Mark Lundholm would laugh at a man falling in public. He would help the guy up first, but to him it's still funny. With any good joke, it's all about timing.
He subscribes to Mel Brooks' definition of comedy: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." That's easy for Mel Brooks to say, Lundholm has spent some time at the bottom of that pit.
He lived much of the '80s homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol, wandering the streets of California's Bay Area and racking up an extensive criminal record along the way. His life spiraled downward until the night he broke into a hotel room and found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
"One night I put a gun in my mouth, pulled the trigger, but it didn't go off," he says. "And then I thought, 'I am truly unsuccessful.'"
Somehow he's been able to laugh at his low-points, and now he makes a career out of it. He's turned his very humorless past into a successful foray in stand-up comedy, which has taken him everywhere from jailhouses to Manhattan, and now on the Comedy Addiction Tour, which comes to The Howlin' Wolf this week.
Addicted ... A Comedy of Substance was his one-man show about the little addictions evident in the high-octane American lifestyle, seen through the lens of a former addict. The show played -- appropriately -- to the caffeinated, over-worked New York populace, and enjoyed a successful off-Broadway run that made it one of the most recommended plays in the Zagat Theatre Survey.
Thinking that misery loves company, he created the Comedy Addiction Tour, a show that's part stand-up, part theatre and part group therapy. Lundholm and three other comics, all former addicts, delve into the minds of substance abusers on the road to recovery, each covering a different part of the story. Kurtis Matthews is a veteran of the Improv in Hollywood and toured with Sam Kinison. Jesse Joyce has been on many cable TV comedy shows since he stopped drinking. Billy Robinson is an Ohio native who now also works as a substance abuse counselor in jails. The group teamed up with producer Todd Grove, who produced Broadways' legendary one-man show Defending the Caveman.
For Lundholm, Climbing out of his abyss wasn't easy. After the motel incident, he checked himself into a detox center and eventually moved into a halfway house for six months. The last hurdle in recovery is the unofficial 13th step for many former addicts.
"For recovering addicts, the biggest enemy is figuring out what to do with all of the spare time on your hands," he says.
Lundholm spent that fragile period jumpstarting his stand-up career in familiar territory: rehabilitation centers, jails and halfway houses -- places where the audience "didn't always know he was there." Making others laugh became the main thrust of his recovery.
"Sometimes I would drive 3 hours to do a 10-minute show. Whatever it took to keep me from thinking about just me," he says.
As he gained enough comedic clout to get booked by comedy clubs, he questioned if his material would translate to less captive audiences of non-addicts. It turned out that this shift in audiences paralleled his own shift back to a more normal life.
"It was a hard road, because I had to become one of [the normal people]," he says. "A huge mistake is thinking that the rest of the world needs to understand [an addict's] plight, but it's the other way around. Recovering people do themselves better to understand the plight of the mainstream public, and become a productive and invisible member."
As he blended back into society, so did his comedy. It's dark, caustic, poignant and to the surprise of many, funny. Because for Lundholm, it has to be -- especially for an addict to come to terms with and learn from his past.
"If you survive a near-death experience, there's always a great story. And in every great story there has to be a thread of humor, otherwise it's a speech," he says.
"If you look at (addiction) in a humorous way, you're less likely to repeat the behavior. If you look back and realize how silly it was, you're not going to re-do it."
The humor of the experiences of Lundholm and the three other comics on the Comedy Addiction Tour stems from the way they handle the material. They've paid their dues and now it's time to see some benefits. It hasn't been an easy trip so far.
"Nothing's funny `til it hurts," Lundholm says.
- These comics Mark Lundholm, Jesse Joyce, Billy Robinson and Kurtis Matthews ; are working on their own recovery plan.