided I wasn’t going to drink at all. Knowing my track record at that point, I thought it wasn’t worth the risk. Passing up the free champagne on Emirates Airlines was incredibly hard at the time. Now, with 15 months of sobriety in me still going strong, I laugh at how much I romanticized that damn champagne. I kept a journal the entire trip and it’s very obvious when I read it now how much better my moods, confidence and overall well-being were without booze. Of course, the night I got back, I blacked out at the Hollywood Improv’s bar so that white knuckle didn’t last very long. But it was significant nonetheless; it showed me how much better I felt without booze and that I could still enjoy doing comedy without it.
I drank for a while after the Middle East trip but was eventually able to string 72 days of sobriety together through sheer will and barely dabbling in 12-step recovery. Then I got booked to do a month-long gig on a cruise ship. I was literally surrounded by liquor the minute I walked on the ship. I stayed strong the first three days before the inevitable “Fuck it” feeling arose. I was doing 14 shows a week, often for the same crowds every time, and usually bombing. Turns out I’m not a cruise ship comic and also turns out I am completely and utterly fine with that but at the time, the stress (and the windowless room in the bowels of the ship) was unbearable. I decided there was no way drinking could be worse than the feeling I had at that time. It was. I spent the rest of the month managing hangovers, playing connect the dots after blackouts and getting involved with a guy from the magic show who wasn’t a great match for me, to put it nicely. (Side note, he was an actor, not a magician. I had some standards left). It all needed to happen though. It was the final prominent display of my inability to drink normally. I got sober for real not long after I disembarked from that Godforsaken boat.
At first it was difficult to face some of my old comedy haunts sans alcohol but it’s gradually become a non-issue. I actually think my stand-up is a lot better. I feel good about myself for the first time in a long time, which has led to more confidence and a stronger, slower-talking stage presence—yet another unexpected gift of sobriety. Now I just need it to get me a TV credit.