By Whitney Wasson
One of the easiest jokes I tell is barely a joke - "I love being a sober comedian - even though I still get paid in drink tickets." While I'm still trying to navigate how to be funny about the very unfunny topic of substance abuse addiction, that line almost always works because the concept is simple: a sober person being handed tickets to buy beer is ridiculous. Just like the joke, my real life is pretty ridiculous. For the past two years, I've straddled an odd position between two very specific subcultures. Before I talk about my upcoming show, Serenity Now, I want to provide some context.
Most comedians, off-stage, are exactly like you'd imagine them to be - most drink and smoke, most deal with mental illness (either theirs or in the company they keep) and all of them probe the depths of their neuroses for ways to be funny. Sober people, on the other hand, are less easy to categorize. Recovering addicts can be doctors, lawyers, rockstars, yoga teachers, devoted parents, construction workers, librarians - everything under the sun. Unlike comedians though, sober people tend to lead pretty healthy lives. To my sober friends, being in a bar most nights of the week is unfathomable. To be honest, it's not fun. I love comedy enough to make it work.
Enter the sober performer! Much to my delight, sober entertainers aren't rare unicorns. It turns out that standup comedians and improvisers aren't the only ones that deal with toxic drinking subcultures - musicians, artists and actors traffic in the same boozy circles and had to pull themselves out of it, too. Everyone's journey to recovery is different, but if I had to generalize, sober artists have said what I felt - "it got to be too much." If you're constantly around free drinks and free drugs and also in the high stakes position of needing to be funny, remember lines or even strum an instrument, it's important for you to stay sharp. And for people like me, there is no slowing down or moderation. As an all or nothing person, I need to stay all or nothing in my substance use.
To those creative folks considering sobriety: many incredible performers I know quit drinking and doing drugs so their art wouldn't suffer. It is possible to be a sober artist. Hell, it will even make you a better artist, most likely. Every single time someone privately (or publicly) discloses that they're in recovery, I could cry with joy. I am grateful to know that they can maintain a creative life while staying sober. As I whine about on my own blog, it's been hard for me to get away from the wrong-headed notion that drinking and doing drugs increases your ability to be A Great Artist. I was wrong - drinking and drugs just got in the way.
Prior to recovery, I thought that the harder you lived (i.e., all the drinking and drugs, maximum drama, sadness, chaos), the more interesting things you'd have to say. For me and many others, though, we got mired in substance problems that kept us from writing, being part of a group, or submitting to new opportunities. Once you get to a certain point, it doesn't matter if you're Lenny Bruce - no one can understand the brilliant words you're slurring on stage. Maybe Lenny is too cruel an example, but as much as my new show celebrates recovery, I can't help but think of the wildly talented, brilliant, hilarious people I know who didn't recover. Their humor and wit is lost to us forever.
Now, about this new show in October: Serenity Now is an attempt to bottle the joy, terror and hilarity that is the journey to sobriety. I've picked some of my favorite performers to showcase at this first show, which is a mix of people new to sobriety (less than a year in), to sober pros (10 years or more.) It features a variety of talents - standup, storytelling, music, improv and who knows what else. As this is a brand new undertaking, I don't know what will happen but I imagine it will be wild.
If you're somebody who is sick of having to hang in bars to see a good show, we're making a show outside of a traditional comedy space just for you. If you're someone struggling to stay sober, know that I'm rooting for you. If you're contemplating quitting, come see the show to get a glimpse of just how much better and weirder things can be.
Serenity Now is October 20 at 10 p.m. at The Crowd Theater. Tickets are $10 at the door. Every ticket purchase comes with a free sparkling water.
Whitney Wasson is a Chicago-based stand-up comedian and writer. Chicago credits include the Laugh Factory, Zanies, iO, Second City, Steppenwolf, The Annoyance, and the Cards Against Humanity Theater. She's been featured at a dozen festivals across the country and performs weekly in Chicago. Her blog about recovery and sobriety, Thanks and Sorry, is published every Wednesday at thewhitneywasson.com