The more you drink, the funnier we are!" Stand-up Whitney Wasson admits she's said this and other throwaway lines onstage in an attempt to get crowds to buy another beer at a show. It's at the bar, she says, where most comedy venues make their money, not to mention where most comics tend to hang out while waiting for stage time. But now two years sober, Wasson is working to create a different environment for other performers in recovery from drugs and alcohol.
Serenity Now! is a variety show featuring all-sober artists performing for a completely sober audience. Stand-up Shannon Noll headlines the debut at the Crowd Theater on Saturday, October 20, at 10 PM, specifically scheduled to give nondrinkers a place to be at an often very booze-filled time. Wasson drew from sober performers she already knew and issuedan open call for sober performers to put together the lineup, which includes musician Nire Nah, improvisor Josh Levine, and stand-up Katie Sirles.
Wasson was already a heavy drinker when she started her comedy career in Fayetteville, Arkansas, five years ago. When she moved to Chicago in 2016 to continue pursuing stand-up, she drank more. "I sort of wore how dysfunctional I was as a badge of honor," she says. "I feel like artists tend to do that. It's this big romantic idea that you have to be this towering tragic figure to write anything—to do anything worthwhile, you're in turmoil. That's an idea that I really had to work on shedding since I got sober."
There wasn't a major incident that caused Wasson to stop drinking—she was still always able to get onstage and perform. Whether or not she remembered what she said was another story. She says her jokes are better now, that she has a clear head, gets plenty of rest, and can be present in her performance. And she doesn't shy away from talking about her sobriety on stage, something that has connected her to a community of other comics who are in recovery.
"I wanted to know that there were sober people who could maintain sobriety, were funny, were getting opportunities, and I think most of all just were able to exist in the otherwise murky, bad social environment that is stand-up comedy," Wasson says. "It's a specific type of masochism that drives you to do it anyway. Comedy can sometimes be the antithesis of recovery."
Wasson's ultimate dream is to create a space that has the same lived-in, social atmosphere as a bar but is completely booze free. In the meantime, she asks that comedy venues offer more soft drink options and alternatives to the age-old policies built into the industry, like the two-drink minimum for audience members or paying performers with drink tickets. She'll continue doing her part as a comedy producer, possibly by turning Serenity Now! into an ongoing series.
"I'm trying to come at it in a really positive way like, if you build it they will come," Wasson says. "I hope I can create an environment that inspires people to think that it's possible to be a sober artist." v