How AA Made Me a Comic

By Amy Dresner 03/19/12
I never knew I was that funny until my shares started killing. And it wasn’t too long a journey from the rooms to the stage.
Dresner at the mic Adam Hendershott

Back in 2007, I was new and crazy, with dark track marks on my slender arms and long, pale neck. Rehabs hadn’t worked. Therapy hadn’t worked. I could not stop shooting cocaine. I had decided, in my desperation, to give AA a shot. The sponsor I picked told me to share and to share honestly. And I did, every chance I got. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I was brutally and embarrassingly honest about drugs and sex and desperation and desire. I didn’t care what anybody thought. I was there to get clean.

Much to my surprise, people laughed. Whether it was because they were shocked or uncomfortable or because they identified, I don’t know. But it became a theme. People enjoyed my shares—waited for them even. They loved how I bared my soul and found my take on life “funny.” At first I was offended. Here I was confessing my darkest thoughts and people were laughing? How dare they! But out of this came a calling. People would take me aside after meetings. “You should be a comic,” they’d say. “You’re really funny.” I didn’t take this seriously until actual working comics told me that I should consider stand up. The truth is I had always dreamed of being a comic. Back when I was nine and other little girls were dreaming of becoming ballerinas, I dreamed of becoming a comedian, a black comedian, actually—Richard Pryor, to be precise.

One of the big misunderstandings that normies have about sober people is that somehow we’re morally against drinking. “I’m not Muslim, I’m not Mormon, I’m not trying to bring back Prohibition,” I always say. “I fucking love drinking."

Once I had a year sober, I decided to give it a shot. What did I have to lose? I had already lost everything—especially my pride. I took a stand up class at Los Angeles City College to help me handle my stage fright. At the end of the month-long class, I had a graduation show at the Comedy Store. The room was packed full of my AA friends. Despite the fact that I felt like a nervous amateur, I delivered my material like a pro. They laughed and I felt at home at last. And I was hooked. The rush of laughter and applause was heady but fleeting—just like drugs. Still, at least with drugs, you know you’ll get sort of high every time. There is no such security in comedy. Jokes that kill one time can lie flat and lifeless the next. Granted, at the end of my using, the drugs didn’t work anymore, either; whether I had blown out all of my pleasure receptors or was just getting shitty stuff, who knows. I guess because of this inconsistency, being hooked on comedy is more like being a gambling addict, complete with that variable reinforcement. Each time, you have that new hope of hitting the jackpot; the anticipation and hope are intoxicating.

Of course, when I started comedy, all my material was about my newfound sobriety. I had nothing else to talk about. As I progressed in my fledgling career, my material base got wider but I always identified as a drug addict/alcoholic on stage and used the platform of humor to educate the masses. A top tier manager once had told me to “take what hurts you and make it funny” and man, did I have a lot of hurt.

If you think the people in AA are dark and broken, just get into comedy. Comics, like alcoholics and addicts, are self-obsessed with low self-esteem. And actually, most of the comics I’ve come across are either active addicts or in recovery. There are no words to describe the camaraderie I’ve felt with other sober comics.

I soon gained a reputation as an “edgy” comic. My material was all about drugs, rehab, sex, mental illness, and my epilepsy. I was not what they call “TV ready” in the biz but I didn’t care. I wasn’t out to become the next Dane Cook. I was talking about the things that mattered to me and hopefully to other people.

I was performing at a club in downtown LA about a year or two into my career when two comics approached me. They were both sober, putting together a recovery tour and wanted me to be part of it. We would perform, they told me, at the Alano clubs, AA and NA conventions for sober audiences, raising money for local recovery houses. Was I interested? Of course I was. One of the comics was a transman (a woman who had become a man). The other had been an armed career criminal. They both had been doing comedy for years and had double-digit sobriety. They took me under their collective wings and we hit the road. It was a wonderful opportunity to be on a national sober tour as a new comic, not to mention newcomer. Performing for other addicts and alcoholics is my favorite thing in the whole world. I can talk about the psych ward or shooting up in my neck and the crowd will explode in laughter. No material is too dark for them. 

I’ve now been a comic for a little over four years. When I relapsed two months ago, my tour buddies said, “This is a recovery tour, not a relapse tour. Get your shit together.” But the blackest relapses can become the funniest, most illuminating material. It just takes time since, after all, tragedy plus time equals comedy. And nobody knows this better than people in recovery.

At one show in Maine, I talked about a failed suicide attempt. Nothing is harder to make funny than suicide. The crowd didn’t love the material but after the show, a young guy came up to me and said, “I tried to kill myself a few months ago and also ended up in the psych ward. I was so ashamed of it but you made it so funny. Thank you.” If that’s not service, I don’t know what is.

I am always nervous before gigs. And when I see other comics having a beer or two to loosen up before getting on stage, I look at them with envy. But many of the professional comics I know don’t actually drink before their sets. There is a power that comes with clarity and although nerves can sometimes get in the way, being completely sober means being truly connected to the crowd and having a keen awareness of what works and what doesn’t. Still, I think sober comics are excluded from some of the drinking bonding activities of the so-called normie comics. I know of many times where comics have not invited me because they assumed I would feel uncomfortable, which of course is not the case. It’s impossible to tell how much that affects a sober comic’s ability to climb to the top but connections are equally if not more important than talent in the game of stand up.

I never say I’m in AA on stage. And it’s not because I want to maintain my anonymity. I could really give a fuck about that and think that being “out” helps more people than it harms. I don’t do it because I already risk alienating my drinking audiences when I say I don’t drink or do drugs anymore and I don’t want to estrange them further. I just say that I’m sober and I’m careful not to seem righteous about it.  One of the big misunderstandings that normies have about sober people is that somehow we’re morally against drinking. “I’m not Muslim, I’m not Mormon, I’m not trying to bring back Prohibition,” I always say. “I fucking love drinking. And if I could do it and not crash my car, ruin all my relationships, lose my job and carry my liver around on a dolly, I would. Fat men aren’t against cake. They love cake.”

Now that I have the stage, I try not to be funny in my shares and use the rooms to talk honestly about my struggles in recovery. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. I’m still stunned when I’ll do a mediocre set at a show, then go to a meeting where the room explodes in laughter over my angry, dark share. For me, it just reinforces that addicts are my people and I’m where I belong. 

Amy Dresner is a sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She also wrote about sex and dating in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix. 

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