Sarge On How Laughter Supports Early Recovery

By John Lavitt 04/27/17

Every day you have to disarm the bomb of addiction within you or there’s a good chance that the bomb will go off.

Sarge telling jokes to help disarm the bomb of addiction.
Sarge advocates using humor to combat addiction

After seeing the late Don Rickles throttle an audience with scathing wit, Sarge decided to become a comedian. He moved to a pull-out sofa in New York and jumped into the local club circuit. Three years later, Sarge found himself opening for some of the biggest names in music, including Aretha Franklin and The Beach Boys. Sarge is known for his dead-on impressions of Mike Tyson and Kermit the Frog. He also sings in the voices of Sammy Davis Jr. and Stevie Wonder.

Sarge has an amazing background that should really only be told by the man himself. He recently wrote a memoir – I’m Still Standing Up: A Tale of Devilish Proportions. Beyond the comedy clubs and embracing recovery support, Sarge has become a favored group leader at rehabs across the country. In the documentary film Sarge Behind Bars, he did a 70-minute comedy performance at the Wyoming Re-Entry Recovery Prison in the morning, then spent the afternoon interviewing the inmates. The Fix wanted to know more so we let Sarge do the talking.

To say you have a fascinating family background is a bit of an understatement. Can you tell us more about your roots?

My roots, huh? (Laughing) Well, I was adopted at birth. My birth mother was a very, very religious Orthodox Jewish woman in 1960, and she got pregnant with a black man’s child. She was a college grad student. Somehow, in the racially- segregated heart of America, my birth mother had a brief relationship with a black man and got pregnant. Because she was from a very religious family, she had to flee her home in Chicago to not be ostracized. She fled to a motel in Florida on what is now South Beach, but before South Beach became the South Beach that we know so well today from television and the media. Back then, it was just plain old Miami beach. She chose to finish out the pregnancy there. You could call that part one of my roots.

The second part was that my Jewish parents...were trying to adopt, but were having a hard time of it. My mother called her father and told him about the problem they were having. He said, “Well, I got a friend who owes me a favor in Miami.” My mother asked, “What kind of favor?” He told her, “Well, 14 years ago he went to interview for a job at a hospital in Florida, got the job, and never came back. Every day since, I’ve had to move his car to alternate sides of the street so he doesn’t get a ticket. Now he’ll basically do anything I need.” According to my mother, that’s a true story. There aren’t many people like that today.

He made a phone call to this doctor in Miami - they were really good friends from the neighborhood – and he told him his dilemma. The doctor said that he had nothing but babies down there, and he should come on down. The doctor said, “I’ll arrange something, and we’ll find a baby for your daughter. But you got to do one more thing for me. You got to bring me a chocolate babka with no nuts from this bakery in Brooklyn.” My grandfather couldn’t believe this. He had been moving his car for 14 years and now he wanted a chocolate babka with no nuts. He said, “What?!” The Doctor replied, “Look, there’s no good babka down here. If you’re coming down here, I’ll get you a baby, but you got to get me a babka.” My grandfather went to this bakery over on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn and he bought him two chocolate babkas with no nuts. Two babkas are better than one, and he didn’t want to take any chances. My grandfather knew how to play it safe. He actually bought a third babka and put it in his freezer. It was still there when I was growing up. Every old Jew’s freezer is like a time capsule.

Later, my grandfather shows up at the hospital in Florida, and his friend takes him into the maternity ward and points to my birth mother. He said, “See that girl. She’s about to give birth any hour now, and she’s a good Jewish girl, but she doesn’t want to keep the baby. Whatever comes out of her, it’s all yours.” She was a beautiful white Russian girl with alabaster skin so my grandfather thought it was a good deal for a couple of babkas. The next day I was born, and everyone was a bit surprised when I came out. My grandfather said to the Doctor, “I think you left him in a little too long. He’s a little on the well-done side.”

They were all confused. It was beyond anyone’s scope of imagination that a white girl from a very, very strict and religious Jewish family could have been pregnant with a black man’s child. My grandfather told my parents, and they came down to get me. My grandfather told them to bring a basket to carry me and a cover for the basket until they could all figure out what the heck they were going to tell people in Great Neck.

It must not have been easy growing up in Long Island as a mixed-race child in such racially sensitive times. Did your incredible savant ability to play a piano by ear help to alleviate some of this discomfort?

I’m an only child, and I never went to public schools so I avoided most of those problems. I was given an intelligence test as a kid, and it said my IQ was upwards of 150. That’s debatable. You can ask my wife how smart I am. When I was five years old, my parents took me to see The Sound of Music. When we came home, I sat down at the piano in our house for the first time and started to play. I had never played the piano before, but I could play all those songs from the movie. Everyone was amazed. They got me tested at the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center in New York City, and they said I was a savant music genius with perfect pitch. All I had to was hear something once, and I could play it. I can’t read a note of music to this very day, but if I hear it, I can still play it by ear.

Your addiction led to a year of homelessness. What was that like, how did it affect you, and how does it affect you to this day?

I had lost everything, and I had nowhere to go. While I was in the thick of it, it really didn’t bother me. All of my focus was on scamming people out of money so I could get what I needed to stay high. I went from living on Park Avenue and working at CBS in New York to not having any place to live. Rather than telling people, I just disappeared and went off the grid. I had a few friends left, but they were living their lives while I wandered around New York City. I had a surprisingly high-level job at CBS sports and a rent-a-car from that job where I spent a lot of my time. I would show up to a friend’s apartment and tell them that my car got towed and my wallet was in the car. I would tell them to loan me $400 to get my car out of the impound lot. Once I had the car, I promised to go to an ATM and pay them back. I would take the money and get my drugs. I never used it for a furnished room or a hotel room. I just always stayed out on the street.

Some friends would let me stay in their places when they went out of town. I screwed them all over. When I was down to my one final friend towards the end of 1990, he let me stay at his place. He left his ATM card, and I figured out the PIN. I took as much money as I could off the card, and I sold all his jewelry. He found me on the street and asked if I had taken all his stuff. I said that I had sold it to get money to buy crack. It was ironic because I was heavy at the time. He couldn’t believe that I was using crack and asked, “Aren’t crack addicts usually skinny?” I laughed and said, “You should have seen me before. I’m downward trending.”

Twenty-four hours later, he told me that he wanted to get me help. I had a meeting with an interventionist, and they sent me to a rehab in Delray. I didn’t detox, even though I’d been using crack, ketamine, and PCP along with as much whiskey and beer that I could drink. When I got to treatment, the clinical director asked me, “Are you an alcoholic?” I looked at him with disdain and said, “Oh, no, not me, I’m a drug addict. I just drink as a cover.” He smiled at me and said, “Right” in a long-drawn-out drawl.

The clinical director then asked, “How many drinks did you have on your way here on the plane?” I thought about it for a second and said, “Eleven.” He looked at me and said, “Well, you’re definitely not an alcoholic.” I asked, “Why is that?” He said, “Well, an alcoholic would have had twelve drinks.” I looked at him and said, “Right” in a long-drawn-out drawl. He looked hard at me and said, “If you mock me, your shit will be out by the curb.”

Mind you, the only shit I had was in a trash bag. I decided not to mock him, and I ended up getting sober at that place and staying sober ever since. By following direction, the obsession to drink and drug was removed from my life. I learned that it doesn’t matter how you pray. All that matters is that you do it. What mattered most was taking direction from that guy. That guy became my sponsor and is still my sponsor to this day, and he has forty-two years clean and sober.

Although you numbed your pain with alcohol and drugs, you also describe yourself as a gambling addict. Can you tell us more about how gambling affected your life?

I was never a gambler, I never played cards, I never gambled at all until I was sober for almost a decade. It started in the year 2000. At the time, I was working at Fox in Los Angeles, I had a national sports radio talk show every night, and I was making a lot of money. On the weekends, I would go to Las Vegas and gamble with my first wife. Not the woman I am married to today who is the amazing mother of my son. At the time, we’d go to Mandalay Bay and Caesar’s Palace and all the big casinos to eat and gamble. I didn’t think it was a problem at first, and it all seemed like a lot of innocent fun. That’s until I started gambling on the road when I wasn’t with my wife. As a comedian, you often feel all alone after a show, and it was kind of a response to loneliness. I don’t drink or do drugs, I don’t womanize, I’m ten years sober, but I’m lonely as shit. One minute I’m in front of a couple of thousand people, killing it during a show and getting a standing ovation, and the next minute I’m alone.

After each show, I would sell a couple hundred CDs or DVDs. I would have all this money in my pocket, a few thousand bucks, and I’d go into the casino and start playing three-card poker or blackjack. After the tables closed down, I’d play slot machines. I’d just sit there for hours and hours. I have a predisposition towards addictive behavior, and I suddenly realized how bad it had gotten. The biggest indicator for me were all the inner lies. I kept lying to myself about how much I had to be up in order to leave the table or how much I was willing to lose. I always said when I get this much money I’ll walk out, and I never walked out. I always left broke. Always. It became a real problem, and it followed me into my next marriage.

In 2005, my wife, the mother of my boy, asked me, “Have you been gambling?” And I lied to her, and I don’t lie. It made things so much worse. I got into lottery tickets and scratch off tickets, and I got farther and farther behind. I ran up $150,000 of illicit gambling debt. I never gambled on sports or horses. I just liked games. Once I started playing games, I couldn’t stop. After talking to my friend Arnie Wexler, an expert on Gambling Addiction, I realized I had to go to Gambler’s Anonymous (GA). I got a sponsor and I started working the steps in GA. I realized that combined with my addict’s brain, I have a profound fear of running out of stuff and of running out of money. I thought gambling would replenish whatever I lost. My primary thought when I was gambling was that I gotta get that money back, I got to win it back at all costs.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.