Alonzo Bodden on Comedy and Recovery in the Age of Trump
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According to his website, “Alonzo’s material is ‘cynically good-natured.’ Well, the older he gets, the less good-natured it’s gonna be. 'What can I say? The stupid out there is wearing the man down.'"
Although it might be wearing down the man, it’s not wearing out his sobriety. Closing in on 30 years in recovery and 25 years as a comic, Bodden is a paragon of what it means to be both sober and creative. Since winning season 3 of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Bodden has become a regular on NPR’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” and “Comedy Congress.” He’s also entertained American troops from Iraq to Greenland while traveling around the world with the USO. The Fix was thrilled to sit down with Alonzo and discuss recovery, comedy, trauma, and more.
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The Fix: Can you tell us about your recovery and your path to sobriety?
Alonzo: Well, it’s going to be kind of hard to sum up 29 plus years in a few minutes, but let’s see. My story isn’t that unusual. I started getting loaded when I was about 13 because the older guys did it, and they were cool, and I wanted to be like them. I took right to it, and it turns out that I love getting loaded alone. I was never a partier or a social guy. I missed out on all the crazy sex in the eighties because I never saw a girl that looked better than a rock. Thus, I kept my cocaine to myself.
That was the progression. I moved to L.A. in 1980, and I started my career in aerospace. If you were around back then, you might remember that they told us that cocaine was not addictive. So I figured I would give it a try. Cocaine turned out to be addicting – surprise, surprise – and it progressed right into crack in the mid-eighties. I hit my first bottom in 1987, and then it was a year of living $20 at a time, somehow working different jobs in the aerospace industry.
I ended up working back at Lockheed, the company I started with when I had first moved out west. In December of ‘87, I went into rehab through the employee assistance program. I lasted for two weeks because I wasn’t there to get sober. I went out and started using again. I had gone into recovery to save my job, but I didn’t get fired. I got laid off, which was always good from the perspective of an addict because the record was clean. Then, however, I got busted.
I had never been arrested. After it happened, I was in the back of the police car, wearing handcuffs. The only thing I remembered from 12-Step programs at that moment was the word “powerlessness” because, at that moment, I knew what it meant. I went back to rehab after that happened, and I have been sober ever since. I totally attribute it to the willingness attained from that single night in jail. That’s a brief history of how I got on this path.
Before entering show business, you worked for Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach in the aerospace industry during the 80's. Is it harder to stay sober in the aerospace industry or in the entertainment industry?
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In the aerospace industry, there are always tons of layoffs. I started at Lockheed, and we were building Stealth Fighters. They finish that contract, and they lay off a thousand people. But now Northrop has a contract to build some more bombers so you migrate over there. I was bouncing around from company to company because that’s the nature of that business. You bounce around until you build enough seniority to stay with one company, which I never did. However, I didn’t mind that bouncing around because it worked with my addiction. I was bouncing around the country for a while, doing contract work, fixing airplanes and smoking crack. It was a great work model for an addict because I didn’t want any responsibility. I just wanted to work, get paid, and be left alone to do my thing. All I gotta do is fix an airplane in exchange for a hotel, a per diem to pay for my drugs, and my privacy. That was a reflection of my life from 1984 until I got sober in 1988.
I imagine the entertainment business would be more difficult, but I was never using in that industry. I didn’t become a comic until five years into my sobriety. My main place for sobriety was a place called Studio 12, and I met a lot of entertainment professionals and old-timers there. That’s where I got this thing. They said sit down, shut up, and listen. I will always thank God for those guys because they removed any backdoor I had and any bullshit I was trying to sell. They said, “It’s ain’t about talking, it’s about doing.”
The stars went to Betty Ford, and the crew went to Studio 12. I was around the grips, the electricians, the cameramen, the makeup artists, the wardrobe artists, and so forth and so on. I’ve had two sponsors in my sobriety, both of them are Emmy-winning wardrobe designers, and I have no idea what that’s about. My first sponsor took me through the steps, and he showed me how to do this thing. I developed a healthy fear of using, and I believed that if I didn’t follow his suggestions, I was going to get loaded again. I didn’t want that to happen.
In terms of the world of entertainment, what I did find out was that in the eighties, cocaine was part of the production budget. Everybody was getting high. I met some of the guys that started Cocaine Anonymous, and they told me that they had to start CA because cocaine addicts were dying because they were too cool to go to an AA meeting. It definitely was more prevalent and remains more prevalent in show business. There’s no drug testing in show business. When I started in aviation, there was no drug testing, but it quickly became the norm. I don’t know if I would have made it if I was in show business in the eighties. I might have ended up like so many comic geniuses like John Belushi and Richard Pryor. The decade of the eighties was a comic boom so I might have made a ton of money, but I might not be alive today.
Who are your comic precursors? Who paved the way for you?
The comic George Wallace has been a friend and mentor for years. When I started doing stand-up, the way I got into it was through teaching and training people in the aerospace industry. By the time I became an instructor at McDonnell Douglas, I was already sober. The big discovery for me was that I was very comfortable talking in front of a group. It was a latent talent that I didn’t know about. I had always been able to make people laugh, but I never knew how easy it was for me to speak in front of large groups of people. I’m telling stories of working on planes, making my students laugh, and I realized I wanted to be a comic. I took a class and did a five-minute set at graduation. After that set, I knew without a doubt that this was what I wanted to do. A friend of mine said, “Man, it looks like we finally found out what God meant for you to do.”
I have been doing it ever since. My first job in comedy was as a doorman at the Laugh Factory. They would give me spots when people didn’t show up. I learned from people like George Wallace, Damon Wayans, and George Lopez, and I would watch them do their thing. Those were some of the guys that I learned from by watching what they did. I also watched as much of the legends that I could see on video. The biggest compliment I have ever received was being called a spawn of George Carlin by Playboy magazine. That was huge because I love doing social commentary, and he’s the greatest ever at social commentary.
In 2010, you high-sided your motorcycle while riding on the track at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. The crash shattered your wrist, requiring surgeries and a bone graft to fix. How did you manage to stay sober during this traumatic period? Were pain pills a problem?
No, never a problem. The first time I encountered real pain in sobriety was playing basketball. I got a tooth knocked out. The dentist gave me Tylenol Codeine; I had been sober for about five years. When I took it, I felt out of it. I didn’t like that feeling so I talked to my sponsor. My sponsor laughed, “Just take the Tylenol from now on. You’ll be fine.” And I was.
When they did the surgery after the accident, after I got out of the hospital, I did the same thing. This time, however, they gave me Valium as well. I took one as directed by the doctor, and I just felt sick. I threw them out. Since then, no matter what has happened, Tylenol has been more than enough pain relief for me.
In March of 2013, you donated a kidney to your brother, who is three years older. Do you think this decision was related to your recovery? Would you have made the same decision if you had still been using?
Listen, it wouldn’t have been up to me. They don’t take crack kidneys. If I’m still smoking crack on a regular basis, they’ll say, “Yeah, you might want to keep that kidney to yourself.” When I donated my kidney, I had 25 years of sobriety. That’s why I had healthy kidneys. Since my brother’s kidneys were failing, but not cancerous or destroyed, they didn’t take his kidneys out. They just added mine. From a plumbing point of view in terms of the blood flow, it now goes through my kidney they transplanted, into his kidneys, then into his body.
The doctor, who put my kidney in him, said, “Man, you’re going to be fine. That was a big ass kidney.” I guess one of the side benefits of sobriety is that you get big ass kidneys. But sobriety definitely made that happen. My brother is also sober, and we were close friends before sobriety, but being sober led to another level of emotional openness between us. There was never a question of whether or not to do it, and it’s worked out so well. Even if I had been willing to do it before sobriety, I wouldn’t have been in any condition to do it. When you’re an addict, thinking about other people and taking on such a responsibility doesn’t happen. I have become a big advocate of organ donation, and I have done some work with the Kidney Foundation. After all, it’s a gift to be able to give the gift of life to anyone, particularly a loved one. It was a gift for me to be able to do that for him.
You hung out with Don Rickles before he died, and he gave you shit in his classic fashion. What was that like and what did that mean to you?
Are you kidding me? It was one of the highest honors you could get as a comic. To have Don Rickles talk shit to you in the green room: What more could you want as a comic? He was saying, “Yeah, you can see Alonzo this weekend at the jail in downtown L.A. He’ll say he didn’t do it, and you can laugh with him and at him. The best of both worlds. Plus he took a white man’s name, so when the cops stop him, he can claim to be innocent.” It was classic old Rickles shit that had me laughing the whole time. To be insulted by a legend is quite an honor. It was fantastic. I loved that moment, and I was blessed to experience it while he was still around.
You often spend weeks at a time doing shows on cruise ships. Given the party-first atmosphere of most cruise ships, do you find this to be challenging? When there is no escape, how do you find the serenity needed to maintain your balance and your sobriety?
It’s not a problem at all. For one thing, I work on charter cruises like jazz cruises where the whole ship is chartered. It’s a different vibe than you would get going on one of those Carnival drinking cruises. It’s not like a booze cruise where everyone is drinking all the time. When I started doing them, I was closing in on 20 years. I was at the point in my sobriety where drinking is just not an option or a solution. I’m not saying I’m immune to it and I get the idea that we all only have 24 hours, but if I watch somebody drink, it’s not attractive to me. I’m not missing anything because I’ve been there and done that. I don’t reminisce because I know it doesn’t work for me. Now drinking might work for you. If so, have a good time, but it doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t work for me.
I also don’t waste time talking to drunk people. It’s one of the occupational hazards of my job. Drunks always come up to me after a set or before a set, “Oh man, I’ve got a really good joke for you.” You listen to it a little bit, you put up with it now and then, but I don’t really care for it. Then again, it’s part of the job. I can separate from it, and I also have my cabin on board. If I need a break, I’ll duck into my cabin and hang out there. Sobriety has given me a remarkable tolerance for enjoying my own company. Moreover, I know sober people on the ship. You would be amazed at how many of the other artists or crew members are sober. We can always check in with each other if needed.
Overall, however, I’m a comic by trade, and I accept the reality of that profession. My office has a two-drink minimum. I’m around it all the time. That’s the nature of the game. If being around alcohol was a problem for me, I wouldn’t be able to function at my job. But it holds no allure for me. Once again, I’m not immune, but I go to meetings to maintain perspective. Although my life may seem great, meetings remind me that I’m still an addict and an alcoholic. It only stays great by maintaining my sobriety.
You are a huge sports fan. Is it difficult to enjoy sports sober? What does sobriety add to the experience of being a fan?
Well, I’m a Clipper fan so if I were going to drink, I would have done it by now.
God only knows!
Do you ever look at a beer commercial? That bar doesn’t exist. There are five women for every three men, and they’re all super hot. The game on the TV is the best game ever. The service is out of this world. Yeah, that bar does not exist.
Let me give you an example. I had a friend, and she used to work on the Hooters organizational team. It’s a chain, and they’re all connected. When they first open a Hooters anywhere in California, they have like ten waitresses that are just hot as can be. I’m talking model hot plus they have skills when it comes to doing the job. They’re fast, funny, and charismatic. They send them to whatever Hooters is opening, and they work there for the first couple of weeks or so. The idea is to suck in the clientele and get word-of-mouth going: Wow! The women in the new Hooters are amazing! You gotta go and check it out. Once they leave, there still might be some hot women, but a lasting buzz has been created. It’s all fantasy.
I love watching sports! I get into the game, and it’s a great escape for me. I don’t have to think about life or work, and I can enjoy it in the moment. Before my knees gave out, I used to play tons of basketball. I loved it, and I miss the competition and the camaraderie. In sobriety, I played with some NBA guys, and that’s when you learn that you’re not really good. That’s when you learn what it means to be a professional or just a guy that enjoys dribbling the ball. But the competition and the adrenaline rush and the escape of either playing or watching, that’s why I love sports. It has nothing to do with drinking and using.
You have said that living in the age of Donald Trump is a lose-lose proposition. As a liberal humanist, is it hard to live in Trump’s America? As an African-American man, is it even harder?
Look, I’m pretty lucky because I’m pretty insulated from the worst of it. One, I live in California, and, two, I have a moderately good income. I’m not rich, but I make enough so when he continues to screw up taxes and hurt the working classes, meaning the majority of the country and the vast majority of his supporters, I’ll be alright. I’ll still be able to pay my bills because I’m not raising a family of four. My health insurance went up, but I can afford it. I’m lucky in that sense.
What they’re doing to the country right now is unprecedented. It’s frustrating because so many people are not noticing it because they are not paying attention. It has become the new normal. They’re going to decimate this economy. For example, with these new steel tariffs, people don’t realize how many jobs are going to be lost. When the price of steel goes up, companies that use steel lay off workers to compensate for the costs. When I talk about this around the country, people accuse me of being a Hollywood liberal. I shake my head and explain that I used to work at Lockheed and in the aerospace industry. I know what happens firsthand. I was in a manufacturing union. I know how this affects people.
It’s horrible what’s happening to the country. As a comic that travels so much, I see that we have two countries. The two coasts and then most of the middle are quite different. The coasts hate Trump, but then there are these unbelievably racist, anti-gay, and gun-toting racists everywhere else that are using religion as a tool to promote discrimination and hatred. It’s all horrible. You go to the middle of the country, you go to the Southern states, and they are celebrating this ugliness. When Barack Obama was President and people in L.A. were celebrating diversity, I’d tell them, “As much as you love Barack Obama, people in Alabama hate Barack Obama.”
I can’t explain this divide, but it is there. Although Trump supporters are going to be very disappointed when his policies take effect, they might be too blinded by their red-tinged hatred and anger to even make the connection. Is America worse for me? That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that America is worse for all Americans.
Personally, I hate seeing the systematic racism coming back. I hate seeing voting rights being attacked, but it is so much harder for the people in my parents’ generation. I lost my Dad, but my Mom is still alive. They were the black people who fought for the civil rights movement. They lived through segregation and fought against it in the sixties. Now they are seeing all of their hard work undone. It’s horrible. It’s a horrible thing. I’m not going to give up on life or drink over it, but I hate seeing it.
We’ve been divided for quite some time, but now there’s an anger that is horrible. The anger in the division of our country is what really troubles me today. We’ll see how it plays out. I have a friend named Jimmy Carr, who’s a very funny British comic. He jokes, “I’m glad Donald Trump was elected because I love America, and I want to see how it ends.” We will survive the Trump administration, but we’ll be less of a country for it.