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The Funny Business of Addiction

One comedy company has discovered that there’s a market for creating laughter out of the pain of addiction. 

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By McCarton Ackerman

02/05/13

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A former touring comic who eventually grew weary of the road, Rich Stimbra began booking comedy shows for private parties and corporate outings in 2001. Eventually, he began to be approached by rehabs that, because of the anonymity of many programs, didn’t have access to a roster of comics who had recovery-based comedy in their act. So Stimbra incorporated some of those comics into his business.

When, in 2008, Stimbra realized that roughly half of his business was recovery related, he launched Recovery Comedy, a company which connects comedians in recovery to potential organizers of events. The site has helped jumpstart the careers of funnymen like Moshe Kasher, who has appeared numerous times on Chelsea Lately and is now a staff writer for NBC’s The New Normal.

Other comics in recovery, like Mark Lundholm, were already reasonably well established before joining Stimbra. Lundholm first started performing in December 1988 while living at a halfway house and overcoming addictions to meth, cocaine and alcohol that had left him either homeless or in prison throughout most of the ‘80s. He joined a volunteer variety show group called Act 12, which performed at rehabs, detox centers, mental hospitals and jails for over a year. After Act 12 disbanded, he continued performing and has gone on to land a Showtime comedy special, as well as appearances on Comedy Central and his own off-Broadway show. 

"Having a successful comedy career is all about marketing yourself. And ultimately, everyone loves a comeback story. Look at Robert Downey, Jr."

His recovery humor addresses a variety of topics, including the differences between normies vs. people in recovery (“Normal people have spoons; recovery people have burn marks underneath the spoons.”) But regardless of the venue, the end goal is still the same. “Every time I go to work, I try to make people laugh,” Lundholm says. “The main difference is that at a comedy club, I’m a 60-minute distraction while people eat or drink. At a recovery show, they’ve all hurt and experienced an emotional up and down that people at comedy clubs may not have.” 

Of course, the recovery comedy market is unique because the stand-up circuit is a hotbed for drugs and alcohol. Numerous comedians throughout the years, from Sam Kinison and John Belushi to Chris Farley, Mitch Hedbeg and Greg Giraldo, have lost their lives due to addiction. And it’s not unusual to hear comics talk about being unable to perform unless they’re loaded. “It’s not that comedy provides an avenue for drugs and alcohol, but rather that needy people find comedy as an avenue because we are the neediest performers in the arts,” Lundholm explains. “Painters can wait until the unveiling, actors can wait a couple of years for the film to come out, but comics need that reassurance every single pause, every single syllable. Do you like me? Do you like me? Are you with me?

While most of the comics associated with Recovery Comedy still perform for the normies at clubs across the country, they all have material that they use solely at recovery events. “In the same way that material on recovery wouldn’t work at a comedy club because the vernacular of the program is so specific, people who aren’t in recovery typically don’t do well at the venues we book,” Stimbra says. “Really good comedy is having that relationship with an audience where it’s like having a conversation. And for people in that setting, they’re hyper-focused on getting well.” Lundholm agrees with that sentiment. “It’s no different than a University of Notre Dame alum going back and performing there,” he explains. “You know everything about the campus and can convey that to the crowd.”

For some of the recovery comics, telling jokes is what helps them stay sober. Kurtis Matthews struggled with alcohol, cocaine and marijuana addiction, landing a DUI at age 18 and getting into a drunk driving accident in June of 1984, when he was 22, that nearly killed four girls. He got sober immediately after and started performing stand-up a few years later. He now runs the San Francisco School of Comedy. “What a lot of comics don’t realize is that this is a service job,” he says. “We’re there to make people laugh and bring joy. And for me, performing at rehabs or prisons is a more fulfilling kind of comedy to do. Recovery comedy is very much like being at a meeting and you can go deeper in those crowds.”

There are also additional perks for the niche market of recovery comedy—such as earning up to $6,000 for a show. And when recovery comics join forces, as Lundholm and Matthews have for their Comedy Addiction Tour that performs once or twice a month, they get crowds of between 300 and 500 people that most headlining club comics can only dream about. “We’re on the same popularity level as a crappy punk band,” Matthews jokes. “Mark covers the drug side and I cover the drinking.”

Still, some comics are concerned that being a part of Recovery Comedy can be more detrimental than helpful to their career. Stimbra admits that a handful of comics, nervous that they will become known more for their addictions than for their jokes, have eventually asked to be removed from the site. “Those comics were older and perhaps not attaining the success that they wanted, so they felt like a booker Googling their name and having our site pop up was preventing them from getting work,” Stimbra explains. “But I think that having a successful comedy career is all about marketing yourself. And ultimately, everyone loves a comeback story. Look at Robert Downey, Jr.”

For Matthews, labels are simply an unavoidable part of the business. “Whether you’re a gay comic or a black comic, anyone can get typecast,” he says. “You can’t hide from it. And our attribute is that we’re addicts.” Lundholm says he’s come to terms with the fact that his past will always define his comedy. “I have nine different kinds of shows for audiences ranging from pre-teens to Fortune 500 companies,” he says. “But no matter what I do for the rest of my life, I will be the recovery comedian. That’s what I’ve been doing since 1988 and I’ve come to accept it.”

But regardless of the potential pratfalls, the market for recovery comics has unquestionably grown rapidly—something that Stimbra believes can be attributed to society’s relatively recent embrace of drug recovery. “Comics will have to diversify and won’t be able to make a living just playing rehabs, but I think this niche will continue to grow,” he says. “You look at shows like Intervention and Celebrity Rehab and it’s obvious that recovery isn’t this hidden thing anymore. People are out and proud of it.”

McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New YorkThe Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.

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