New York-based comedian and psychonaut Adam Strauss is one of few comics today that have made psychedelics a core part of their act. His one-man show “The Mushroom Cure,” is a monologue that chronicles his “program of vigilante psychopharmacology,” or, his journey to treat his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) with psilocybin mushrooms. His gift for storytelling has been widely lauded. Time Out New York called it a “riveting… true life tour-de-force.” He’s also received New York Fringe Festival’s Overall Excellence Award for Solo Performance and won the Leffe Beer Craft Your Character storytelling competition.
Adam will be hosting a monthly 90-minute Psychedelic Comedy Hour at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in the East Village, NYC, where he will be joined by fellow comedians, and the occasional musician or philosopher. This Thursday at 8pm, he’ll be joined by Duncan Trussell of the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast, comedian Noah Gardenswartz, and writer, comedian, and actress Giuila Rozzi. Learn more here.
In this interview, Adam and I delve into the role psychedelics play in his life and why he talks about them on stage. We also explore what makes comedy psychedelic, and why George Carlin is a psychedelic comedian.
Did you get into comedy before trying psychedelics? If so, how did psychedelics become a part of your comedy act?
I’d been doing comedy for a few years before I had a bonafide psychedelic experience. I tried psychedelics in college but they didn’t work for me. I now know that’s because I was on high dosages of SSRIs. I tried LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin. Psilocybin had some effect. LSD and MDMA had zero effect, and I had no idea why.
Meanwhile, my OCD was worsening while I was doing standup. In some ways standup was a bit of a respite from that — I’ve never had OCD on stage because you’re too fully engaged in the task at hand. But overall, as my standup career progressed, the OCD was coincidentally getting worse and worse. Then I read this study showing that mushrooms could potentially alleviate the symptoms of OCD, so I embarked, as I like to say, on a program of vigilante psychopharmacology — I tried to cure myself. At that point I’d been doing stand up for a while and I had these experiences which I talked about in The Mushroom Cure. It was a dark period. I knew that if I made it through this time, and I wasn’t sure I would, I would have to talk about this on stage.
I made it through, at least thus far, and I started talking about my experiences with psychedelics to cure my OCD. I started talking about them in comedy clubs but I realized that wasn’t quite the right context, so then I evolved it into the The Mushroom Cure, because it’s more a theater show.
Why make psychedelics the core of your comedy?
I’ve always gravitated towards talking about things that strike me as outliers in human experience. Two of the biggest ones, which I’ve talked about pretty extensively, are sex and drugs. They’re two experiences that are so different from any other experiences. And among drugs, psychedelics are a completely different class. They are fascinating, and so hard to fit into any other sort of schema of classifying experience. Terence McKenna says that there are three states of being: wakefulness, sleep, and psychedelics. And I really believe that. It’s a completely different state of being.
McKenna also has this great quote I heard recently where he’s talking about how if nothing else, psychedelics are the most fun game in town, and that alone makes them worthy of serious study. Put aside their place in human evolution, their possible ramifications for humans surviving in the future, the fact that it’s just the most fun you can have at some level is powerful in and of itself.
Anything can have an aura of the sacred around it, especially psychedelics, and it’s fun to be a little profane about it. I talk about religion a lot on stage as well.
I also like talking about things on stage that others don’t talk about. As it’s become more and more mainstream, I’m surprised at how few comics really talk openly about psychedelics. I know a lot of them use them. I like to counteract that by talking about it openly.
That’s interesting because in the last decade, the cultural conversation around psychedelics has evolved. It’s become considerably less fringe and more mainstream. Why are comics still afraid to talk about it?
I don’t necessarily assume the reason is that they are afraid to talk about it, although I do think that must be part of it, at least for some of them. What else could it be, unless you have trouble writing good jokes about it? It’s not the kind of thing that would get you ostracized in the entertainment industry. It’s not like we’re talking about investment bankers. And let’s be honest, I don’t even think investment bankers would be ostracized for it, at least not in this city. It’s become so accepted as an avenue for personal growth. The truth is, it’s surprising to me.
I was talking with Duncan Trussell about this, and we were brainstorming who we could book on the show this Thursday. We realized there aren’t that many comics talking about this. There’s Duncan, one of the trailblazers in that area. Shane Moss has a show about this stuff. I’m really excited about Noah Gardenswartz, who’ll be at the show. He has some material about psychedelics. He had a joke about LSD that was on his Comedy Central half hour special, which I thought was pretty cool. I’m sure there are some great comics who have some material about psychedelics that I’m just not aware of because the scene is so big.
But in terms of people where that’s really a core part of what they’re about, you could count them on possible one hand. The ones who come to mind are Shane, Duncan, I would put myself in that company… I can’t think of any others. Then there are people like Giuila Rozzi, who’ll be at the show this Thursday, who’s really great. She’s one of my favorite comics working today, and she certainly talks openly about her drug experiences. It’s just not a big part of her act.
Duncan made an interesting point: we don’t just have to limit the definition who talk about psychedelics. He said that in his mind, George Carlin is a psychedelic comic, just because of that mind expanding quality
Right, that leads me to my next question. I was going to ask you what you think constitutes psychedelic comedy beyond the obvious subject matter, and if it even had to specifically reference psychedelics. Comedy that is, like you said, mind-expanding, could be defined as psychedelic.
Yeah, I think you can define it that way. George Carlin, or a Bill Hicks, or a Doug Stanhope — these are comics who all have a little bit of material about psychedelics, but not a lot. I would bet that psychedelics profoundly influenced their comedy. Even if it’s George Carlin talking about politics or Doug Stanhope talking about gay marriage, it’s these super open-minded, wildly imaginative perspectives that I would classify as psychedelic.
Absolutely. I would say that Bill Hicks is an overtly psychedelic, almost mystical comedian. He’s the only one I can think of pre-21st century that was like that. Even when he wasn’t talking about drugs, he had this distinctly transcendent, third eye opening quality.
I know exactly what you mean. I think Carlin’s a little bit like that in terms of the third eye opening quality. There’s almost something shamanic about Bill Hicks or George Carlin. They’re transmitting, enabling you to realize something within you. There’s a brilliant Bill Hicks special that he ends not with a joke, but by saying that we’re all consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. He ends it with a pure distillation of the psychedelic world view.
(Editor’s note: Here is the quote in full:
“Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”)
Right. “Here’s Tom with the weather.”
And I think you could argue that psychedelics can connect comedy to what I think is its core mission. I hesitate using the word mission – comedy’s core mission is to make people laugh, whether it’s making a fart noise or talking about the nature of consciousness. That is the core mission. But I also think that part of the value of comedy can be connecting people to parts of themselves that they might not have been aware of or acknowledged because they were threatening or weird, and they weren’t touch with it. This is a strong statement, but I think comedy can help towards self-actualization. In that sense, having psychedelic experiences can arguably equip comics to do that work well. The core of the psychedelic experience is plumbing the depths of yourself, the darkness and the light.
Louis CK says things that can be incredibly dark. I don’t know if he’s ever done psychedelics but he also channels these psychic truths that make people recoil a bit.
Yeah. One thing I really try to do in comedy is not hold back about my own struggles. One of the most incomprehensible things to me about the world is that everyone struggles profoundly at least some of the time, but we never acknowledge that to each other. I feel like we do each other a grave disservice by basically lying to each other when we ask each other how we’re doing and we say we’re fine. It makes us feel like everyone else is doing better than we are.
That’s part of what Louis CK’s tapped into. Yeah, other people have had these thoughts, but they felt ashamed or afraid of them. By talking about it so publicly he’s telling all of us hey, it’s ok, you’re ok, you’re not a monster for thinking that yeah, sometimes you wish that your kids didn’t exist, or that you want to murder someone for doing something annoying in a text.
What do you see in the future of psychedelic comedy?
I see a future of world domination. This is a tool for me to achieve a lot of financial success and a lot of groupies.
I see a lot of growth because although it’s hard to get reliable statistics, it seems like mainstream usage of psychedelics is exploding. It’s like people who have gone to Burning Man, especially the first time. They really want to talk about Burning Man because it’s such a unique experience. And they really want to hear other people’s experiences. I think psychedelics are kind of like that. Once you’ve dipped your toe in those waters you want to share that with other people and hear other people talking about it.
I do think that there’s a big latent demand that’s not being met, to put it in capitalist terms. I think people want to hear more about this. I expect that that there will be more and more psychedelic entertainment content in all forms – comedy, film, etc. I think this is something that can profoundly reshape society. I think comedy is a part of that.
The thing I love about comedy is when you’re laughing, you’re open. You can’t be closed off and rejecting while laughing. It has that opening up effect. I certainly think psychedelics have a vital and indispensable role to play, probably, in the survival of the human race. I like to think that comedy can have maybe a small role in opening the door to further psychedelic acceptance. Because if you’re laughing at psychedelics, even if you haven’t done them, that opens you up a little bit more to them.