Have You Heard the One About the Sober Stand-Up?
“Comedy is the perfect job for an alcoholic," says comedian Jamie Lissow. “From the transient nature of the job to the free booze. This is a job where, not only is everyone drinking, but they're drinking and looking at you. And they would love nothing more than to buy you a drink.”
At thirty-eight, Lissow has piercing blue eyes and calculated facial scruff. He hails from Rochester, N.Y., but now resides in Austin with his wife and child. He has appeared on The Tonight Show, is a frequent guest on Fox News Channel’s Red Eye w/ Greg Gutfeld, and starred in his own Comedy Central special.
Almost a year ago, he quit drinking. He speaks excitedly about this new phase in his life, riding a wave of sobriety and creative energy that is known in recovery circles as “the pink cloud.” Lissow says that until he stopped drinking, he didn’t really respect his own comedy. “It was mostly about drinking, because that’s what I did,” he recalls. On stage, he felt like a fake person.
When he speaks of not getting rebooked at a club, or losing a job, he’s never able to connect the rejection directly to his drinking. It’s usually more of a suspicion, such as the time he auditioned for the show Punk'd and was given a lead role alongside Ashton Kutcher.
“I called my mom and told her I had gotten the job,” he says. “I said, ‘I gotta celebrate!’ My friend and I went to a sushi restaurant, and I don't remember the food, I just remember the sake. Then, I got a phone call during dinner saying they wanted to meet with me just one more time.”
When he showed up in the office the next day—hungover and unshowered—he was greeted by Ashton Kutcher himself.
“I remember trying to answer questions, but I was so hungover, I couldn’t formulate sentences. And all I know is that I never got the show. I don't know what happened, but maybe they took one look at me and thought, we can't trust this guy on camera.”
A few years ago, Lissow made his first attempt to get sober. After an amazing set at a club in Ohio, he wasn’t asked back: Not because he wasn’t funny, but because the waitstaff “didn’t think he was any fun.” They wanted him to hang out and drink after the show, but Lissow kept making excuses to leave.
“I told the staff I was working on something, but what I was working on was not doing shots. All I know is that I had this gig, and then I didn't."
That first attempt at sobriety didn’t last long. Lissow knew he had to quit drinking for good when he looked back at his tour calendar and in every city he could recount some “hilarious” story about his drinking. But the captivating war stories were becoming less cute and more dark by the day. His bottom wasn’t so much a single incident as a series of mysterious cuts, broken microwaves and lost opportunities.
His first inkling that he could quit drinking was when he found out that fellow comedian Jesse Joyce had gotten sober. Lissow remembers having no interest in it at the time, but still thinking it was impressive. For a few years, Lissow danced around sobriety. "I didn't feel I needed to quit drinking, but I wanted to," he says. "When I finally got sober, I couldn't wait to call Jesse and tell him." There was no defining bottom, just a series of incidents and the lingering memory of someone else who had successfully quit.
In the past, if Lissow had a bad set, he would go to the bar, get trashed with the patron, and forget about everything. If he was feeling depressed, he might call to book certain gigs just because he knew there would be free alcohol.
These days, instead of drowning his sorrows at the club bar, he goes back to his room to figure out what went wrong with the set, sometimes staying up all night to do so. When he isn’t touring, he’s flying back and forth between Austin and L.A., filming episodes of Rob Schneider's new show, The Real Rob—an opportunity he doesn’t think he could have gotten if he were still drinking.
“Once you get a handle on your drinking, you're forced to look at yourself in the mirror and say, O.K., let's quit comedy or take this seriously.”
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For an audience, getting drunk with a comic after the show might be part of a crazy bachelorette party weekend, leaving them with a few Instagram photos and a Saturday morning hangover from hell. For them, it’s a good story. But for the comedian, it could be their whole life.
Jim Norton is one comedian who doesn't need mind-altering substances to be dark. Best known as the “third mic” on The Opie & Anthony Show, he recently sat down with me at Olive Tree, a cafe upstairs from the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. Looking visibly trimmer these days, we drink a sparkling water as he eats a veggie burger without a bun.
“It's acceptable,” he says of being an alcoholic in standup. “It's acceptable if you're a drunk, or you're doing coke, or you fucked two waitresses in the closet. It's hard for an accountant to walk into work and vomit on your shoes. The parameters are different for us. Comics can be drunks for a long time and go unnoticed. I don't think it's any different in this profession as far as the rate of it is concerned, but I think it can go unnoticed for longer.”
Now forty-five, Norton was already three years sober when he started doing standup. Unlike many others, he doesn’t have his own war stories of bad behavior as an alcoholic on the road. And he says that’s a good thing. Would his act have been different if he were drinking? It would be nonexistent. He never would have gone on stage in the first place.
“I cringe thinking about how I would be drunk on stage,” he says. “I was a very violent drunk. I would have committed suicide. I don't mean that melodramatically, it's simply a fact. It's how I was.”
I ask Norton if he thinks there are some comics for whom drinking is just part of the package. Are there people who should remain drunks for the sake of their persona?
“I don't know anyone who I enjoy more when they are drinking,” says Norton. “Drunk people annoy me. Because you're not talking to them. Patrice [O'Neal] I loved, but he was never drunk. Keith Robinson is loud and obnoxious when he's drunk, but he's also loud and obnoxious when he's sober. Still, I like him better sober. I don't know Colin Quinn as a drunk. I don't know Rich Vos drunk. Most of my friends are very funny to me and I don't know them as drunks. Anybody who I truly enjoy, I don't think, ‘Wow, they're fun, why aren't they drinking?’”
He confidently insists that being sober has never negatively affected his career.
“Whether or not they think I'm fun, that's irrelevant. Is some other comic willing to risk their liver and drunk driving so some jerkoff club owner in Arkansas thinks they're a ball? I don't give a shit what the club owners think about me. I never hang out with them—never. I do my job."
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Amber Tozer moved to L.A. from New York seven years ago. Thirty-six years old, she’s been sober for five and a half years. Alcohol once helped her cope with the stress of comedy: It helped her to get on stage for the first time. Without alcohol, she probably wouldn't be a comic. But alcoholism was also her shameful secret.
“Not a secret that I was drinking, because people saw that I was,” she explains. “But it was a secret that I was trying to control it. I wasn't telling anybody about that.”
Tozer says part of the reason she drank for so long is because she's such a good drunk. “You couldn’t tell!” she says. She speaks slowly and deliberately, like an academic valley girl. It’s easy to see how her laid-back nature could make it difficult to detect inebriation.
Despite her alcoholism, she still managed to have some success, including an appearance on Last Comic Standing, when she snuck multiple vodka gimlets into the green room.
“It was actually a lot of effort for me to get those drinks,” she recalls. “I remember one of the producers telling me, ‘You're not supposed to be here, in the bar area.’ I played dumb. I said I was getting a soda. So then I had someone else bringing me drinks. And I had all these drink glasses surrounding me, and one of the comics was like, ‘Are those all yours?’ I lied and said they weren't.”
Her first year in L.A., Tozer all but stopped doing comedy to start a mattress company. She wasn’t consciously taking time away from comedy, but was just excited that she had found a way to make money. “When you're drunk or hungover all the time, you just do what you can [to make money],” she says.
“I think it totally derailed my career. I'm still recovering from the time that I wasted. I remember being so hungover during one pitch meeting with Comedy Central here in L.A. that I was visibly shaking. But I'm also thankful. I feel like whatever lies ahead of me, I don't really have regrets. I don't want to regret it. I don't want it to make me sad. I want it to mean something.”
And it does mean something: Her experiences have formed the cornerstone of her recent success. She is currently developing an animated show with FOXADHD for its late-night animation block and hopes to see The Tozer Show added to its 2014 lineup.
In the series, “The main character is a young woman struggling with a drinking problem,” says Tozer. “Obviously, I wouldn't have written that if I were still drunk.”
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Sometimes, drinking takes people out of the game entirely. Matt B. Davis, forty-one, was a comedian in Boston who moved to L.A. in 1999 to, in his own words, “drink and do coke and go to parties and become famous.”
“I burned out in about a month,” he says, acknowledging that he moved to L.A. before he was ready. “I should have stayed in Boston and developed my act. But I had that alcoholic ego—like, 'What are you kidding me? I'm gonna go get famous tomorrow. Give me money!'”
Each night ended the same way: leaving Burgundy Room at closing time and walking down the same street in search of his car. One night after leaving the club, Davis had what he calls a moment of clarity.
“I had done this every night for two weeks in a row. I called my father and told him I had a problem.”
He didn't quit standup after he got sober, but just slowly faded away. After starting his own staffing company he realized he hadn't been on stage in six months. He was okay with it. There’s a correlation, he says, between the mindset of an alcoholic and the reasons why he was doing standup.
“Let's talk about alcoholic behaviors and tendencies, which are: 'I'm the greatest, I'm a genius, no one understands how great I am.' When I got sober, I no longer needed the approval of strangers.”
Davis started running marathons on a whim in 2011. Back then, before he started training, ten miles might as well have been 100. He now regularly runs in obstacle races like Tough Mudder and Spartan and is the owner of Obstacle Racing Media, one of the few websites devoted to covering the fledgling sport.
He left L.A. and hasn’t been on stage in years. Still, he says that his background in comedy is what makes his sports coverage stand out.
“I began to treat running the way I treated everything as an addict. I started doing it every day. The only difference is that this is healthy. I guess you could say it's my new addiction.”
* * *
From the age of ten, Jesse Joyce dreamed of becoming a standup comic. He first went on stage at seventeen, and found success as the writing partner for Greg Giraldo, a nationally successful comic who famously overdosed on pain medication in 2010. Joyce now resides in Astoria, Queens, and is often seen on Red Eye. He has been sober for nine years.
Now thirty-five, Joyce has an affable demeanor and a friendly voice reminiscent of a drive-time radio host. His apartment, which is filled with taxidermied deer heads, toy dinosaurs and a colorful fish tank, could be a carefully decorated set in a wacky sitcom about bachelor comedians.
He says there was no dark reason behind why he drank. He's not a tormented soul. He just loved alcohol and had resigned himself to being an alcoholic.
“I figured I was going to die on the road in a hotel in Lansing, Michigan,” he says. “I was that guy. To me, there was no alternative. I had accepted it, in a Dylan Thomas sort of way."
As a traveling comic, Joyce was a serial drunk driver. He cheated death many times, and thankfully never hurt anyone.
“I was in Louisville and I had a gig in Iowa the next day,” he recalls. “I told myself, 'Don't get drunk tonight!' The last thing I remember is it's four a.m. and I'm drunk in Louisville. I woke up in the hotel room with my suitcases all packed, thinking, 'God, there's no way I can get to Iowa now!'”
But he wasn’t in Louisville. He was in Iowa, having driven across four states while completely blacked out. This could have been a wake-up call, but it had the opposite effect.
“That convinced me that I'm an amazing drunk driver,” he says, calling it a perfect illustration of twisted alcoholic thinking. “I was like, 'I'm gonna do this all the time now!' I was pulled over for four separate DUIs and I got out of all of them. You're in a small town and you get pulled over, so you tell the cop you're a comic and they say, ‘Hey, tell me a joke!’ You make them laugh and they let you go.”
Eventually, Joyce collapsed on stage in West Virginia with double pneumonia and appendicitis. While recovering in the hospital, he was excited to hear that his liver was fine.
“For some reason, I saw this as a license to drink even more,” he says.
Within a month, Joyce was pulled over for yet another DUI in New Jersey. This time, however, the officer wasn't as impressed with his sense of humor as the other small-town cops had been. Joyce thanked the cop for arresting him.
“I was under the impression that I was just going to have to kill somebody in order to be stopped,” he says. “That was how I thought it would end. I still call that cop every year on the anniversary of my sobriety date to thank him.”
Joyce’s rock bottom wasn’t collapsing on stage with double pneumonia, or even the fear of killing someone while driving drunk. He was afraid of losing standup comedy.
“If I lost my license I couldn't drive to gigs any more,” he says. “So I stopped drinking.”
These days, Joyce does sober comedy shows and benefits, such as headlining a recent show for the Houston's Council on Alcohol and Drugs. He likes to talk about being sober as much as possible, creating a barrier of people who would stop him from drinking if they ever saw him relapse.
In keeping with this theory, his manager saw fit to put him on the road with Greg Giraldo, thinking the two comics could keep each other sober. Joyce did stay sober, but Giraldo was well-known for struggling with his demons.
One of the strongest reminders that Joyce has for staying sober is, unfortunately, also one of the darkest. He was on the road with Giraldo the night he passed away.
“Before I even knew him, he was a guy I really looked up to in comedy,” says Joyce. “I also thought, ‘He's getting away with it.’ He led me to believe that I could be a drunk comic. But then, watching him struggle with his sobriety, I realized, well, he's not getting away with it either. No one gets away with it.”
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Kyria Abrahams is a writer and photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of "I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Tales From a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing."
Anna Haifisch was born in 1986 in Leipzig, Germany and draws comics, posters and animations.