Headlining in AA

By Carlos Herrera 09/09/12

I spoke at a high-end AA meeting and became their star du jour. And then I came back to earth. 

Speaker of the house Photo via

I've done stand-up comedy for decent crowds in Hollywood and things I've written have been read by lots of people. The exact number? I have no clue. I filmed a TV pilot that has been seen by probably 18 people and I've spoken at AA meetings in front of what seemed like several hundred. Because I perform in front of crowds for a living, I’m not nervous to speak in AA. Except for one time, when the guy who asked me to speak said, "This is (meeting name), so entertain them." It was clear: I was to tell R-rated stories for a community of people with drinking problems. Fine, cool, whatever. 

Dead center in the middle of the city, with rush hour traffic crawling, smog burning and the sun setting, I was waiting for my ride at a corner in Hollywood where donuts stop and trannies start, but when we got to the meeting, there was a valet parker and our car ended up between a vintage Rolls Royce and a Maserati. The meeting was packed with people from all walks of life. I'm kidding. There was really just one: white, Jewish, and somewhere between upper middle class and filthy rich. The only meth these people could possibly know about was from watching Breaking Bad or hearing uncomfortable disclosures from their gay spin instructors. I felt certain I couldn’t be in the right place.

When I was done, about 50 people came up to shake my hand like I’d just won an Academy Award, which was apropos since some of those people actually had them. 

But I started speaking anyway. My voice echoed but really had nowhere to go so it bounced back at me like a gunshot to the chest. Fuck. Open mics in Koreatown had better sound systems than that. I went through the format that I had skimmed over five minutes earlier since I wasn’t a regular at this meeting. Actually, I had only been twice before in early sobriety: high rises in the neighborhood had been constructed and altered the skyline since I’d been there last. 

At this meeting, like most, those who have been going the longest sit in one section to the right side of the speaker, who is on a stage. At this meeting, the VIP section contained members whose sobriety, I learned when they announced it proudly, ranged to several centuries. And you know what these stalwarts in the program did when I was 10 seconds into my story? They started heckling me! Seriously. Old, grumpy members of AA wearing hats that shared the ridiculous logo of their mid-life crisis-purchased car started yelling at me because I wasn't projecting well enough, despite my resume of saying words into a microphone. I wanted to shout back, “Sorry buddy, but I'm not your caddy, okay? Your granddaughter offered me sexual favors after she read my Twitter page and, just so you know, it's not a mid-life crisis if you're no longer middle aged.” Instead, since people in the crowd were thrown off by the heckling, I acknowledged what was going on like any stand-up comedian would by saying, "I'm getting heckled by the old guys from The Muppets.” There was laughter and silence from their corner. Then I was really ready to speak. The meeting gave an alcoholic with no alcohol a microphone, a crowd and a bad mood. We were all in for a good time. 

I was wearing my favorite shirt and worst jacket and I have to say I crushed. If it was on Comedy Central Presents, I'd be in movies right now. Stories about driving hookers and snorting sand by accident, sprinkling it with talking about the 12 steps (you know, the heart of the program). But my booker—I mean, the secretary of the meeting—was laughing so hard at my drunkalogue that I just kept going. Why focus on all that less interesting recovery stuff? When I was done, about 50 people came up to shake my hand like I’d just won an Academy Award, which was apropos since some of those people actually had them. 

After the meeting, I smoked a cigarette between two of the country's most influential streets, neighboring one of its top universities and some of its worst drug addicts. My friend and I started heading back to Hollywood. Somewhere after the strip, where Sunset becomes anorexic and rids itself of hotels and billboards, I got a Facebook friend request from a cute girl. I didn't know her but I planned on checking it out later for the laughs. Once I was home, I got on my computer and had a lot more friend requests from people from the meeting. This was not protocol for being of service in AA: Facebook messages, tweets, Instagram likes and my entire social network was blowing up like a strip club on NBA All-Star Weekend.

Was I just of service in AA or was I about to be serviced by AA? A little after midnight that night, a girl from the meeting messaged me an invite to an after-party for the meeting. Fellowship, for me, tends to consist of talking to a bunch of old men at a diner as they swap divorce stories. This time, it was at a some sober Hollywood-type's three-story mansion in West Hollywood's Bird streets, a neighborhood so cool that Jim Morrison threw up there, the Beatles recorded there and Sharon Tate wasn't even cool enough to get murdered here.

Energy drinks and soothing electronica blasted through the house. The guests—guys wearing T-shirts with sports coats and girls wearing hipster chic cocaine attire—were quite interested in me. They asked me for details on my stories of doing drugs and drinking, why I got sober at before 21 and how I did it. It wasn’t that I’d never talked to people who were genuinely curious about my sobriety; I was just so used to doing it over scrambled eggs with men more than twice my age that I was legitimately caught off guard. My dad’s a cancer surgeon and I went to prep schools my whole life but still, I’d never seen extravagance within AA. I walked into AA on my own free will, having had all that stuff not work for me so I guess I always figured it wouldn't magically work inside a room with plastic chairs in a circle.

I stayed for a bit but when the sober girls started trickling off to their respective rock star dates, so did the guys. So I left knowing I did my part in AA for the night as I rode my motorcycle back down to earth, to Sunset, to a comedy club, to my place in the world. Usually my part in AA for an evening is talking to a kid in rehab or a homeless guy with a meth problem but that night it wasn't. It felt good to be of service in AA in a new, interesting way but at the same time, it was sort of like meeting a hot girl but learning she's a full-on Russian mail order bride or getting a really good bootleg DVD: something was just a little bit off. The overindulgence—the idea of celebrating sobriety in such a grand way—made me long for a solo meditation hike like Christian Bale goes on at the beginning of Batman Begins. When I was in early sobriety, my sponsor wrote his address on the top of a magazine and I met him at his place to read the book and do 12-step work. Now and then, someone would buy me frozen yogurt and pancakes after meetings. It was simple and carefree and made me feel good because my life before had resembled a lame reboot of The Basketball Diaries. 

I went to a comedy club later that same night and didn't think about the meeting for a long time. I stayed sober. I went to shitty daytime meetings with crazy people. I fellowshipped and picked up my phone when I didn't want to. I helped some people along the way (I think). I called my sponsor and whined to my friends. 

A couple of months later, I went back to that meeting to give a friend a cake for five years. The meeting had moved on from me, although one kid from a rehab said he remembered me from when I spoke and thanked me. I had done my job so I sat down and blended in like I was supposed to. The speaker sucked. 

Carlos Herrera is a Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian and writer. A former entertainment assistant from the the age of 19, he has performed at The Hollywood Improv and The Comedy Store, amongst others. He just wrapped a docu-comedy pilot for MTV and can be seen late night (in the back) at comedy clubs in Hollywood. He also wrote about seduction in sobriety for The Fix.

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