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Stand-up guy: Mark Lundholm uses humor to fight addiction

Kurtis Matthews, left, and Mark Lundholm will perform at the House of Comedy at the Mall of America tonight.

People who've been in recovery can recite their “rock-bottom” story, the point in their journey with addiction when they hit their lowest point ever and realized they had to turn their life around.

These tales — a staple of AA meetings — can be harrowing. Some people cry and shamefully admit their transgressions. Others recount their stories in an exhausted, dull tone. Emotions run the gamut, but hardly anyone tries to get a laugh out of their rock-bottom story.

Hardly anyone that is, except Mark Lundholm. In his shows, the comedian and recovering addict likes to use his lowest-of-the-low-point story for comic effect.

“In 1988, at my lowest point, I put a gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger,” Lundholm recounted. “The gun didn’t go off. It jammed. My first thought was, ‘I suck at everything.’ ”

Lundholm knows that some people will not see the humor in a story like that, but he believes that those who do will gain a special understanding of the desperate struggles addicted people face. He also knows that the ability to reveal the humor in life’s darkest moments is a special skill, one that he has been sharing with audiences for the last quarter century, ever since turned his back on decades of heavy drug and alcohol abuse.

“Comedy is relative to the bottom,” Lundholm said. “The lower you’ve been, the funnier the laugh has to be. Dark humor is a nice reminder that we all live on the edge of insanity.”

Professional funny guy

Lundholm, a self-described former “street guy,” had no experience in comedy before he was put on psychiatric hold and into court-ordered rehab. After getting sober, he used his natural sense of humor (“I come from a big family,” he said. “If you weren’t funny, you don’t get to talk. If you don’t talk fast, you don’t eat.”) to perform a volunteer comedy routine for inmates at San Quentin State Prison. After that, Lundholm decided the stand-up life was for him, and once he’d earned enough money at odd jobs to buy a car, he began traveling the country, doing one-nighters in any comedy club that would take him.

“I’d drive, sleep in my car, do the gig,” he said. “The routine was like drinking or doing dope. The addiction became comedy instead of meth or cocaine.”

These days, Lundholm is still addicted to comedy, though he no longer has to sleep in his car. He headlines at clubs around the country, doing routines that speak to “normies”— or people who haven’t experienced addiction — as well as people in active recovery.

“I always had the jail, addiction, recovery lane covered in comedy,” Lundholm said. “It took me a while to write ‘normy’ stuff where I could relate to a couple who just had a baby and came out to the comedy club for their first time out since they’d gotten a sitter. But I do that now. My comedy is recovery specific, but normy friendly. Anybody can go.”

That’s good to know, because Lundholm will be at the House of Comedy at the Mall of America tonight, performing with his friend and fellow recovering addict Kurtis Matthews. For the last two years, they have toured the country with their addiction-humor show “The Addicts Comedy Tour." The show, which attracts an enthusiastic audience of people hungry for Lundholm and Matthews’ unique brand of humor, kicks off at 7 p.m.

“Most of the people who come see us are rabid because they are addicted to what feels good,” Lundholm said. “There are people who will drive five hours to see this show. In Minneapolis, we’ll have people in the audience who have driven all the way from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan. They’ll probably have seen the show before. We get a ton of repeaters.”

Some of Lundholm’s fan base comes from the recovery-humor DVDs he distributes through the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

“I’ve got very specific clinical DVDs,” he said. “I’ve also got comedy."

'Laughter inspires trust'

Though Lundholm makes a living laughing about his — and others’ — struggles with addiction, he also is clear about his serious commitment to helping people climb up from rock bottom and back into the daylight. In his mind, addiction is a form of mental illness. There’s no shame in that fact, he said, but acknowledging the link inspires people to do the work that’s needed to recover.

“People who talk about ‘mental health and addiction’ are being redundant,” Lundholm said. “Addiction is a mental illness, period.” Just admit it and work through it, he said. Laughing at his own very real struggles with drugs and alcohol doesn’t diminish them; it just opens up the conversation and gets people talking about their own recovery. 

“Laughter inspires trust,” Lundholm said. “People will laugh hard at my shows because they trust me. I’m not making fun of anybody.” 

Lundholm might not be making fun of anybody, but that doesn’t mean that his humor is all rainbows and unicorns, either. He likes to walk the line between dark and light, exposing the brutal side of addiction with a wry smile.

“The comedy that I enjoy is a lot darker and not for everybody,” he said. “It’s PG-plus. There’s no swearing. My comedy highlights where you’re hurt and tries to help you fix it. If you don’t think I’m funny it’s because you’re broken,” he laughed. “It’s a mental health thing.”

Or maybe it’s because you’re too normy. Lundholm makes fun at the language gaps that exist between people who intimately understand addiction and those who live in the bright, shiny world without cravings and abuse.

“When normal people hear the word ‘accessory,’ ” Lundholm said, “they think ‘belts or seat-warmers on the Lexus?’ I think ‘three months.’ When normal people hear the word ‘blackout,’ they think ‘no electricity.’ I think ‘age 11.’ ”

Hopes to help others

Lundholm believes that humor has been the tool that’s allowed him to stay sober for so many years. He’s been bitterly, deeply addicted and close to death, and he’d do anything to never be back down there again. He shares his gift of humor with others in the hopes that it will keep them from going down that same road. If they do get stuck the way he did, he hopes laughter will help lift them out.

“I think that the power that be or the universe or the happy accident has allowed us to laugh at what we’re afraid of so we don’t run smack back into it,” Lundholm said. “It’s like a pothole in the road: If you hit one while you’re not paying attention you are going to damage your car. But, if I can avoid the pothole, I can tell the next person where that pothole is so they can avoid it. But if they don’t listen to me and get stuck anyway, we can laugh together about being in the pothole and figure out a way to get out.”  

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