For Comedian Jessica Kirson, Staying Sober Is No Laughing Matter
Speaking exclusively to The Fix, comedian Jessica Kirson opens up about the struggles of staying sober while on the road, performing in venues where alcohol is flowing and what keeps her grounded through it all.
Jessica Kirson has developed a reputation as one of the most respected comedians in the business. No less of an authority figure than Louis C.K. has branded the New Jersey-born performer as one of his favorite comics. Throughout her career, she’s performed on numerous television shows including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The View, Last Call with Carson Daly and seasons 2 and 3 of Last Comic Standing. She also recently made her big screen debut in Nick Cannon’s School Dance, which also stars Jim Breuer and George Lopez.
But in order to achieve this level of success, she had to get sober first. When fairly standard teenage drug experimentation during high school developed into a major problem in her mid-20s, she checked herself into rehab. After a pair of relapses in the beginning stages of her sobriety, she has now been clean and sober for 15 years. Speaking exclusively to The Fix, Kirson opened up about the struggles of staying sober while on the road, performing in venues where alcohol is flowing and what keeps her grounded through it all.
When did your drug use first begin?
I started using at 12, but it was always pot and alcohol at that point. I began experimenting more in high school and moved into trying cocaine, ecstasy and mushrooms. But my drug use kept progressing and getting worse and worse.
In college, I thought I was just being wild and crazy because everyone else was partying as well. I was never the kind of person to have one drink because I didn’t see the point. It was always to get wasted.
When did you get to the point where you knew something had to change?
That didn’t come until my mid-20’s. It sounds weird, but I got myself to that point on purpose because I knew there was a problem. I was doing cocaine and wasn’t even enjoying it, but needed to reach that bottom so that things could change. I eventually sent myself to rehab when I was 24.
A lot of what they taught me in rehab went into my head, but I wasn’t fully ready at that point. I used again, but it never got to the point that it had before. In the past 20 years, I’ve relapsed twice.
Do you still work a program these days?
Absolutely. I work a very strong program. The times I’ve relapsed were when I wasn’t working a program. I tried to do it my way and, speaking only for myself, it just didn’t work.
And after all of these years, the meetings still help for me. I’ll hear something that sticks with me at every meeting I go to. Addicts have what we call built-in forgetters. We forget where we were and where we came from. There’s a lot of denial. It’s important to talk to people who can set me straight because left to my own devices, I don’t always make the right decisions. Even last night, I felt a lot of stress after a show and the first thing I did was call some friends who are in recovery because they’ve been there and they get me.
Personally, I know that I can’t do it alone. I need the help because I have a tendency to isolate. I can hate myself or think I’m the greatest thing ever. Most people can understand obsession in some form whether it’s over a guy or a job, but addicts obsess over everything. A huge point of the meetings is to have people relate to you and make you realize that they’ve felt the same way. You feel crazy otherwise.
Did you get sober before starting stand-up or were you still using in the beginning?
When I started stand-up, I was in a relapse and was smoking pot every day and drinking. I’ve never done a show high, though. I did one open mic after smoking pot and had a breakdown on stage because I was so paranoid. I was wondering why everyone was laughing at me. [Laughs]. But thank God I never did a show high. I know a lot of people in the business who have had a hard time staying sober because they felt like they had to be high when they were on stage.
Does performing in places where alcohol is flowing and the crowd is often drunk complicate things at all for you?
Personally, the obsession to use has been lifted. Occasionally if I’m stressed out, I’ll think that it would be nice if I could have a drink. Or if I’m with a group of comics and they’re all drinking, it’s like a small party. I’ll sometimes wish that I could be that person who could just have one drink. But for the most part, it’s annoying to be the sober one around people who are wasted and don’t have boundaries. It’s actually turned me off to it a lot of times.
Do you find it any harder to work the program you have when you’re on the road?
It’s very hard sometimes. I’ve been in meetings on the road all over the country, but the times when I don’t go, I sit in the hotel room and I’m miserable. When you’re on the road, you can feel alone, bored, tired. You feel out of touch with everything and isolating is one of the worst things that addicts can do. I have to make an effort to see friends because there are times when I could easily just sit at home and not talk to anyone.
We’ve lost so many talented comics over the years like Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo and John Belushi due to drugs. Why do you think that addiction is so prevalent in the comedy industry?
I think that a lot of times, addicts are smart, creative people. And a lot of humor comes from pain and tragedy. You have to laugh at those things. It makes sense that a lot of addicts do comedy.
But being in the business, the highs and lows of it, can exacerbate an addiction. Being sober is really hard in this business. When people’s careers take off, they think they’re okay and don’t need to stay sober. They forget where they came from and what happened and you can never forget that. Personally, I have to remember other people’s stories. It’s a very dark place to be in when you relapse.
Is there any kind of camaraderie or support system amongst other sober comics in the business?
I’m aware of who most of them are. A lot of them are sober, but don’t work a program. I was talking to a comic who has 25 years sober, but hasn’t been to a meeting in four. That’s what we call a dry drunk. You may not be drinking anymore, but your behaviors haven’t changed and you’re just white-knuckling it. Personally, I’ve found that a lot of people who white-knuckle it and don’t go to meetings are miserable.
The problem is that most people don’t see this as a disease. If you have diabetes, you take medication. Doing things like having a sponsor and helping other people is my medication and if I don’t do it, I get sick.
Is doing stand-up part of your way of helping others and being in service?
It is in a way, but if I perform at a recovery show and get paid for it, then it’s a fine line. I think that service can be something as simple as helping someone carry bags to their car. My sponsor told me that just smiling to someone and saying “have a nice day” is all part of that. Whenever I help other people, I get out of myself and am 100 percent happier.
We spoke last year with comedian Mark Lundholm, who said that comics who weren’t in recovery typically didn’t do well performing in recovery shows. Do you feel the same way?
I’ve seen people not in recovery do very well at those kinds of shows. I don’t think it’s impossible, but the material has to be tailored. Obviously talking about getting drunk wouldn’t be good. But when it’s an addict performing, it’s often funnier because they get it and can relate to the audience from their own perspective.
But I truly do believe there’s no better audience than people in recovery because they really just need to laugh. You have to laugh at your past. It’s traumatic at first, but then you go, “that was fucking ridiculous. I used to look out of a peephole for six hours when I was on cocaine.” But when people come up to me after those shows and say something like, “I just got sober and I haven’t laughed that hard in so long,” that’s what I love. It’s an amazing feeling.
McCarton Ackerman has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. He last wrote about Bad Grandpas.