There are a number of stock questions that come with doing stand up comedy: “How can you get up in front of all those people?” (Have a seat, get a coffee, that’s what we’re here to discuss…) “You must have known that joke would upset people?” (A reasonable, but not entirely accurate notion) “You’re family must be proud?” (Sort of, but only because they’ve never seen me perform.) And my personal favorite, “Doing comedy must be therapeutic for you?” (HAHAHAHA!)
Anyone who knows me, or about me, knows I’m open about my past, to the point of inappropriate oversharing. I’m like the drunk aunt that no one wants to get cornered by at parties, but secretly can’t wait to hear – from a distance – her opinion on immigration and Uncle Roy’s “legal troubles.” I never was good at choosing polite topics of conversation, preferring the intense and polarizing – good, bad, or otherwise. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – see, no small talk about the weather or sporting events for this guy. Oh and if you want to know what caused the PTSD (which is frequently the first question people ask when I share this with them), you’ll just have to read some of my other blogs, and/or subscribe/follow/add me on social media, or better yet come see one of my shows. Part of my “charm” is my sense of humor. I too have wondered why I joked the way I did, asking myself some of the above questions. Sure lots of people laugh at them, but almost as many get VERY upset or offended. Up until recently the only answer I came up with was “I’m just fucked up, I guess.” Well it turns out I was partially right.
People who have endured trauma often experience something called traumatic reenactment. Peter M. Bernstein, PhD, describes traumatic reenactment as “a process that includes compulsively repeated thoughts, attitudes, and patterns of behavior. The goal of reenactment is to resolve and heal a past traumatic experience or series of experiences. Reenactment arises out of our past and can seriously disrupt our present lives and relationships.” He elaborates further:
“Children who were abandoned by a parent or who went through the divorce of their parents may also reenact this experience in future relationships. They will often set themselves up to be abandoned or abused by seeking out friendships and romantic attachments in which they are destined to be left, discarded, or rejected.
“Men will become attached to women who are certain to leave them, or they will adopt behaviors that drive women away. Women will form attractions to men who are unattainable, abusive, or noncommittal. They approach life with the mentality that they are always doomed to be abandoned and create real-life situations in which that belief is validated.”
I do stand up to recreate the chaos and intensity of past abuse and trauma; I get up on stage so I can feel the rush of risking my life. For the same reason some people skydive, or masturbate with a belt around your neck (soooo good, right?) or pursue tumultuous/abusive relationships, I do comedy: I get high from the risk or danger of it. Stand up comedy is like gambling to me; jokes are the dice that I roll, the stakes the jackpot of laughter and applause, versus the bust of booing, objects being thrown at me, or worst of all: dead silence. The rush I get from comedy is second only to robbing a bank or shooting cocaine (I have done both), and, just like the gambler, I’m not getting off on the win of the laughter, no, I’m chasing the intoxication of the risk, the edging of the unknown.
As I alluded to earlier, I also tell a certain style of joke that has more extreme reactions than your average comic. Some call it “dark” or “dirty” comedy, others call it offensive, the industry term is “black /blue,” and me, I just call it “what I find funny.” I just find the “darker” things in life more interesting and resonating. Again this isn’t isolated to my stage persona. I have this uncanny knack for stepping on social landmines and making people uncomfortable. Mention a town where you’re from, I’ll say “Hey isn’t that the one where the police killed that minority?” You bring up a celebrity’s latest movie in conversation, I’ll mention how I read about another one that fucked kids. It can even be as innocent as you telling me a time you got really wasted at a party, and I share with you the time I stayed awake shooting cocaine for 3 weeks and thought everyone had a French accent. Relatable, ya know.
I never understood why I was like this. Why was it that I always zero in on the profane, the tragic, or the horrible? It sometimes causes me problems in social settings – work, parties, dating – where it would be more advantageous to NOT talk about the latest school shooting or terrorist bombings. Then a few months ago I read this:
“Trauma creates a backwards world. Especially repeated trauma. In trauma the ordinary and the extraordinary change places. What seems mundane becomes the warning sign of impending danger. What is dangerous becomes normal. What seems small becomes big, what is big, seems small. If you spend years with this backwards view of the world it can become habit.
This backwards view of the world—mundane is dangerous, dangerous is safe. Small is big, big is small. This backwards view is one of the invisible wounds of trauma.”
If I’m reading a newspaper, I will habitually, without even realizing it, zero in on all the tragedy, loss, pain, and death in the world – oh and cute animals too, I’m not (totally) a monster. I find comfort in what most people think of as uncomfortable, and am uncomfortable in the “comfortable.” Family values, positivity, warmth, holidays, weddings, hiking, yoga – things that most people associate with love, community, or unification are all repulsive and scary to me. Murder, abuse, genocide, disaster, marginalization – these tickle my fancy. Most people have favorite athletes, I have favorite serial killers. Now let me be clear: I don’t condone these things or even want to do these activities, in fact, I’m a pacifist, I just find solace in their intensity and pain as a concepts in my head. Basically in order for me to find equilibrium I listen to death metal, watch a horror movie, or click on Jason Rouse, Dave Attell or Doug Stanhope’s latest Youtube clips.
(Ari Shaffir interviewed my friend Donovan Mahoney on his podcast where they talked about comedy, trauma, and addiction and explained all this way better than I could: http://arithegreat.com/ari-shaffirs-skeptic-tank-115-heroin-down-in-a-hole-donovan-pee/)
I don’t actually want to offend or shock people; in fact, it bothers me when people’s feelings get hurt (I’m a people pleaser too), but I just have such a hard time seeing the world the way “normal” people do – and this is after years, and thousands of dollars, of therapy. I’m pretty much just being myself on stage, except trying to be funny the whole time. Some recovery and mental health people are going to say I'm still using unhealthy or maladaptive coping or not “working a good program,” to which I say “What does your diary look like?” Non-recovery people may say it sounds brave, or terrible, to which I say it's just a controlled way of acting out for me, one less harmful than bank robbery, shooting speedballs, or Bikram's Yoga (considering recent news stories, it isn’t just me that should be afraid of the last one). I pay my bills, I'm gainfully employed, I'm not robbing people anymore, for the most part I do my best to conduct myself with integrity, I try and resolve conflict diplomatically, I have done volunteer work, immense amounts of therapy, become very aware of my trigger points and how my actions can affect others. So my mind is like a house where a bunch murders took place, and the people involved are all dead or in prison, but their ghosts still haunt it. Who doesn't like a good ghost story? Lots of people actually.
Someone once said that that the best comedy is the type that elevates thought, gets people thinking from a different perspective, and unifies rather than polarizes, and I 100% agree and concede that I could totally be wrong just being an insensitive asshole. Everything I wrote here could just be justifications for me being a douche, that’s fair, but I'll take the consequences. But I do like the gamble of facing rejection and winning approval, there’s no denying that; I’m no different than most comics in that regard, I just play with higher stakes and more in the pot. Considering the losses used to mean chaos and multiple year prison sentences, I think there has been some mild improvement. While I totally agree that the best comedy brings people together, sometimes I just want to laugh at tragedy for no reason other than plain old hedonistic escape. And maybe that’s where comedy can be therapeutic (sort of).
**I don't like unsolicited advice, or people dismissing my experiences and telling me I just shouldn't think that way. If you have any of those comments or feedback please repeat them to yourselves in front of the mirror, or direct them your own therapist.**