He Who Laughs, Lasts: Comedians in Recovery

By DebK 09/23/18
laugh sign brick wall

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”

Alan Moore, ”Watchmen”

The archetype of the sad clown cannot simply be reduced to visions of ancient velvet paintings collecting dust in a grandparent’s attic. It is a very real and very tragic way of life for many of those in the entertainment industry. Often, individuals whose public personas seem to be “on” all the time find they have a great deal of trouble with turning themselves “off” in private. The expectations of society at large are a heavily contributing factor to such unfortunate circumstances and the pressure to conform and deliver is frequently what pushes many great entertainers over the edge and into the void.

Comedy Legends Who Have Succumbed to Drug Addiction

One such notable entertainer is the late John Belushi, a staple of the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live casts, who died at age 33 from an overdose of a combination of Heroin and Cocaine, known as a “speedball”. In 1997, another SNL performer, Chris Farley, who idolized his predecessor Belushi, met a similar end to that of his idol when he too was found dead from a drug overdose, also at the age of 33. Beyond having both performed in the same comedy troupe (albeit years apart), both comedians had a common thread of outrageous public behavior in addition to their public and private struggles with substance abuse. In recent news, Star Wars icon and famed comedian, Carrie Fisher, passed away at the age of 60, having suffered a cardiac arrest on a transatlantic flight. Following her death, a report from the coroner indicated the presence of several different drugs in her system at the time of death. An outspoken advocate for mental health – and remarkably open about her personal struggles with Bipolar Disorder, Fisher’s death sent shockwaves around the world.

The Power of Laughter in Addiction Recovery

Given the fact that many comedians struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, and the pressure of meeting expectations put upon them by fans, it may be a wonder why anyone chooses the path of comedy and entertainment in the first place. It important to understand, though, that there is a lot that comedy can bring to brighten up the lives of individuals in recovery. It’s not all laughs all the time but is it not constant sorrow either. Understanding when and where it is appropriate to infuse comedy into one’s healing process – to borrow from entertainment industry jargon, “feel the room” – such a mindset can turn out to be incredibly beneficial as both a tool of personal use and one with which to inspire others.

Take for example the following quote: “Just for today: I can laugh at myself. I can take a joke. I will lighten up and have some fun today.”

This inspirational message reminds the reader that no one should take themselves or life too seriously. Recovery is a serious endeavor and maintaining a life of sobriety is something of great importance. With that said, laughter can be an excellent medicine when employed properly. Laughter helps to release endorphins in the body as well as to decrease stress. If you find yourself feeling wound up or frustrated over something that is out of your control, it helps to find a way to get yourself to laugh. Listen to a funny song, tell a friend a joke, or remember a time in your life that still makes you chuckle today. Additionally, comedy shows can be a great sober activity. There are a wealth of sober comedians out there to tickle your funny bone.

Success Stories of Sober Comedians

Several comedians of note have recently made their recovery public knowledge. One prominent example is the comedian Steve-O of Jackass fame. His daring physical antics in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s were amusing to some and shocking to others. His self-destructive behavior, however, did not cease when the cameras turned off. In 1995, he went to rehab but was unsuccessful in achieving or maintaining sobriety. In 2008, his erratic and increasingly dangerous drug-fueled stunts led co-star Johnny Knoxville to arrange an intervention wherein Steve-O was put on a 51/50 psychiatric hold (later updated to a 52/50) and then sent to treatment and then on to sober living in which he lived for two years. The ordeal, though difficult, was ultimately successful for the comedian. In a recent social media post, he celebrated achieving a decade of sobriety and expressed gratitude to Knoxville and friends for helping him on his sober journey. Another well-known comedian who is outspoken about their sobriety is Glee star, Jane Lynch. In her 2011 memoir Happy Accidents, Lynch opened up about her struggles with alcoholism and attending her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1992 when she was 31 years old. Fans of the WTF With Marc Maron podcast will also be interested to find out that its eponymous host is also proudly sober and speaks openly about addiction, recovery, and sobriety on his podcast notably having interviewed Celebrity Rehab drug counselor, Bob Forrest among others.

Laughter’s Lasting Effects

The darkness that lurks beneath a comedic façade is often the issue with which entertainers struggle the most. Using comedy to mask one’s pain is a common crutch, which, when compounded with substance abuse can have disastrous results. The best course of action, when faced with issues of substance abuse and mental illness, is to seek help and treatment to gain a better understanding of the root causes of one’s compulsive need to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Though many comedic cultural icons have met their tragic end at the hands of the disease of addiction, their legacies continue to live on. Letting the spirit of comedy serve to bring levity to the seriousness of sober life is a great way to inspire continued success. The willingness of many comedic figures to speak openly about their struggles with addiction and their subsequent recovery and life in sobriety is a true testament to the enduring power of comedy. 

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