As a performer, almost dying was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I’m a doughy, bearded, straight, white, male stand-up comedian in his early 30s, so my coma provided color to my comedy career distinct from my beige demographic backdrop. “Finally, something interesting!” I said during one of my first shows back in Chicago. Afterward, a fellow comedian complimented me in the ball-busting way stand-ups consider affectionate: “Fuck you for finding an angle.”
I’m Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket to the Storytelling Factory. No artist would volunteer for the hell of poisoned blood, organ failure and painstaking physical therapy that comprised my coma and recovery, but the creative mind is a warped instrument. The traumatic toll doesn’t stop peers from envying my story.
(Almost) dying for a story
Before my coma, I’d done stupid, dangerous things in search of such a ticket. My college roommate and I were obsessed with Kerouac’s “On the Road” and its two main characters: Dean Moriarty, who sucks the marrow from life, and Sal Paradise, who observes and documents Moriarty’s adventures from the periphery. I was a solitary Paradise, so I cultivated my inner Moriarty by pushing myself into experiences to document.
My friends and I built a bonfire below wooden train tracks to enhance the experience of reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” aloud. I explained the seduction techniques in “The Game” to a date prior to practicing them on her, just to see if I could get away with it. I ate mushrooms before walking to Subway to make ordering a sandwich as psychedelic as possible.
Even when I didn’t approach an experience explicitly for the story, the engine in the back of my mind always evaluated its potential as fodder for some future creation. I hadn’t gone searching for my coma (though I did cause it). Before it happened, I would have killed for a story like it. Instead, the story almost killed me.
When I survived, I found myself uniquely prepared to tell this story. I had mined for my comedy voice in the Chicago improv and stand-up scenes for almost a decade. I knew how to structure a narrative from years of performing, reading and creative writing.
I had stumbled through my 20s, but by plying my craft during that time, I developed storytelling and performance skills in the midst of falling asleep at parties and failing to discover my ultimate purpose in life. A creative vampire like the documentary filmmaker who wanted my story could dangle the carrot of his “This American Life” connections in front of me, but I came out of my coma with the chops and drive to tell the story myself.
From coma to “Coma Show”
I shared an early draft at a show on January 10, 2015, only a month after my discharge from a hospital in Cincinnati. I wrote the story on the car ride to Chicago with my mom, and our argument at the end of the trip provided the ending seconds after I lived it.
Making it to that show was my motivation for returning to Chicago as early as I did. I hoped to transform the creative arithmetic from “tragedy + time = comedy” to “tragedy x my delivery = something approximating entertainment.”
Thoughts about the coma permeated my life. Even though my recovery was ongoing, I had to talk about it onstage. I couldn’t go back to my old jokes about Kesha and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Years before, I had attended a reading by Drew Magary?—?Deadspin’s master of the all-caps rant?—?to promote his first novel, “The Postmortal.” During the Q&A afterward, when asked why he wrote the book, he recalled an editor’s advice to follow his best idea and pursue it to completion. My best idea after my coma was a one-man show I would title “Dave Maher Coma Show” (“Dave Maher: Unplugged” felt a touch too dark). I envisioned the theater where I’d perform it, followed by a standing ovation from the audience. (Why, hello. Yes, I am prone to grandiosity.)
I pursued the creation of “Dave Maher Coma Show” at full steam. For months, I wrote alone to Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” at the desk I had maneuvered into my closet. I asked Dan, my hardest-working writer friend, to give me assignments and notes to shape the material. I whittled a loose 90+ minutes down to a lean 55. I memorized the show on hour-long walks across the city. I worked hard because I didn’t want a show that passed for compelling based on the sensational details of the story. That would be like Charlie Bucket wasting his golden ticket on filling his pockets with Necco wafers. I wanted to use my golden ticket to create an everlasting gobstopper of a show?—?fascinating, funny and engaging because of its craft.
“Dave Maher Coma Show” debuted in November, one year after I woke up. I sold out most dates of the initial run, and the show was extended. Reviews ranged from friendly to glowing. I got my name and picture printed in two papers. I reaped rewards from my golden ticket because I had worked for them. Not everyone who tours the Chocolate Factory gets to the Fizzy Lifting Drinks.
Golden ticket or gilded cage?
Having spent the better part of a year working on the show, I felt isolated from my stand-up friends and the larger comedy scene. I worried that focusing my creative efforts so intensely meant narrowly branding myself as “the coma guy.” Because I’d refined my material at open mics and small showcases prior to the coma show’s opening, I feared making people sick of my story before I had a chance to tell it in full.
When I ran into Rebecca, a fellow comedian, at a coffee shop and shared these fears with her, she smacked sense into me:
“That’s ridiculous. This is a story that happened to you, and you have to tell it. Who cares if people think you’re being repetitive? Fuck ’em. You’ve got to use the raw materials of your life. That’s what we do.”
I accepted the value of my particular raw materials, but my fear of being trapped in a one-story prison remained. Had I survived a coma, recovered to full health and returned to comedy more confident than ever only to peak with my first show?
Honoring the story
Fortunately, a conversation with my friend Wes answered that question for me. Wes’ act consists of telling stories and reading passages from obscure books in between singing stripped-down covers of Nina Simone, the Beach Boys and Nirvana. He opened for my show one night, and in the green room afterward, he told me how glad he was that I hadn’t died.
By then, I was fortunate enough to have heard similar sentiments from many people, but Wes’ gratitude was specific. He enjoyed me as a performer and thought I had an interesting point of view, even before the coma. He was excited to see what I would do next. The scale of the project didn’t matter?—?he was just happy I was alive to make it.
When Wes said that, I had an epiphany. Beyond the golden ticket of the story itself, beyond the opportunity to apply my decade of incidental preparation to its telling, beyond even the coma show and any rewards that followed?—?the biggest gift I received from my coma was the opportunity to keep going. I did the work to honor this story, and that prepared me for the work it will take to honor whatever story comes next.
It was one of the nicest things anyone has said to or about me—and I’ve read my own eulogies.