Before I get into this, I want to stress how much I love being a stand up comic. I fantasize about crushing when I go to sleep at night. My heart feels ready to burst when I’m onstage and the audience laughs so hard you feel it vibrate your chest. I even relish comedy when it’s bad. I love to bomb. It’s the most human experience anyone can have.
Since climbing the stage for the first time in 2010, stand-up comedy has become my religion. I rely on comedy more than any job I’ve ever had. I trust comedy more than my best friend. I’ve confided in comedy more than my therapist. And I’ve certainly been more infatuated with comedy than any of my favorite lovers. If comedy is my religion, then bars are my church, and I have gone to worship almost every night for the last 7 years.
Plenty of people consider the bar as their church, but most of them are alcoholics.
I come from a family of recovered alcoholics. And I myself am constantly walking a tight rope between my calling in life (which is stand-up), and the itchy disease of alcoholism I’m genetically predisposed to. I don’t know a single comedian who hasn’t had to wrestle with the threat of becoming an alcoholic.
When you hit your first open mic, or sign up for your first comedy contest, no one tells you how complicated your relationship with alcohol will become in this game. In your first year or two as a new comic, you are mostly paid in alcohol. And until you become famous enough that people will pay to see you (which may never happen), you are not a comedian. You are actually a very elaborate beer salesman. Selling a party and encouraging people to drink. Because, after all, the more they drink, the more money the venue makes, and the more you (potentially) get paid.
People like to give shit to prop comics, who might use a puppet or sledge-hammer + watermelon to enhance their act. I would venture to say all comedians are prop comics: Take away the beer and most of their acts would change dramatically. Their confidence would crumble, their eye contact would be nonexistent, and most would not know what to do with their hands if they weren’t grasping a beer. At its best, alcohol has provided some much-needed liquid courage for performers (myself included), and at its worst has been the most abusive relationship in my life.
The deeper you get into comedy, the line between alcoholism and joke telling can become very blurry. It becomes less clear if the combination of comedy and alcohol is what is making you successful or ruining your life. Comedy and alcohol can become a sort of siamese twin and you get afraid that if you remove one the other will die.
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The first time I ever got onstage was for an open mic on March 27th, 2010 at Shortys Bar in Greeley, Colorado. A month earlier I’d watched several drunk men get onstage and tell jokes, and they were all so terrible I thought to myself: “I can do better than that.”
Still, the idea of stepping up to a microphone, naked with nothing but my words to protect me, absolutely terrified me to the point where I didn’t sleep the night before.
My nerves were still very raw when I arrived at the venue, my muscles trembling like I’d grabbed a live wire. Relief washed over me when I learned that I could have unlimited free drinks in exchange for my performance. I had several. During my first set my hands shook and my voice cracked. It wasn’t good, but that did not matter. I never felt more empowered.
I had a few more drinks to celebrate, smashed a pint-glass on the floor and eventually got cut off by the bartender. Thus began my love affair with booze and comedy.
There used to be a show in Denver where the best comic of the night would win a free beer. There would also be a “bag of human garbage” award given to the worst audience member. To give an idea, the worst audience member often heckled comics, talked over their sets, threatened assault or passed out drunk in front of the stage. I once won “best set” and “bag of human garbage” award on the same night. I had crushed my set (despite falling down on stage and spending my remaining time telling jokes from the floor), but missed work the next day because my anxiety was so high I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking.
One time I was doing this show in Rawlins, Wyoming, telling my jokes through a headset since the venue didn’t have a proper microphone. (I felt like I was giving the worst Ted Talk ever.) The crowd was so small that we were afraid the venue wouldn’t sell enough alcohol to pay us—or even give us the customary free booze. We definitely didn’t want to pay for our own drinks, so that night we encouraged the audience to buy our booze, hoping the venue would make enough off of them to pay us for our performances. We downed shot after shot of tequila, and enough PBR to kill an elephant. Halfway through my set I ran to the bathroom, puked it all up, then came back for another shot and a beer, trying to drain the bar of every last drop of alcohol.
Miraculously, we’d sold enough booze so that all the comics got paid at the end of the night.
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I once had a friend named Michael. He was easily one of the funniest comedians I had ever seen—and one of the worst alcoholics. At one point he decided to get sober and started going to AA. I know this because he met my mother there. They used to play chess together after meetings. He would tell her how much he loved comedy and wanted to get his head right so he could focus on it more. I was at a comedy festival in New Orleans when I got the call that Mike had fallen off the wagon and committed suicide. I got onstage that night with my friend, Sam Tallent, and we told all Michael’s jokes to a room full of strangers. When we got offstage we hugged and cried—and then we got drunk.
I first met my friend Jordan Wieleba at a bar open mic on South Broadway. At that time Jordan was identifying as a man, and I didn’t like him. He was drunk and an asshole. I was also at a bar show the first time I saw Jordan after she started identifying as a woman and began transitioning. I remember that night she was clutching her beer very nervously, but for the first time her jokes were genuine and good. It was clear that she was finally on the road to finding her voice.
Jordan and I built our friendship around Denver bars with comedy shows. Lions Lair, The Squire, Goosetown, Three Kings, Kingas. We started doing a show together at El Charrito in April of last year. Jordan’s last performance was there the Friday before she died. She had started to get sick but decided she would rather do jokes than stay home and rest. That night she had a few drinks and had a great set. She ended up getting bronchitis and died less than a week later of an asthma attack. I often wonder, if she had stayed home, rested and drank water, instead of talking into a dirty mic and drinking beer all night, if she would still be here. But I also know the pull of comedy, and no serious comic would have missed a show because of a cold.
Comedy has given me everything in this world that I love. I have friends who have become family. I have confidence and a voice that allows me to love myself more than I ever thought possible. Comedy has given me a sense of purpose in an otherwise cold and unforgiving life. But like I said before, comedy is my religion and bars are my church. And just like any religion, being an extremist in the church of comedy can get you killed. That being said, tonight I will head over to a bar on Colfax where they are holding an open mic, I will order a beer and I will wait to tell a joke. I will continue to pursue comedy, the thing I love more than anything in the world. I will drink my beer and wonder how long it will be until comedy tries to kill me too.