Comedian Amy Dresner talks sober comedy

Pub date February 28, 2011
SectionPixel Vision

Twelve-steppers say in order for an addict to get on the road to recovery, it’s essential that they accept their addiction. But for comics Amy Dresner, Ian Harvie, and Felon O’Reilly, successful recovery is not just about acceptance: it’s about turning addiction into one big, serious joke. It might sound like funny business, but standing onstage with the mic and some yuks has been the only way all three have been able to maintain their sobriety. Now, they’re bringing the laughs throughout the country on their “Laughs Without Liquor” comedy tour, donating proceeds to local “sober living” causes along the way. Lucky for us, March 5th brings the tour to SF.

The three comics kicked off their tour in January, performing at the New York Gay and Lesbian Center in a benefit for a drug and alcohol program. But although the comics now travel and tour together, they didn’t always have a lot in common. Ian Harvie is a trans guy who has toured with Margaret Cho, while Felon O’Reilly has been to rehab 17 times and to jail 50 times more than that.

The two met eight years ago while performing stand-up and working out their respective sobrieties in Maine. O’Reilly proposed the “Laughs without Liquor” concept to Harvie, and soon the two were doing sober stand-up together.  Last year the two found comedian Amy Dresner at the Downtown Comedy Club in Los Angeles. 

“I was onstage ranting about rehab and my drug-induced epilepsy or whatever,” says Dresner. She was quickly added to the tour roster. 

Dresner, originally from LA, grew up in a showbiz environment. Her father was a television comedy writer, with friends and connections to household name comics who Dresner met and knew as a child. But comedy was something she left unexplored until her addiction was kicked. “It’s always been my secret dream to be a comic but I didn’t have the balls to do it until a few years ago. It takes real commitment and prior to that, my commitment was to getting high and being depressed.”

Now that Dresner is both sober and leading the life of a full-time comedian, she is able to reflect on how her career and her sobriety inform each other. “I’ve found that for a lot of people struggling with addiction, there is a lot of shame involved. That is another big trigger for self-destructive behavior. So if I can make people laugh at things they feel ashamed of – well, it can be very healing.”

She can also attest to the ways in which sobriety has improved her stage presence. “When you’re a sober comic you are really present and connected to the audience.  You can see what jokes are working and which ones aren’t. There’s no deluding yourself that you killed when you really bombed.”

Dresner appreciates the positive reactions, understanding and support that she has received from her sober audience members. But she wants to be clear that she doesn’t condemn alcohol or the people that drink it. “I think there’s a big misconception that if you are making jokes about sobriety, you are somehow undermining it. Being sober is not the same as being Mormon. We aren’t trying to bring back Prohibition. I loved getting drunk and if I could do it and not crash my car, ruin all my relationships, lose my job and carry my liver around on a dolly, I would.”

But it’s probably best to leave your booze at home if you want to see Dresner in this tour specifically. While you don’t need to take a breathalyzer test to attend, all of the shows on the tour will take place at churches, sober clubhouses, amphitheaters, and other places that are not bars. Instead of spending too much on drinks, your entrance fee will go to support a local sober living facility or treatment center.

The Laughs Without Liquor SF show will take place at a local church with poet and author Bucky Sinister hosting. All proceeds will go to the Castro Club, a sober gathering place and home for queer folks in recovery. 

For Dresner, the upcoming show in SF will hold a particularly special meaning. “I got strung out on speed for the first time in SF, so it will be very ironic to come back and do a sober gig here.”


Laughs Without Liquor

Sat/5, 8 p.m., $20

Most Holy Redeemer Church

100 Diamond, SF

(818) 588-7390