Staying Sober in the Booze-Fueled Comedy World

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In a throwaway moment from a 2013 episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, the now famously sober comedian recalls a moment backstage with Mitch Hedberg before his first Letterman appearance. His interviewee is Hedberg’s widow, comedian Lynn Shawcroft, and, to Maron’s recollection, Hedberg chugged half a pint of Jack Daniels before stepping out from behind the curtain.

It was meant merely as color for a crucial moment in Hedberg’s career that Maron witnessed. The idea of taking the edge off for performers is well-worn in the field of comedy, especially considering that improv comics, standups, and sketch troupes perform primarily in venues buzzing with alcoholic electricity. Sometimes that spark – a drink, a bump of coke, or a bong rip – is, what Maron accidentally touched on, seen as the source of their creativity. I spoke with three sober comedians of varying professional success and duration of recovery to find out what happens when you remove that spark.

Approaching sobriety with normal people isn’t easy; the stigma of alcoholism and drug abuse is still alive and well in America. But for people whose livelihoods depend on telling hyperbolic versions of their autobiographies onstage multiple times a week, holding back isn’t a virtue. Take, for example, Chris Gethard.

The star of Fusion’s The Chris Gethard Show mentions his 2012 relapse on MDMA to me without any prompting.

Already a decade plus into sobriety, Gethard killed a set at Bonnaroo when he caught wind of a few friends who were taking molly. He thought, “I’m probably not going to be in this situation too many more times in my life, plus I know I have willpower.” He ended up eating an entire bag over the course of a day, he estimates about $300 worth.

“It was like, Oh yeah, I go overboard with things,” Gethard says. “I could feel that everyone around me was thinking, ‘Uh oh, what’s going on?’ It wasn’t cool.”

Gethard has previously detailed his brief, nightmarish stint as a young New Jersey alcoholic for Vice. In a nutshell, he never had any fun drinking; it was all broken bottles of Mad Dog 20/20, barfing, and crying. He quit when he was 21 because there was no nuance to it – he was either sober or blacked out – and because it wasn’t making him feel good. The only thing that made him feel normal was performing. He realized that he wasn’t drinking before his UCB shows because, for one, he was terrible at being drunk, but also because he didn’t feel the need to, unlike (allegedly) Hedberg, who was merely perpetuating a tradition that dates back to W.C. Fields.

“Performing was the one thing I had that was making me feel really positive about myself,” Gethard says. “That was the least necessary area for me to drink. For me it was more, I have to be in a room with more than six people and not stress out that I’m a shy person that has very low self esteem. That’s when I tended to drink.”

Gethard is, relatively speaking, very successful. In addition to his own television show, he’s a regular on This American Life, Broad City, and hosts his own podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous, on the Earwolf network. He also got sober early on, so by the time he was hobnobbing with the likes of Ira Glass and Abbi Jacobson, he had years of recovery under his belt. And, apart from the slip-up in 2012, he’s been clean since.

But what about someone who discovers they have a problem mid-career? Alice Wetterlund had been doing standup and comedic acting for almost a decade when, about six months ago, she realized she did.

“When you start working rooms when you’re young in comedy, one of the ways they pay you is in drinks,” Wetterlund says. “If I had started sober, I never would have gotten paid. I’m lucky I came to it now that I’m getting paid in real money, which I use to buy my health juice.”

A regular on MTV’s Girl Code, Silicon Valley, and featured in the recent film Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, she naturally starts with a joke when I ask her about the impetus for her newfound sobriety.

“I just wanted to look good and feel great,” Wetterlund says on the phone as she’s stuck in L.A. traffic. “No. I have a unique experience because I got a lot of success and notoriety and my thing was I wanted to get sober to keep those things. I could feel my relationship to alcohol getting away from me and not being workable anymore.”

Wetterlund moved to Los Angeles in 2012 after four years of doing standup and improv in New York. Once she was perpetually on the road, she realized she couldn’t take the constant hangovers. She tried to cut back, but when it wasn’t working, she started going to meetings.

“I didn’t drink onstage that much – generally if I did a longer set I’d have one drink,” Wetterlund says. “But also when I stopped I couldn’t believe how much I missed that one drink. If I could just drink for standup only, I would. Even saying this now.”

Wetterlund’s reasons for staying lucid during her sets are similar to those of Gethard’s: She wanted to do a good job in a high-pressure situation. She also likes studying the technicality of other comics, so staying relatively sober over the course of a night helps her figure out what works and what doesn’t. Still, Wetterlund has to grapple with the notion that in addition to feeling uncomfortable in her young sobriety, her body language can betray her onstage.

“It’s hard to do that when you’re grappling with early sobriety. I was terrified and very uncomfortable in my own skin,” Wetterlund says. “One of things with doing standup is you need to feel as uninhibited as possible. The audience needs to feel you’re confident and you’re not worried for 55 minutes with no safety net.”

She achieves this by diving deep into her personal life, and she says that she’ll break any tension by letting the audience know that she doesn’t drink. Surprisingly – though perhaps less so, as comics like Wetterlund, Gethard, and many more are candid about their recovery – a drunk audience can be very receptive to a comedian telling sobriety stories onstage.

“I don’t preach about it because that’s not funny. I talk about how shitty it is to be sober,” Wetterlund says. “Plus my jokes are really good.”

While sobriety has become somewhat normalized for comedians – comedy personalities from Maron to Jane Lynch and many in-between have detailed battles with addiction in mainstream mediums – the notion of the lovable, sloshed performer has (apologies to Doug Benson, but weed is different) come under scrutiny in recent years. Last April, Dave Chappelle came under fire after the second of two Detroit shows in one night went off the rails, causing some audience members to ask for refunds because he was seemingly drunk. The TMZ story focused on the fact that he was “rambling” and “slurring,” which, if they were barriers of entry for performing comedy in the middle part of the last century, would have kept the likes of everyone from Johnny Carson to Jackie Gleason in valet jackets instead of under bright lights.

That’s part of the reason why Bay Area native Kristee Ono went cold turkey after a solo cocaine bender more than three years ago. She was developing a bit of a reputation as, in her words, a “wild card.”

“I’ve been coked out too much, completely insane, to the point where I shouldn’t have been performing. There have been smaller bar shows where I was pulled as a host because I was too drunk,” Ono says. “It was really embarrassing. They would sometimes put me on earlier in a show because it was a risk if I went on too late.”

Ono got her start nine years ago, and, like many young performers, fell into a pattern of drinking and drug use before, during, and after shows. The first time she did standup, she says, she was drunk, and that she used it as a coping mechanism for “really intense” stage fright. Ono, who now hosts a weekly, all-female standup night in San Francisco called Mermaid Show and co-produces a web series called Terror Management Theory, was diagnosed bipolar in 2009, but didn’t give up drugs and alcohol until 2012.

“My mental health improved greatly with sobriety,” Ono says. “Go fucking figure.” Last year she was re-diagnosed, and is no longer on medication for bipolar disorder. (“I’m only depressed now,” she says.)

Though the stage fright remains, and the idea of a drink still sounds good to her once in awhile, Ono says that sobriety hasn’t robbed her of her creativity. Rather, she now has the time and energy to explore new spaces she used to fill with illicit substances and recovering from partaking in those substances.

“If there’s a lack of creativity, if you think that happens, it’s not true,” Ono says. “It’s giving yourself the space to be 100% yourself and not augmented by drugs or alcohol. It provides a unique perspective experiencing everything for real. Creativity is not in a bottle.”

Peer pressure is a notion most of us learned as children in the D.A.R.E. program or from this video of a crazed Helen Hunt jumping through a window, but for comedians who spend most of their week in bars and clubs, confronting the urge to join the drunk crowd lives on. The peer pressure is still there for Ono, though she says that she values her sobriety more than calming her nerves down with a beer. “I see that as a chapter of my life that was fun and terrible,” she says, “and something that is definitely closed.”

Wetterlund agrees. “The gifts you get in sobriety are better for me than being able to drink once in awhile,” she says. “As long as people are going to do what it takes to laugh at my jokes which are – asterisk – very good, I’m fine with it.”

Gethard points to a moment, just a year or so after he’d quit drinking, where peer pressure almost overcame him. The problem wasn’t a beer to get loose before a show, or a shot of whiskey to slow adrenaline after a set. He was confronted with his newfound sobriety onstage.

He was doing a show a friend had set up, and just before he went on, he was informed of that night’s sole rule, a lark to get the crowd going: if he messed anything up, he’d have to take a shot of liquor. Gethard had tried to quit drinking a couple times before, but it never stuck, so he just stopped telling people. He didn’t want to let them down when the inevitable puke-filled cry-fest struck next. So he didn’t say anything.

In front of a sold-out crowd, he was informed he had to drink, and a shot was put in front of him. His mind raced. “Should I just take this and get it over with?” he remembers thinking. “Should I try to fake it?” Eventually, he turned it down.

“The crowd was definitely disappointed,” Gethard says, “but it was a really important step for me because a lot of people deal with peer pressure when they quit drinking. And [for] comedians it’s such a big part of the culture. For me, this happened onstage where I was going to let down a couple hundred people.”

“I had to make a conscious decision that I was OK letting down this crowd because my gut told me it was healthy and positive. I look at that and remember being like, ‘It’s going to stick this time,’ Gethard says. “And it has.”

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Staying Sober in the Booze-Fueled Comedy World