Dave Maher’s Coma Show
Iowa City Yacht Club — Friday, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m.
Comedians generally ask about the meaning of life by pointing out its trivialities, mining the mindless ephemera that we absorb as fodder for exposing our ridiculousness. Generally, life is a laughing matter — and death (while not off the table for the talented) remains more of a punchline than a set up. Dave Maher dodged a bullet in 2014, surviving a month-long coma by pulling out of it before they pulled the plug — but that experience provides the set up to his show rather than the punchline. Rather than killing his career, his coma rekindled his comedic interests. He’s presenting the Coma Show to the Yacht Club on Friday, Nov. 15, at 8 p.m.; tickets are $9.
I had a chance to talk to Dave a few days before his arrival in Iowa City and ask a handful of questions:
You cut your teeth as part of Chicago’s improv scene, then did stand up; now you have a full show. Each of these involve different modes of storytelling, from sensing surprising turns to quick snapshots to your current phase, which seems as much a non-fiction account as a comedy act. Nonetheless, it all remains comedy. Can you explain how you’ve used your background in comedy to help knit together the current show? Do you think that you’ve become funnier as the show has developed?
I do think I’ve become funnier. I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the specific mode I’m working in as much as pure hours logged … the longer you go, as long as you’re still working hard, the graph turns up. Also, being more clear-eyed in my life allows me to work smarter. When the set-up is good, the punchline is better. When you’re using stuff close to the bone, it is easier to be funnier than creating things out of thin air.
I’m interested in stand up as a container — because a lot of people say they like comedy or stand-up comedy in a way they don’t about music. People like “pop-punk” or something specific. People are getting hip to it; there’s so much stand up. But being part of a way of comedy that sees stand up as a multi-faceted thing, I want to help expand what “stand up” looks like to people.
The improv does come up in my show in a specific way — there’s a 10 minute part that’s improvised, but also structured. It takes a specific path. I use that stuff together because I think improv was my training for years and years, and it is ultimately what I’m most comfortable with. So I use these modes to create a situation where I can be funny by being completely in the moment.
The fact that you were featured on This American Life indicates others (with “refined judgment”) regard you as having become as much of a non-fiction storyteller as a comedian. Can you talk about what you’ve learned about storytelling or non-fiction wring as you’ve continued to develop and refine your shows?
I think the most important thing in pretty much any artistic craft, which includes storytelling, is specificity and concreteness. It is an ethos that guides every aspect of making things for me. Or, if I’m watching something or experiencing someone else’s art — the weakest moments are generalizations, when the speaker isn’t giving vivid. Concrete details. [In] the most recent version of the show, the most recent director (I’ve had a few), Mary Carr, is the memoirist, who talks about carnality in memoir and writing.
She’s talking to any writing that appeals to the senses — the carnal detail. I talked to [my most recent] director about adding carnality, and one of his suggestions was to add five colors throughout the show: the color of the walls of the room, of the light, of the puke bucket next to the bed. For me, that stuff is really powerful in grounding a specific texture.
When I was doing just improv, people would talk about an apocryphal story where a performer is on stage, and they’re talking on the phone. The object work with the phone was so good that 75 percent of the audience members knew that the phone was “red” even though it didn’t exist. When you’re getting advice from people, and they say shit like, “Find your voice” — I banged my head against the wall out of frustration. I wanted something like, “Tell a story from childhood,” or, “Talk louder on stage.” It’s so much louder than vague generalities.
If comedians have continued to play the role of the court jester, pointing out the truth that nobody else is able to admit, what kinds of permissions do you feel like your near-death experience has given you? What kinds of truth are you able to share in this format that you weren’t able to express earlier in your career?
The current iteration of the show, I am pretty generous to the people who wrote eulogies for me. I think, if I wanted to, I could be more barbed toward those people. There are moments — people ask a lot of things about those eulogies and, to be honest, after five years of going through this stuff, there have been moments where I’ve been zen and felt enlightened and understood that people wanted to be bigger, and I’ve had times when I’ve used them as ammunitions in a Facebook fight after I woke up. A guy called me a “cancer in every room that I enter,” and I told him that “I have 100s of Facebook posts that disprove that.” Another guy: “It’s a shame that you weren’t around for the two weeks when people had nice things to say about you,” which is the best burn ever.
I’m kind of a demanding friend. I’ve had shit happen since the coma … people are very permissive in allowing me to say whether the eulogies are in line and out of line. When people tell me stories about when they found out I was in a coma and how boring those stories are — when I can be naughty about these moments, people like that. I also get specific about bodily moments in a coma. People wince: And when I point out that I was the one who went through that, they can laugh. Those are some of the kinds of truths.
I think the truths that I’m expressing now — you have found very intuitively and wisely the sort of thing that I’m most insecure about in the mode that I’m working, the fear that I’m not actually a comedian … the question is, “Where’s the jokes?” That’s at the least generous to myself. But the thing that I like about being so deeply autobiographical is that I don’t have peers talking in depth about faith in their work, which is something I do, and that I’m happy to do and I don’t even come from a “I’m a Buddhist,” so this. My faith is a very open ended — the show kind of ends on a question of “What if…” It lets me explore kind of broad theological-adjacent questions, and I like that I get to do that in a context that I want to trick people into thinking it is just a comedy show.
My brain is constantly scanning for ammunition to beat myself up with. It isn’t the specific thing that I’m thinking — it has nothing to do with how I feel. If it is my identity as a comedian, that’s just the fuel for the day. If I try to make myself be Dave Atell, pure maximum hard laughs and quantifying them — people talk about laughs per minute, and I think few of the punchline-punchline-punchline comedians do that. It’s a way for me to feel “less than.” But I know that I’m making things be what I want. I can’t have it both ways: I’m either doing what I want, or I need to change it so that I am.
It seems like story tellers know that the truth is always told best by an ending, because you already know how all the parts relate together. Comedy interrupts that sense of wholeness and pauses at its moments of incompleteness, holding it up in an ironic mirror for a laugh. In a way, a joke is more human than a story, because laughter, rather than knowledge, is the best tool for moving forward through uncertainty. How has your experience telling your story — for laughs — equipped you to live more fully when you’re not on stage?
I’m very interested that you’d call jokes more human than stories — I see what you’re saying about incompleteness, but the thing that came from the Met special that Hannah Gatsby did: people think that jokes are less human than stories because they only include a smaller snapshot than a lived experience. In my shows (plural), I’m pretty happy, and I came to peace around just letting certain moments have no laughs. I decided that it was okay.
People talk about how anything can be comedy as long as your first priority is getting the laugh. Another insecurity that I had to reckon with is that, if I’m honest with myself, the laugh is a second, very high priority. Sometimes I want to cultivate a sense of wonder, or make a point. This frees me from needing to just listen ironically. Ironically, as a comedian — I’m quite good at taking myself seriously and not always great at laughing at myself. Twisting this stuff for jokes helps me, offstage, not to take myself too seriously.
When I was recovering from all this stuff in the first place, I was getting great laughs from the medical staff because I could barely speak. The idea of being funny in that situation is so absurd and funny in itself — so being in those situations and wanting to turn it into material, and to turn it into material that I now know in my bones, reminds me that the best part of it was when I could take half a step back and make a joke. The best joke acknowledges the situation but doesn’t step totally outside it.
Assuming that you’re taking better care of your physical health since your coma, what kinds of comedy do you anticipate developing in the next iteration? What sorts of genres, venues or situations do you see yourself exploring? What would a comedy based on your living well look like, instead of pulling a Mark Twain in your failure to die?
What if I kept trying to put myself in the hospital?
So: the second show is “Feed Wolf Ice Cream,” and it is a show set in the afterlife, based on the premise of what happens when people ask if I saw anything. The premise of the show is that I did see something — the afterlife — and at the beginning of the show I’m in the afterlife, with the audience, and giving an orientation to what it looks like.
The new show, that I’m just starting to set myself into and just scratched the surface of — I haven’t committed to anything yet, but I think it’ll be about aspects of my personality that are hopefully as universal as possible: being frustrated that other people don’t behave the way I think they should all the time [for example] …
I used to work at this record store and the owner would educate me and I would borrow CDs and I would hear his thoughts. I was getting into Public Enemy, and he described how Nation of Millions was them coming out against society and Fear the Black Planet as a more reflective gaze at the community. I don’t want to create a community of ranting, raving and blaming. I can go off and yell and scream and be frustrated, but if the twist is showing how I am more responsible than the other person — it is a different way of being … It’s abstract, and ultimately I want to ground it in a visceral experience for the audience.