Debra DiGiovanni: It's Not the Weed That's Making You Funny

By Rebecca Rush 03/10/20

People who don’t think you detox from marijuana: you’re wrong. I could feel it coming out of my body and I’d be sick. I had weeks of night terrors. 

Image: 
Debra DiGiovanni
I am a better comedian now. I’m sharper, I remember things, I know where I am, I’m not mumbling. Pic via Author

Debra DiGiovanni, an award-winning Canadian comedian living in Los Angeles, is easy to love. She boasts a growing list of accomplishments, including hosting the Genie Awards alongside Sandra Oh and appearing on the 5th season of Last Comic Standing and Conan. Last year, her album Lady Jazz received a Juno Award nomination for Comedy Album of the Year, and she recently co-wrote and sold a digital series to Comedy Central. DiGiovanni is an absolute murderer on stage, whether performing at a small venue in Silverlake or a sold-out arena.

Despite her rigorous road schedule, she agreed to meet with me to discuss her sobriety. Her West Hollywood apartment smells like shampoo and feels like a hug. There is a jigsaw puzzle in progress on the coffee table.

You have been doing comedy for 20 years, and just celebrated 4 years sober. Can you tell me, just in terms of your career, what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now?

When I turned 33, I stopped drinking. The minute I quit, my marijuana just got to a [whole new] level. When I got successful enough that I didn’t have a day job anymore, it started to get really bad. Don’t get me wrong, I would smoke a joint before I went to the office, but this was like, I have nothing but a show tonight - so why not smoke all day? I gave up on relationships, friendships got really small. Only comedy brought me out of my apartment. 

In 2011, I started cancelling and lying. The bullshit stories make me embarrassed to even think about right now. Just ‘cause I wanted to sit home and smoke. Giving up thousands of dollars - and I did that dozens of times. I would say I fell, I got hit by a car. I had a sling at home just in case I had to go to the store and anyone saw me. It took me five more years to quit.

I moved to L.A. in 2014. If I thought that I smoked before -- it got to a level where that’s all I did. So, it was Christmas 2015 and it just started to -- by the grace of God -- it just started to taste bad. Like my body was starting to go we gotta stop now. I always had lung problems, I always had vocal problems, I was always sick. I would get a cold and it would turn into a lung infection.

I started looking online, asking how do I quit marijuana? I started looking at 12-step programs. I remember seeing a quote: the sneaky thing about marijuana, as opposed to heroin or coke or even alcohol - it may not kill you quick but you don’t go anywhere. [It’s like] treading water -- you don’t go under, but you don’t go forward. And that really struck me. Eventually, you’re going to get tired and go under.

Then I chose a deadline. It was Christmas of 2015, and I had cancelled on my family to go home, like I did every year [because] I would realize I can’t go for a week without smoking. I bought copious amounts of pot and said: when this is done, then I’m done.

And all I did for ten days was smoke and watch TV and eat. On January 4, I woke up with two days’ worth left. I called my best friend on FaceTime and took all my stuff, all my accoutrements, and threw it all in the dumpster. [I] tore my medical card up in front of her, flushed the weed down the toilet, and said I’m done. She cried and then I cried.

Since I’ve been sober -- I’m on stage all the time, [and] I have a very nice reputation. I’m on Step 8 and I look forward to The Promises. They say [when you’re through with] Step 9, they start coming true. First three months of being sober I thought were gonna kill me. People who don’t think you detox from marijuana: you’re wrong. I could feel it coming out of my body and I’d be sick. I had weeks of night terrors. You don’t really dream when you’re high all the time, you just sleep. [So there was] a lot of emotional stuff and crying.

At the beginning, I lost a lot of friends. Or people just thought I should only take a year off [from weed]. And I was worried about my creativity. [But] I can say this: I am a better comedian now. I’m sharper, I remember things, I know where I am, I’m not mumbling. Every day I wake up and thank god I’m sober.

My mother passed away in January of 2018. She and I had a very hard relationship my whole life. She got really sick in the middle of 2016. I was six months sober when all her cancers came back. I told my super Christian conservative parents I’m a drug addict and they both looked at me and said Okay. Can we help? I was able to ask my mother for forgiveness and she did the same with me and then I got to spend 18 months with her before she died. I went home for Christmas and got to spend this fantastic Christmas with Mom. I left on the 28th and on the 29th she started to slip in and out of consciousness for the next nine days and then she passed. That was all God.

Did you ever feel like there was a wall between you and the audience or you and the world when you were high?

Yeah, and I wanted it. I wanted that wall. I was there, but there wasn’t a real connection and it was sort of like looking at them through tissue paper. I’m from Canada and I had quite a bit of success there. And there was no real enjoyment of my success. Nothing mattered. I didn’t care. I was always numb. So [when I received] big accolades, [I] would be like yeah great. That’s heartbreaking to think about now. I would win an award and show up high off my ass like…thanks. And just want to get out of there to continue getting high. 

Did you take time off comedy when you first got sober?

Not long, but a couple of weeks. The first two weeks I was severely debilitated. I didn’t know how to function. There was a commercial in the 90’s for quitting smoking -- about relearning to live without cigarettes -- the whole thing was a guy getting up in the morning to get ready for work and putting the iron on his face and the juice on his shirt; as the commercial goes along, now he’s ironing his shirt. Thankfully I’m a comedian and there were days where I didn’t need to function. I didn’t book anything, so I [could] stay home. I would go to a meeting and talk to whoever and cry. It came out a lot in tears. I would go for walks.

And I was scared to perform without marijuana. It wasn’t just the detox. I had 16 days under my belt and my best friend was like you gotta go sometime. And I was truly shocked that I was still able to tell jokes. It felt foreign. And it just kept getting better. 

Was there a transition period, do you feel like your material changed?

Yeah, I don’t talk about marijuana anymore. But you know I don’t really talk about being sober yet either. I have one joke about it -- you will not be surprised to hear – [that] doesn’t go over very well. If I say I don’t smoke marijuana, I get booed sometimes. I am very open about it, I will tell anyone who wants to know. Even if you don’t want to know, I will tell you. I don’t do a lot of sober stuff on stage, but a lot of my jokes were about marijuana. I kind of have those moments where I wonder if I made my personality marijuana. There’s moments when I wonder if that’s all that I was, a stoner. And I am so much more than that. There’s a chunk [of material] that’s gone. I’m also about truth. If it’s not happening, I’m not gonna talk about it onstage.

Last February was your first Conan appearance. Are you happy that it didn’t happen earlier?

It wouldn’t have happened earlier. I just know that. I’m so glad. All these things that I get to do now: I’m there, I’m experiencing them. I remember them. [Before], everything was a glazed blur. There’s footage of me at the Canadian TV awards -- like the Emmys. I won one and I don’t remember a second of my acceptance speech because I was so high. Now I’m here: good, bad, or otherwise.

What is your favorite thing about being sober in comedy?

All my jokes are now being written for everybody, rather than just focusing on potheads. I love always being on time. I’ll show up and the host isn’t there yet and that’s not me - I was always late. I love not running out to get high. I love not focusing on who I’m going to smoke a joint with while I’m on stage. The whole thing was get high with these people get high with those people -- that was just it, really, the only concern. When can I get this over with so I can go home and get high? It was just a little blip rather than what I wanted to do. Like, okay I’m doing comedy tonight but when can I get high? Being present is what I love. Watching other comics. I never used to do that, I was always outside. 

What is the most challenging thing about being totally sober in comedy?

The camaraderie is gone. I know I miss out on bonding because [of] being sober and my age. After shows now, I chat with everyone, I hug everyone, and then I go home. I don’t find drunk and high people that stimulating to be around. Especially drunk people. I can hang around two rounds and then, when everyone’s on their third or fourth drink, that’s when I’m gonna go. They don’t even know I’m there. And I don’t even need to say goodbye - they don’t even know I’m leaving. I am way more of a lunch and coffee person. You wanna have brunch? I’m your girl. A party is not for me anymore. I have those moments where I have to accept that. That’s not who I am anymore. I was always the girl who had weed. That was my position. When that position was taken away from me, there was a little bit of -- I don’t know what I bring to this anymore, I don’t know who I am in this community anymore. I’m okay now, but in the first couple of years I couldn’t be around pot smokers. Now I can. But only to a certain extent. Also, I don’t want to smell like pot anymore. But for the first year and a half the minute someone would start smoking I’d be like okay I gotta go

What advice would you give to a comedian in their first year of sobriety?

Reach out to other comedians you know who are sober because there’s just a ton of us. It’s a good community. You are not alone. I don’t know a single sober comedian that wouldn’t have a cup of coffee with you. I’ve befriended comedians on Twitter who said “I’m sober” and then we talked -- never met them in real life but we are friendly because of the bonding of sobriety. Especially alcohol -- there’s a gang of comics who go to AA now together. I’ve mostly stopped going to AA now because I’m focused on another addiction, but there’s a ton.

My suggestion is: You are just as funny; you will be funnier. I know there are no guarantees but I can almost promise you that you will be funnier. It’s not the weed that’s making you funny. It’s just not. And reach out. And take time off. Take time off if you need to take time off, but if a month has gone by, reach out and get back on stage because you’re going to find out who you are now and it’s going to be glorious and you’re really gonna look back and go “I’m so glad I’m sober!”

And -- we need you! We need as many sobers as we can get!

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Rebecca Rush is a stand up comic, writer, and constantly evolving human. Former horse girl. Witch. Bylines include Fodor’s Travel, MiamiBeach411.com, The New Haven Advocate, Big City, Lit, and the Miami New Times. She was on the Viceland show Slutever 03/17/2019. Her podcast is called Comic’s Book Club, and features a comic or author talking about a different book every week (also available on iTunes and Spotify). She has performed at clubs, colleges, and dive bars across the country. Upcoming dates can be found on her website, http://rebeccarushcomedy.com. You’re also welcome to follow her on Twitter and Insta. She lives in West Hollywood with her little dog. Friend of Bill W.