Brow Beat

Rob Delaney on Stand-Up, Alcoholism, and Being Unashamed

Rob Delaney, a stand-up comedian and “the funniest person on Twitter,” has a book out today. The memoir—titled Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.—provides a frank, funny account of his adolescence in Massachusetts, his undergraduate years in Manhattan, and his early days as a stand-up in New York and Los Angeles. It is particularly candid about dealing with alcoholism.

I talked with Delaney on the phone last week about the relationship between stand-up comedy and addiction and how jokes can make us feel less ashamed.

Slate: This is the memoir of a comedian, but it’s also a recovery memoir. You’ve written before about the “stereotype of the depressed alcoholic comedian”—it seems to be a stereotype for a reason. At one point in the book you describe moving to a halfway house after rehab, where you ended up after crashing your car into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. You meet a man named Rick, who pulls his pants down and then asks if he can do something rather intimate to you on his birthday. “Looking back,” you write, “a moment like that may help explain why I’m a comedian now. I could only defend myself with humor.” What exactly did those experiences have to do with you becoming a comedian?

Rob Delaney: After I got out of the psychiatric hospital, I had a choice: I could either go to the halfway house or to jail. And I really did want to quit drinking. I thought that rehab in a psychiatric hospital and a sober live-in halfway house would be a good idea. I didn’t feel like, “Whoa, what am I doing here?” I felt this is really where I oughta be. And after I got out of the halfway house I realized, “Wow, I’m still alive.” You know? Because the way that I’d been living, it really would have surprised no one if I had died. It was then when I thought, “Now I’m going to do exactly what I really wanted to do for years before but was too afraid to pull the trigger. I’m going to start doing comedy.”

So the accident and getting sober and surviving it gave me the—I wouldn’t use the word courage. It was more like I was so shocked that I was still alive that it was like, “All right, I’m going to do the thing that I wanted to do.”

Slate: Why do you think so many comedians struggle with alcoholism and addiction? Is it because of the lifestyle—being on the road, having a lot of down time, and so on? Or is it something more fundamental?

Delaney: I can only speak for myself, but I will say that back when I was drinking, if I had no alcohol in my system, and then I added it to my system, it felt like sort of a chemical equation being completed—like, I felt incomplete, and then, with alcohol, I almost had the thought, “Oh, here I am. Here’s me.” And now I don’t drink or do drugs, but when I get on stage, when I walk in front of an audience of hundreds or thousands, it really feels similar. It feels like getting into a jacuzzi for a normal person. Me walking on stage, I feel such a relief and at peace—and I know that’s insane and abnormal and I’m an aberration, but that’s just how it is.

And the good news is, usually when I perform, no one is in real horrible danger. I’m unlikely to drive my microphone stand into them or their family. I’m unlikely to have my liver shut down because people clap too loud or something. You know what I mean? So there are similarities, but it’s OK to have habits that make you feel good. It’s OK to have habits that make you feel very good. Am I addicted to comedy? Maybe. But I don’t know if I really care, so long as nobody’s in acute danger.

Slate: You’ve argued before—and you make the point again in this book—that while a lot of comedians may suffer from depression, depression itself is not a good thing for comedy. You hate the “tortured artist” cliché.

Delaney: Yes. And I remain under a psychiatrist’s care. I took antidepressants this morning. I’ll take them tomorrow morning. But because I don’t drink, because I take that medication, because I exercise and eat reasonably well and try to live my life and try to be a kind person and a compassionate person and a hardworking person, my base level happiness generally is pretty average to high. I’m still a weirdo. If they did an autopsy on me, it wouldn’t surprise me if parts of my brain they could look at and think, “Whoa … this is … OK, here we are. This explains some things.” Just because I’ve been sober for over 11 years, and just because I don’t put my fist through a wall every other week like I did when I was drinking, and just because I’m not destroying relationships, doesn’t mean that I’m not still in some ways the same nutjob.

It’s OK to be crazy. It’s OK to wrestle with negative urges. I wouldn’t feel guilty if I had the thought, “Hey, I’d love a beer right now.” There’s nothing wrong with me because I feel that way. But if I go have that beer, that would be a problem, because that would likely lead to 23 more and a fireball somewhere. I try to think it through now and weigh the consequences. And I’ve achieved peace with the fact that yeah, I’m a drunk, and that’s OK. The only thing bad about me being a drunk would be not acknowledging it.

Slate: You first did an open mic not long after leaving rehab and beginning recovery, right?

Delaney: Yeah, I think it was exactly a year after the accident—because I had a lot of surgeries I had to recover from, and occupational therapy. So as soon as I got my last cast off I got up on stage.

Slate: And when you first got on stage, did you have that feeling you were describing before, or did it take a while to get to, “Oh, this feels normal”?

Delaney: I guess it felt more dangerous at first. I felt like I had to control a little plane that I didn’t know how to fly—and now I know how to fly the plane, but it could still crash into a mountain. It was more like, “Jeeeeeezus what’s going to happen? I like it but I don’t know what going to happen.” Now I still like it, I love it, but I have some idea of the possibilities that are in front of me. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen every time I get on stage, but I usually can anticipate a few options, and one or more of them will usually be correct.

Slate: Are you still discovering new things going on stage? Do you still come away sometimes and think, “That was different from any night I’ve performed before”?

Delaney: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely is the answer to that, because the first time I did standup was 10-and-a-half years ago. Ten years is not a long time for a stand-up. I’m still new. I’m very fortunate to be able to do it for a living, but I’m still starting out, really. So it is fair and accurate to say that I’m just starting to discover my voice. And I don’t even know people who’ve been doing it for 20 or 25 years who aren’t still learning. That’s the thing: There are so many variables, it’s such a high-octane experience, and the medium you’re working with is so volatile that I never get off stage and haven’t learned something.

Slate: I think of your comedy as being especially rooted in the body, in a way—a lot of comedy has to do with our physical bodies and the ridiculousness of the body, but you mine that to a pretty remarkable degree. In the book, you have a really frank section about wetting the bed on a regular basis back when you were drinking—which is really funny, the way you write it, but also sad and even bracing.

Delaney: I love body humor, B-O-D-Y and B-A-W-D-Y. Here’s the thing. I’m a big fan of Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha, and when he taught meditation, all he taught was how to observe physical sensations in the body and the relationship between the mood and the sensation. That’s meditation taught by the Buddha. He taught to use your body as a laboratory for your mind and your soul—that they’re inextricable. I think you can really address and explore people’s fears and concerns literally without leaving the framework of the human body, because they’re so connected.

We have memories. Memories are definitely not just in the gray folds of your brain. They’re in your arm, in your knee, in your ass—they’re everywhere. And so the idea of shame is so connected to the body, and that’s such rich comic territory. That’s why I love to talk about the body and the ways that people react to different things that people say about their bodies, and secrets their bodies have, and things they want to do with their bodies. It just says so much about the human condition.

Slate: When you’re writing or talking about your body in these really intimate ways, is that hard for you at all?

Delaney: It is sometimes. For example, we all see pornography—well, I won’t speak for you, but I consume pornography. Not like it’s a big part of my life, but my laptop can access photographs and videos of naked women, so I’m going to do that sometimes. And one thing that I thought about and wrote about a while ago was how women have it worse than men—they’re more aggressively shamed and subjugated and then alternately catered to and told what they should hate about themselves. And they’ll catch up with men, but women, sadly, were the first to bear the brunt of it. And probably the worst thing you can feel ashamed of is your genitals. And so I wrote a piece for Vice a while back about how I felt when I masturbated and ejaculated, my semen didn’t shoot far enough, because for guys in pornos it’s just like artillery. So I was very embarrassed to write that. That’s ridiculous, your cum doesn’t need to go eight feet. It doesn’t need to go across the room. It doesn’t need to be able to extinguish a candle on the other side of the room, it’s not necessary. An erect penis can functionally serve a purpose of impregnating a human woman without taking the crosstown bus and going to a parade.

And I was embarrassed to write that, but I could just sort of tell that writing something like that—that I’m embarrassed about a way that pornography has made me feel about my body—that’s going to be a kindness, that’s going to be a mitzvah that I can do both for other men, who definitely feel that way, and women, who are made to feel ashamed about their body every day. Any time they turn on a television or open their laptop or ride on a bus that has an ad on it. So was I embarrassed writing that? Yes I was. Do I think it’s good that I did that? Yes I do. And I’m definitely willing to be a guinea pig, a scapegoat, the messenger who gets shot. I like to do that. I know that’s kind of a long-winded answer, but I figured it’s a pretty specific one that maybe answers your question.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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