Years ago, I was living in Chicago and desperately craved to do stand-up despite a full-body fear of mob-with-pitchforks rejection. A writing partner who was performing regularly at the time gave me one sage piece ancient stand-up secret I pass unto to:
Try to find your magic number of drinks. As the legend goes, each performer could unlock their True Comedic Abilities by recognizing that:
- They should have some beerz before performing… but not just any number of some beerz
- Like a secret garden, each of us has a number of beerz n’ drankz that would unlock our True comedic abilities
- By finding your magic number, and consuming your sacred amount of beerz, drankz, or Yagz, you too could summon a potential greater than yourself... a power to transcend your own known limits and touch the sky for a low-stakes 5 minute open mic set.
Cut to the present, I’m living in the suburbs, sober, looking to move back to Chicago, and pushing off performing out that familiar full-body fear, but I still see this magic number ritual pop up.
It’s found in performance profession. Anecdotes galore of musicians and actors strung-out and altered on stage to be more raw, more authentic, more “On.”
Now to give historical precedence, there are sacred rituals of indigenous people that use substances to achieve altered states to commune with a greater spirit. Ayahuasca rituals are ancient, and have recently helped thousands of upper-class cultural tourists write about the true meaning of live, laugh, love.
Side-note: My favorite story of “using psychedelic drugs giving creative insight” comes from Bojack Horseman Creator and BlogBae Raphael Bob-Waksberg taking mushrooms in between seasons 1 and 2 to unblock his writing:
“The answer that I came to that night: language is a virus and narrative is a trap. Which did not help me at all.”
Back to drunk comedy, we follow the footsteps of drunk uncle of W.C. Fields, who remains a caricature of the goofy drunk. He famously said “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” which… is a refreshingly anti-lobotomy perspective in a culture that fetishes lobotomies? Another famous quote from Fields, “I don’t drink water. You know what fish do in it.” The punchline is frequently listed as the more blunt “Fish fuck in it,” but primary sources say otherwise. In my first understanding of the joke’s origin, Field’s punchline was the rejoinder to someone asking him (along the lines of) “Why don’t you try drinking water?”
Which like, maybe he could’ve been drinking more water?
Today, we have binge shows. You know the ones, the show with the crux conceit attempts to answer the question “what if drinking, but too much?” Humor comes from unpredictability, an audience wondering “how long will this performer keep performing?! What wacky japes will they get into on stage tonight!?” I’ve heard like these described as “blackout shows.”
To each their own.
And “my own…” I worry. My goal is not to say “this is wrong,” but to gaze on from a distance in quiet hope that the performers aren’t trapped in ritual. I want what is best for them, and from my distance, I don’t know what it is.
For every anecdote about a storied stage actors getting sauced in-between entrances are several unspoken stories of castmates dealing with an unpredictable drunk castmate.
To all those sober stand-ups out there, we got this, full-body fears be danged.