Finding Courage and More Outside the Bottle by Mike Van Vliet
There are many differences between performing comedy sober versus performing while drinking. As a recovering alcoholic and stand up comic, I have spent close to ten years of my life performing comedy; mostly drunk. Over the past two years, I have been performing comedy sober. It has been a roller-coaster of emotions and laughter and applause; even boos and silence. For years, I told crowds I could not see them because of the lights; I did not realize until now how often it was not the lights and it was my intoxication.
I loved being a little drunk on stage. I loved letting go and seeing where it would take me. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad but it was always fun, one-way or another. I always felt like I missed many potentially good sets though. Like, I was on to something but because I was too drunk, I lost it or forgot something and now, it is gone. I estimate that out of a 10-year career in comedy I lost about four of them due to just alcohol and its effects on my personal life and writing, which affected my comedy.
I always liked to have a few drinks before going on stage. I did not really NEED them but I liked to have them and I was of age, we were in a bar doing comedy, that is what you do, so that is what I did. My performances suffered; however, some were better because of alcohol. A few drinks gave me just enough of an edge to slow my mind down to where I could pinpoint and execute singular thoughts in my head like picking them off a dry erase board in 3D. That type of confidence on stage gave me the confidence off stage; but the confidence was that of a bottle, not my mind. I was relying on the wrong type of confidence show after show.
The alcohol gives you an excuse if you have a bad set, forget a joke, stumble, get heckled. It gives you a mask and a suit of armor. It is protection. People look at comedians and tell them they are brave for getting on stage. Even they need help. They have a few drinks. It does for us on stage what it does for you off it; it gives us confidence and that added extra edge.
Drinking before getting onstage gave me the self-assurance to try things I would not normally try. I was already crossing boundaries and pushing the envelope, sober or with one or two drinks but I wanted to see just how far, so I drank more. Sometimes I pushed it just far enough I got a great laugh and had a great set but sometimes and eventually, too often, I was pushing the envelope further and further. It was not funny anymore but shocking. I was angrier on stage no one was getting my jokes, so I lashed out. I went into depression, I drank more and I wrote less. I went on a downward spiral over years.
The exact thing I thought would help me succeed helped me slowly kill my career and myself. My confidence, in comedy and life was gone and so was the laughter.
You have had that dream; we have all had it. You are on stage in front of a class/auditorium, you are giving a speech and you are naked. You are embarrassed and scared, you are nervous and afraid; that is what performing comedy is like sober. At least for me it was at first. You have no armor, no shield, no mask, no help, nothing. It is you, the microphone, the crowd and air; and they are all looking at you to make them laugh. You are on the spot. With no alcohol, no excuses any mistake, any error in judgment, timing, wording, choice; is all on you now. All of the responsibility of making everyone laugh is on you and only you. There is no alcohol to blame for any mistakes this time. You are forced to write and practice 2/3 times as much. You have to re-learn how to be a comedian in a way. It is a change in your routine, your act; you are writing, editing, performing, response time, decision-making judgment, timing and accuracy. You are relearning how to notice things in the crowd through improv. You see, hear, smell, and most importantly feel different on stage sober. Everything you knew before is now gone and you are starting from the bottom. You are at the bottom again and this time the climb back up is twice as hard.
When I quit drinking, I spent 3 months as a hermit. I did not want to be around alcohol, I did not want to do comedy or write jokes. I was miserable and did not feel funny. I lost all confidence I had in my writing and performing. I did not even watch any of my favorite comedians on Comedy Central. I did not listen to their CD’s, or watch their specials. I sank myself into the deepest depression I could ever imagine.
Depression only lasts so long until your other addictions take over. It was not long before I was awake all night at my computer writing again. Carrying around so much negativity is devastating bad for your ego, libido and general well being. I found my solace through writing comedy again. I watched my favorite comedians again and went back down to the comedy club to watch my friends. Comedy saved me from a terrible depression and even some wild suicidal thoughts. None that were truly life threatening but as a comedian whose imagination knows no limits, going through withdrawals, during a severe depression; your mind tends to get a little loose.
I spent my Thursdays at Nutt Street watching my friends perform. I spent my time off from work and late nights watching and listening to my favorite comedians. I laughed and smiled again. I craved getting back up on stage.
Not performing comedy for months and now sober is a challenging feat. I knew it would be hard but I felt ready. I put on a good set. My father saw that set and his first words were, “Michael you finally look happy on stage.” I never knew I looked angry.
Your performances are above anything else, now memorable. There is no way you are going to forget them now. If your set was bad, you made a mistake, were booed or died on stage; you were going to remember it forever. There was no drinking bourbon until 4am to wallow in your failure. There was drinking your water and going home to spend the rest of the night, until the sun rises, making changes; because your new addiction now is writing, practicing and getting better. Those hours you spent drinking, sleeping and being hung-over after shows are gone. There is only practice time.
Luckily, for me, the comedy scene here in Wilmington was growing which gave me and the other comics more nights and opportunities to perform. We were booking gigs out of town; we were performing more, practicing more and getting better. I noticed now that when I performed, I laughed and smiled more on stage. Alcohol was not there to bring out the anger and bitterness while I was on stage. When I improvised with the crowd, I was fun and nice, not angry and hateful.
I had fun performing again. If I made a mistake on stage, I made a joke about it instead of getting mad. I joked with the crowd and laughed with them instead of trying to embarrass them. I was nicer to hecklers instead of lashing out at them. The topics I was talking about were deeper, more serious and longer. I was telling stories instead of one-liners. I was exploring my heart, mind and life; experimenting with different ways of telling people on stage that it is okay to laugh at serious issues. I was finding the fun, the ridiculous, the facts and heart of everything I did and talked about on stage. I got back to the roots of doing stand up comedy. A funny person making jokes about things that should and should not be funny.
I was always relying on alcohol to give me that boost; that extra courage and that added sense of confidence. I learned since getting sober; performing sober, being lucky enough to be surrounded by comedians, talented funny guys, great crowds that want to laugh and enjoy laughing at you (with you) and themselves. That whether you are drinking or not on stage or not; your rock; your backbone, are your friends and family. It is the crowd; and it is OK to lean on them. We are all at the comedy club, in the audience, on stage for the same purpose to laugh, to let go, to love life; and possibly save someone else’s life.
Mike Van Vliet is a comedian in Wilmington NC. Mike got his start in an improv troupe outside of NYC decided to branch out and try a solo stand up career. Moving from NY to Chicago at age 20, he quickly became a popular name on the open mic comedy scene. Fearless with any topic and crowd he will attack any and all topics. Armed with rapid-fire witty comebacks and sarcasm, his comedy routine is unlike any other. His ability to use his improv skills to flirt with a girl in the front row and then handle a heckler in the back make his live shows some of the most exciting to watch.