Kristen Toomey is a regular around Chicago’s comedy scene. I’d heard her talk a little bit about her recent sobriety at a couple of mics and she posted on Facebook about reaching 8 months of not drinking, so I reached out and asked if she’d be willing to talk to me about the intersection of comedy and alcohol in her own life. We chatted after a show she produces, Hoo-Ha Comedy at BEER, about how she decided she had had enough and what the effect has been on her life, both personally and professionally.
Kris: I saw your post on Facebook about your 8 month sobriety – congratulations.
Kristen: Thanks! its actually almost 9 now.
Good for you! I wanted to talk to you about your drinking, because I’ve been doing comedy for about a year and I’ve noticed there are some trends– quite a few addicts, honestly, and I’d like to talk to a recently sober comic.
How long have you been doing comedy?
I’ve been doing it for 3 ½ years now, steadily.
Tell me about how you got started.
Kristen: I started going to second city in ‘06 and I did that and loved it. Then I got pregnant with my son and had him in ’08. I always wanted to try stand up and my friends convinced me to do an open mic at a place called Cigars and Stripes in Berwyn and I loved it and did really well (but then I went back and bombed).
For me, it was too hard—I was very young when I had my daughter (I was 21) and I got married; I needed some sort of outlet where I was out of the house and not going to kill everyone. I went two years without doing any comedy, I got a job bartending and that wasn’t cutting it. I needed to get back into performing and doing something creative.
So you didn’t have a “career” at that point—you were trying to figure out what you were doing, and you had two young kids.
Right. And I started going to open mics and now I’m doing comedy 5 nights a week and I’d say for the past, hmm– at least since I quit drinking—I’m doing it 5 nights a week. I replaced one addiction with another.
Do you feel like you got into comedy because you needed something to own for yourself?
Yes. Comedy was always something I wanted to do, I was a funny enough person. When I had my daughter (I was so young) I read all the books and was in it 10,000%. Into it. And I did that and not to say she wasn’t a joy—she was amazing – but I lost myself somewhat. I’m not a Sears house frau but I was acting like that for years and it was very stifling. I was play acting. And I felt like i would go out and drink and act like a normal 22 year old but I came back home and pretended otherwise. These two separate lives. If I didn’t have comedy I feel like I’d still be myself, but I don’t know how authentic my life would be, how authentic I’d be able to be towards myself, towards my needs.
So had you been drinking as you got more into comedy?
Oh yeah, I would drink one night a week (and get completely wasted). I’d go out with my friends and then when I started doing comedy I would have 2-3 nights a week of going out, you know how it is at open mics, you have a couple of beers, sometimes that’s the only way you get paid, is with a free drink or two. And I wanted to get my money’s worth!
I’ve always been the type of person that doesn’t see the point in only having 1. It would turn into getting hammered 2-3 nights a week and the more that I was doing comedy the more that I was drinking and it was causing a lot of problems, because I’m married and my husband was like, “Are you doing comedy because you want to do comedy or are you doing comedy as an excuse to get out of the house and wasted? What are you doing?”
And then when you do stand up, I feel like, we’re with people that become your friends, you see them all the time, you’re bonding and drinking together
And you find out all kinds of shit about them very quickly you might not otherwise know because you’re all doing this together.
Right, and you all have fun and there’s a rush after you do a show and you want to keep the party going. So it got out of hand for me. At some point, I was like, “that’s enough.”
When I first started drinking it was to get the courage to go up there; it was a crutch. And then you develop a system – maybe 3 beers and a shot, a comfort level where you’re not sloppy but you’re loose. And I noticed that it started at 1 beer and then it turned into 4. And that got worse. When I quit, I was very nervous that I wouldn’t be able to perform. But actually, it’s been much better. My comedy has gotten better: I’m sharper, more focused, I enjoy it more. I’m more present.
I would argue that your kids were tied to alcohol too because you needed an escape.
And I was in my early 20s. I met my husband working in a bar and got pregnant and got married, so alcohol was the context.
When I quit, it was kind of like going through a breakup. But it was an abusive boyfriend. I felt like this boyfriend that I was in love with, and comfortable with, who treated me like shit—that’s alcohol to me.
Did you need alcohol to go up anymore? Was that a weird adjustment for you?
It was. I’ve done some dry shows in the past– at prisons, etc. There was no alcohol at those shows (I was, however, hungover as hell). But I always thought that that set would have been better if I would have been looser and had a few drinks. There was about 30 days [after I stopped drinking] where I was performing and very nervous without alcohol to loosen me up.
I’m not sure if you could tell from the outside–I feel like I had been performing enough that 3 years in, I could fake it, the confidence. But now I’m very comfortable onstage. If someone had a gun to my head and I had to drink as much as I used to, I couldn’t do it now. I’d be a mess.
What has the response been like from comics?
From me quitting? Mostly very supportive. I would say at first people were like,”Oh fuck off and have a drink, what are you doing.” Most people are drinking a lot themselves. But I think overall people have been supportive and surprisingly nice about it.
That’s good to hear—I think a lot of people assume that they have to drink to be in comedy and they can’t quit drinking once they’re in it. A lot of people are already sober when they start but there aren’t as many people I think that quit in the middle of their comedy lives.
Yeah, you know—I feel like because I was such a mess in so many ways and so many comedians we know knew how fucked up I was, I don’t have to prove anything. I can hang out and have fun. I feel like for some people drinking is part of being accepted and being cool and bonding. But for me it just caused problems and personal relationship crap and just how I was being perceived as a person. I don’t think other comics want to see me like that.
It messed up your friendships- marriage- comedy—yeah, why would you keep doing that?
And you know, it was really like, I don’t think I could have quit drinking if I wasn’t doing comedy. Because like I said earlier, it replaced that.
I don’t have a good time being at a bar if I’m not there for comedy. If I’m there with my friends, I don’t want to sit at a bar with them if I’m not drinking. My two best friends quit (after I did) for different reasons, but it’s hard– we always ask, what can we do now that we don’t drink? There are only so many movies we see. Take up knitting, maybe?
How comedy helped is it keeps me having something to do, somewhere to go—it happens to be in bars but we’re not just hanging out and I have a goal—to tell jokes.
If you’re not doing jokes, the reason for a bar to exist is to get at least a little hammered.
Right! When I do this show, for example, I hang out a little but I leave pretty soon after—I have kids and a family. It’s so good for me because it has helped me grow so so much.
Do you think that there are more addicts in comedy than, say, the rest of the world?
Comedians (and artists in general) are inclined to addiction. Performing is an addiction. Why else would we drive to Madison for 4 minutes of stage time for free? That’s not normal. That same sort of mentality relates and obsessive addiction type of stuff comes with the territory
Everyone always says artists are tortured, comics can be miserable. Do you think a lot of comics are unhappy first and then the drinking and comedy sort of fall into place together?
Oh yeah, I definitely do.
I think that people are depressed and I’m definitely one of them. And I think that those people tend to have drug and alcohol problems as a self medicating thing. Some of those people turn to art or comedy or whatever. Not only are comedians tragic but all artists tend to be. No, not every comedian is an alcoholic.
Also I feel like in Chicago we’re in this kind of comedy college because everyone graduates to a coast.
There certainly is this idea that people are only here for a certain amount of time
Yeah, and nobody is looking, there’s not a ton of industry. Its sort of like—we’re all working hard but we’re also playing so hard, there’s no consequences. We’re fucking around in comedy college.
Do you think that if you wouldn’t have done comedy that you’d have developed a drinking problem anyway?
Good question. I haven’t really thought about it because I feel like comedy was so inevitable for me. It wouldn’t have progressed as quickly.
Because of the context, right? I mean, if your hobby actually pays you in alcohol, if you’re prone to alcoholism—you’re going to descend quicker.
Exactly. It’s your environment. If I wasn’t in comedy I’d be home. But truth be told, I was drinking when I wasn’t doing comedy just going out with my friends. There was no way to rationalize it except for fun’s sake.
When was the defining moment when you decided you had to quit?
Well, there were a few. I would say it was about the last 6 months before I quit, I was not feeling well, physically. I was 31, they say when you hit 30 your hangovers get terrible. And I have celiac disease.
Oh god, you have celiac and you were drinking that much beer?
Yeah. I’d be really, really ill. And I was drinking so much and I thought I was dying. I couldn’t move and I would just vomit constantly. I was like,” What am I doing, poisoning myself?” That was my wakeup call.
It was hurting every aspect of my life. I got to the point where I thought, “I’ll just try to stop drinking for a week. I won’t put an longterm goal in place. Not saying I’m never drinking again; I’m just giving it a shot.” And then it just became 2 months, then 3. And I still have never said I won’t drink again. My brain won’t let me do that because that means I will shut down.
A lot of addicts say that—I mean, there’s that cliché of one day at a time for a reason. Do you consider yourself an alcoholic?
Hmm. Yeah. The definition is someone that drinks to get drunk and I do that. By that definition, absolutely. It made my life completely unmanageable. Its not something I like to label myself. I don’t like to think about it.
Do you ever talk about it in your comedy?
I’ve talked about it a little bit. I feel like as time goes by it’ll be easier to talk about
Well, It’s so new still.
Yeah. I talked about drinking a lot when I WAS drinking but my outlook has changed. I’ve talked about quitting a little and make some asides. There’s some more serious stuff that I’ll eventually get to but its still too fresh. Not enough time has passed.
Do you fear being labeled as a “sober comic”?
When you ask that, yeah. I mean, people label you based on one thing they know about you no matter what it is—I’ve been referred to as a “mom comic” before. I don’t worry about it because at the end of the day they’re going to put me wherever they want no matter what I do. It’ll be what it is.
I don’t think of myself as a “sober comic.” Like, I don’t even know what that would look like. How many ‘bits’ would I have to do about my sobriety before I’m labeled that way?
It’s just like anything else—you’re a comic that happens to be sober. You’re a person with many facets.
I haven’t been asked to do ‘sober’ events yet but I think that’s because I’m new to it. I have been asked to do ‘drunk’ shows. I just got booked to do another drunk show.
Wait, what? That’s a thing?
Oh yeah. I just got booked to do another drunk show at a roadhouse—they do a 9:00 sober show and a midnight drunk show and just pour alcohol into you. The whole show.
And I’m like, I’ll come back and do it and have a great time but I’m not drinking. The last drunk show I did, I walked up and introduced the guy, dropped the mic and passed out. I woke up in the office with a spiked bracelet on my wrist. They were loving it.
Do you think there’s an expectation that people love to see comics ruin their own lives?
Absolutely. I think people like to watch anybody ruin their lives. Celebrities or friends or whatever. Especially with comics, because we’re so self deprecating, you know, when someone feels superior to someone else, they laugh. Its genuine humor. There’s a dark part of the human psyche that likes to feel better than others. “Look how fucked up I am so you feel better about yourself!” As a comedian you’re supposed to be okay with yourself enough to let it happen but a lot of time you’re not ready yet and it fucks you up and you’re genuinely hurt by people laughing. You have to protect yourself until you get ready to get to a point but I feel like, if you accept it, it’s empowering to come out okay on the other side.
Quitting drinking has been good professionally, personally— is there any way that your life hasn’t gotten better since you quit?
Not at all. Literally, nothing. I realized that in month 6—holy shit, there is not one thing that my life is lacking because I don’t drink anymore. My health is better, my kids are happier, my marriage is better, my career is progressing—there’s nothing.
So why did you wait so long? Please punch me if that’s a rude question.
I mean, that’s the nature of addiction, right? For a long time I didn’t think I was capable. You lie to yourself. I told myself a lot of lies- I wont be able to do comedy, I need this as an outlet and an escape, because a lot of an addiction is is an escape and what I found is—whatever I was trying to escape from is shit I’ve been running from since childhood. It’s like when you’re a kid and there’s a monster under the bed—you build it up and when you finally look under there, there’s nothing.
And that was my addiction. Keeping me stuck in bed until I finally got up and turned on the light—not to be cliché but it was really like, ‘I can face this, I am strong enough. I can deal with this.” When you do, its not nearly as bad as you think it could be. Its terrible, don’t get me wrong, but you can be so much stronger than you think you are. When you finally realize it, it compounds and you become even stronger. I’m so proud of myself because I’m not hiding from feelings anymore. I was afraid to feel for a very long time and that was the hardest thing about getting sober—your addiction says, ‘you are not strong enough to handle life,’ and you need alcohol until you black out and check out of your own life.
I realized that I didn’t have to do that. That’s weak. I hate weakness in myself and that’s what makes me realize how sick I was—because sober me looks at that crutch and cringes.
How did you deal with those bad days?
I had a few bad sets. I took it out on a few people. But I said, “I need to have only one goal today—and that is not to drink. No matter what else happens today, I will not allow myself to drink, and I will look at whatever is happening in my life head on.” I told myself if I just didn’t have a drink, everything else would take care of itself. A total bullshit lie.
I’ve said many times if I didn’t have my husband and kids, god knows where I’d be. I legitimately think I might be dead. I don’t know. At the end of the day, they were super supportive, but I had to make the choice for myself. I had them when I was drinking—it wasn’t their job to get me to stop, it was MY job. I had to take control. I HATED it.
That’s why I started drinking. Get out of control. Not have a martini and be charming and witty—drink to black out and not feel anymore. I was always of the opinion that just one drink is a waste.
It’s scary because now, there is no one else to blame for my actions, and I have to own everything I’m doing 100% of the time. I was doing a lot of shit I didn’t own before, that I didn’t control. And the control was what I feared the most, but its turned out to be the BEST part of being sober—I own everything that I’m doing and I control my own life. That’s the other side.
When you’re an addict you don’t have feelings except for hangovers. The first two months if I had a bad day I was like, “I’d like to check out, please.” Nothing crushing was going on, but I just didn’t have the tools to handle it. But if alcohol isn’t an option you just hold on and get through it and grit your teeth.
So you didn’t go to therapy or addict meetings or anything?
I’d love to go to therapy but I’m uninsured. I’m certainly not anti-therapy.
A lot of comics think comedy is therapy, but I don’t use comedy as therapy. I feel like my intention is to make people laugh and be entertaining. It has given me a purpose (other than my kids and husband, of course) because it’s something for ME—it’s therapeutic to have it in my life. A few times I’ve gone up and just talked about stuff I wasn’t comfortable about in my own life. Its easier to talk up there.
Do you miss your abusive boyfriend, alcohol?
Not anymore. Definitely did at first. But every day it gets easier.
Even though you’re in bars every night, which a lot of alcoholics would NEVER do.
It helps that I had the physical sickness occurring from the drinking. It was pretty clear.
Oh, that immediate consequence thing. It’s not “you will get cirrhosis in 20 years,” it’s “you will vomit for the next 24 hours straight.”
Right, it was so dramatic and immediate.
I could still have wine, but I’d still have to drink 3 bottles of it in order to feel like I was doing it right. I don’t feel like its worth it. There’s no point anymore. There’s no part of my life that sucks. The only way I see myself going back to it is—maybe if there was something I couldn’t handle happened to me. But then again, I’ve learned how much of a fighter I am. I’m always fighting something and now I have this opponent for the rest of my life—alcohol—and that drive to beat it and be competitive helps compel me towards sobriety. Its funny—I always felt like there was this beast inside of me and I fought to keep it quiet.
So what’s happened to the beast?
What advice would you give someone who is where you were 9 months ago?
Can I say something cheesy? Okay. Challenge yourself. Fight for yourself. Set a small goal—see if you can do a day without your substance of choice. Then try 2. Don’t make any huge promises or goals that seem impossible. If you’re a comic and you’re afraid of not being funny—okay, just SEE if you’re not funny without alcohol. I bet you’ll surprise yourself.