Drugs, History, and Comedy: A Podcast?

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY, and, if this post is any indication, a lot of other pretty cool things as well. If you’re interested in working with Bob on any of his upcoming projects, his contact info is below.

An historian, a comedian, and a podcaster walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “Just you today Bob?”

Screenshot 2019-10-24 at 9.10.31 AM

Uptown Theater for Creative Arts, in Utica, NY

That’s right, this Points contributor is going to get into podcasting. And if you didn’t know, this Points contributor is also a (very amateur) stand-up comedian and improv stage actor. Along with doing live comedy, I’ve also had a chance to participate as a semi-regular guest on the Fish Guy Media Network, a podcast network run by two brothers. We met while performing live comedy at the Uptown Theater for Creative Arts in Utica, New York. I’ve been given a platform on the network to start my own podcast blending history (not limited to my nascent expertise in marijuana/drug history), comedy, and current events. The podcast is currently in the planning stages.

In the words of George Costanza, my worlds are colliding.

My fascination with drugs (most often from a distance), which goes back to my childhood, has run parallel to my life-long fascination with comedy. And over the past few weeks, thinking about starting a podcast has made me re-examine these two fascinations, and has forced me to recognize how often these two topics intersect, both generally and in my life specifically.

And given my professional training as a historian, it also got me thinking about just how closely the two relate to each other historically. I’m reminded of humorous anecdotes about social-leveling discussed in David Conroy’s book on Revolution-Era taverns, or in Madelon Powers’s book on working class saloon culture. Intoxicating substances have a tendency to lower inhibitions and increase sociability, traits that can at times lead to humorous situations, and at times lead to rebellious and subversive behaviors. And while substance use can lead to problematic situations in these cases, they can also encourage challenges to the status quo and facilitate speaking truth to power (think Prohibition-era drinking).

Given my emerging comedic sensibilities, I’m reminded of how comedy as a genre has influenced popular discussions about drug use, drug abuse, and addiction. Path-breaking films like the 1978 classic Up in Smoke pushed the envelope on how drug use is depicted in film. Comedians use comedy to speak openly and frankly about their own experiences with drugs (Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor come to mind immediately). Some comedians saw careers cut short because of drugs (Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, and Mitch Hedberg to name a few), while others like Marc Maron, whose sobriety spawned a rebirth in his career (and a really popular podcast) and Jessa Reed (who also has a podcast called The Mormon and the Meth Head) use comedy as therapy, publicly sharing their various exploits as a way to work through their recovery. 

(From left to right, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, and Marc Maron, all of whom have used their experiences with drugs to influence their comedy and work)

In particular, Reed’s national debut on Comedy Central’s show This is Not Happening (which is NOT for the faint of heart) used brilliantly timed comedic punches to recount her rapid descent into truly horrific methamphetamine abuse, and it is one of the most honest and vulnerable, and yet somehow “funny,” drug stories I have ever heard. Reed’s work reveals aspects of drug use and abuse that, while “written” as material, still reveal emotions about use that drug scholars crave.

And so in a recent stand up comedy class that I’m taking at UTCA with two really funny local comedians, we were thinking about comedy from that kind of personal level–to speak a personal truth and make comedy through those various emotions that drive us as human beings. I started with a “jokey” premise about some of my college drug exploits and how they got me to where I am today, but instead I was encouraged to leave the joke behind and talk about something personal. I started to tell a story about the time, in court-ordered outpatient group drug therapy, that I came face-to-face with what it meant to be addicted from hearing other people’s stories about their addictions. It snap-corrected me away from my then-preconceived notions that, while drugs were addicting, individuals choose to take the first hit and therefore addiction was a choice (remnants of my classic 80s/90s drug-education). After telling the story, one of my “joke coaches” described it as my “creation story, the day you decided to become a drug scholar.” I suppose I always knew that part… but it’s strange that, at this moment, comedy is forcing me to explore this further (and a 5-minute set is forthcoming).

As George Costanza said, “Worlds are colliding.”

So I hope that my contribution today can serve a few purposes, but the most important of these is to get historians, comedians, and podcasters to volunteer to contribute to the cast. If you like what you’ve read here and are interested in joining me on an episode, please contact me via email: rlbeach@utica.edu. I’m looking for individuals who have an interesting story related to their scholarship, teaching, or personal experience (related to history, drugs, or comedy, or indeed all three) that they’d be willing to share in a serious, critical, but atmospherically laid-back forum.

The philosophical origins of my effort can be found in one of my old posts on this forum. Last December, I did a piece on the Comedy Central show Drunk History. In it, I challenged academic historians to take a cue from the show and to soften their authoritative tone to appeal to a larger audience without sacrificing scholarly vigor. In a podcasting environment that values simplicity over complexity, I want to challenge my audience, my guests, my co-hosts, and myself to think critically about the past while having fun learning about history. The topics will range based on the guests, but generally speaking we’ll be covering the historical roots of current issues, the history of comedy, and, since I’m a drug historian, we’ll lean heavily on topics related to drugs and drug history.