Comedian Craig Gass Talks the Sober Side of Comedy

By McCarton Ackerman 05/22/15

Cocaine addiction that started in his teens and continued into his 30s threatened to take all of his success away. Gass has now been clean and sober for over 10 years.

Craig Gass
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Craig Gass has been keeping audiences doubled over in laughter for more than 20 years. His knack for impressions of notorious celebrities like Gilbert Gottfried and Al Pacino attracted the attention of radio kingpin Howard Stern, who took him under his wing. He’s since gone on to appear on numerous shows including Sex and the City, The King of Queens and American Dad!, in addition to selling out comedy clubs across the country.

But a cocaine addiction that started in his teens and continued into his 30s, threatened to take all of it away. After having a heart attack at age 32, he vowed to give up drugs once and for all. Although the road was difficult at the beginning, Gass has now been clean and sober for over 10 years.

Speaking exclusively to The Fix, Gass opened up about losing some of his closest friends in the business to drugs, the relationship that led to a relapse, and how he now stays sober on the road.

When did your drug use first begin?

I started drinking alcohol at age 14 and drifted into pot shortly after. But when I discovered cocaine at age 15, it felt like I had discovered the most incredible thing in the world. It lit the fire and I didn’t realize until a few years later that I was in a situation which wasn’t so good. 

Like most people, the first few years were chasing the incredible fun you had your first night doing it, but the bad moments continued to happen more frequently. It’s funny how everything that your parents warned you as a kid about drugs comes true. You start to notice something really bad happening to those around you more often, whether it’s that they die or go to jail, but you see it in the peripheral and ignore it, even as it continues to pile up. 

Would you say that the culture of stand-up, or the business, exacerbated your drug use in any way?

I tried stand-up just for fun at age 20 and really went for it at age 23, so I was well into my addiction at that point. I think I still would have had my addiction following me regardless, but you do surround yourself with other fucked-up people who have a certain intensity to them. 

The crazy thing was that seven friends died in the first year I quit drugs and alcohol and all of them were comedians. Four were from drug overdoses and three were from DUI-related accidents. The first friend to pass away was Mitch Hedberg, who was my roommate at one time. I had really thrown up the white flag at that point and was determined to quit, but we all have doubts in the beginning. You think to yourself, “You can still do drugs. You just have to keep it under control!” It just reinforced that I was doing the right thing. 

Many of the comics we’ve spoken to have said that being alone on the road has tested their sobriety the most. Is that something you’d agree with?

Absolutely. It actually hit me harder after I was clean for about four or five years. I was performing at a club in Austin, Texas, and there were a bunch of local comedians who were really cool and had their own scene going on. Comics will usually hang out together and when you’re in a new city, people will come up just to shoot the shit or ask for advice. But nobody wanted anything to do with me that night. 

I felt really alone and went back to my room, opened up the ring key and thought this would be such a cool moment if I had drugs on me. Maybe it was the feeling of loneliness. But I knew I’d spend all night lowering the volume of the TV until it was on mute or following the shadows under the door, thinking I had to chop my coke more quietly because everyone could hear me. There was nothing enjoyable about the psychosis of it all.

You’ve spoken previously about having a heart attack when you were 32. Was that the moment when you decided to stop using?

It was. It was the first time in my life that I could afford my addiction and I wanted to make sure I had more than enough. I was having moments where my body was sending signals and I’d just move past it. But I was up for a couple of days at one point and could feel my breathing getting more restricted. My roommate took me to the hospital and the doctor said they were calling for a cardiologist to come down immediately because I was having a heart attack. It was surreal because I was making phone calls to people not knowing if I was ever going to talk to them again, all while feeling my breathing becoming more restricted as my body was shutting down. I knew afterwards that something had to change.

Were there any periods of your recovery that were rocky?

I was clean for a year and two weeks the first time, but then I got into a relationship with a girl who just wasn’t right for me. She would beg me to do coke with her, even knowing what happened with the heart attack, and said I just needed to do it in moderation. Finally, I got fucked up on New Year’s Eve and it was amazing how much more intense my addiction got for the next 11 months.

The plan was to quit on New Year’s Day since Jan. 1 is an easy day to remember to be sober. But on the two-year anniversary of my heart attack (on Dec. 14), the switch turned on. I was taking care of my mom at that point and just had clarity. And that’s hitting the fucking lottery because so many of us do this stupid dance where we know we need help, but see what the options are and run away. Just surrendering and accepting the embarrassment and saying I have a problem is something not many of us are able to do. I celebrated 10 years of sobriety last December. 

Do you talk about your past drug use on stage at all?

I talk about it lightly on stage, but there wasn’t anything about that period that was hugely funny to me. I talk about doing coke with someone in the Mexican mafia who put a hunting knife to my face. I was willing to put up with that and hear about what a horrible human being he was just because he had coke. It doesn’t come out as a 10 or 15-minute bit, but more as little sides.

Is there a camaraderie of sorts among other sober comics in the industry or is it not as obvious who they are?

I was able to confide in another sober comedian when I was struggling early on after my heart attack, which was really important for me. The scary thing when I first stopped was thinking about how I’d be alone. I was shocked to find out how many comedians, musicians, actors and radio people are sober. It was like, “Wow, not everyone was getting as shit-faced as I was.” I was realizing that I was actually one of the few people who had reached that level. 

What are some of the things that have helped you most in staying sober?

It was hard for me to do, but the biggest thing in the beginning was getting rid of everyone who I partied with. I was always living two separate lives, so the people I cared about and the people I partied with never mixed. That’s not to say I didn’t care about some of those people, but I couldn’t be around them if that’s what our friendship revolved around. So even when I let that go, I still had people who cared about me. It also took me a while to realize that I had to give up everything as well. I never had a drinking problem, but it took me right back to coke.

Attending group meetings is something that’s therapeutic for me to this day and I’ll do it more often now. I’m just really grateful to be alive.

McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.