Cannabis, Comedy and COVID-19

For these four comedians, COVID-19 has meant cancelled tours, loss of income and no chance of hearing those sweet, sweet laughs from a stage. We chat about how their comedy has been affected by cannabis and Coronavirus.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Evan Desmarais is a Toronto-born, Manchester-based stand up comic, currently in isolation in Perth, Western Australia. Desmarais was in Australia performing the Fringe circuit, and after Perth and Adelaide Fringe seasons, was supposed to head back to Manchester before performing in the Edinburgh Fringe and moving down to London. While in lockdown, he's been able to pull a few online gigs.

"Hearing people's laughter on Zoom like a heroin addict getting methadone – it's not the same but the best you can get," he says. And his thoughts on post-COVID comedy? "The complete industry is going to come back, but who knows in what way and who's going to be there to do it.  I think a bunch of people are going to quit comedy and it's going to be fucked up – places are opening for small numbers, but do you think big names are going to wait until theatres open? They're going to take all the small gigs." 

Zach Zucker and Jonny Woolley met at clown school in Étampes, south of Paris. What began as a hatred for each other – Zucker being a loud-mouthed American and Woolley a slightly-more-mild Canadian – turned into a close friendship through chasing weed dealers and listening to hip hop. Zucker recalls some of his first dealer relationships. "His name on the street is Jawed, sometimes Ali, sometimes DankHead 420 – you never knew. We've been to 17-18 countries but everywhere we go we find a dealer. I have about 30 Jaweds in my phone now, but the OG Jawed is the reason for my whole career."

Zucker and Woolley stuck together after clown school to create Stamptown, a company which now produces live shows around the world, and had a lineup of 16 shows waiting in the wings for Edinburgh Fringe this year.

Although they've lost the opportunity for their biggest season yet, the boys are using their lockdown time to move forward. "There are a lot of positives if you just reorient," Woolley says. "If the worst thing that happens is missing festivals, we're doing okay." Stamptown now has a strong online presence, including live streamed comedy content reminiscent of their loose-as-hell, midnight-till-3am festival comedy nights.

Hunter Saling is an actor and comedian based in Los Angeles who has previously toured to the UK with the Stamptown crew. When lockdown first hit, Saling was working with his comedy trio Business Casual on their work in progress Cowboys. They were in the middle of a six-show run at the Lyric Hyperion when they had to cancel due to COVID. "We've converted to virtual shows and stage readings in conjunction with Lyric Hyperion. We've been doing stupid dumb shit in the meantime," he says. 

Saling is particularly focussed on the Black Lives Matter movement and the marches taking place mere blocks from where he's based. "This whole lockdown is showing that these things can be put on pause and there can be time for that in the future. It's not time for that right now. It's time to be tuned into the injustices that are being brought to light around us now. Passions are overshadowed by people who are facing racism. There are bigger things to talk about." 

Cannabis and Creativity

Weed, and drugs in general, have long been considered tools to unlock creativity. Although this is something that is different for each individual, there can be a time and a place to use cannabis to spark ideas. "Weed is the best and I wouldn't be anywhere without that sweet kush," Zucker says.

I recall a night in Edinburgh in 2017 where, hot boxed at 3am, he and performance partner Viggo Venn were spitballing an idea to dress up as a tooth and a toothbrush and team up to fight against cavities. When I mentioned this, Zucker had no recollection. "You get, like, one genius idea per gram. People say 'write drunk, edit sober', but my version is 'write drunk, edit high, perform sober and never work on it'." Woolley pipes up, "You get about the same ratio as when you're sober of quality to bullsh*t. But creating is almost as tight as weed."

People say 'write drunk, edit sober', but my version is 'write drunk, edit high, perform sober and never work on it'.Zach Zucker

Desmarais started writing comedy when he was a teenager and cannabis has been with him since then. "Weed used to be a big part of my process when I started because Toronto is a big pot city," he says. "I'd have a little skate and a smoke and come up with great shit. It's like you're playing the sides of your brain off each other – the creative and the control." 

Although it has been helpful for Desmarais, it's not without its restrictions. "Weed is the best way to go on tangents and write, but you write f*cked up and you edit sober. If you're writing sober you might get stuck in a road block and pot will open that up a little bit."

Many of Saling's influences have publicly celebrated cannabis as a creative tool. "I like to claim I [use cannabis to be more creative], but then I take naps and play video games and make stupid voices to my girlfriend's cat," he says. "I don't know if it helps or not. I would like to think it does. It seems like everyone I'm influenced by talks about it and I watch interviews about cannabis. It's one extreme or the other. People either only create on cannabis or it freaks them out and they can't do it." 

He's not convinced it can help with writer's block, either. "I've never had writer's block and the thought, 'You know what will help me make things? Smoking joints and then eating a snack'. It never helps."

Cannabis and Performing

Performing while high is a different game. For Desmarais, cannabis can be a great tool. "I think pot does come into play for the people who do their best work on stage," he says. "A lot of us can get into our head, but if you smoke a joint you can kind of get out of that space and you step into a different mentality – it's more grounded and more of a yogic state." 

It's a little different for Zucker, who's clowning comedy depends on a different connection with the audience. "In terms of performing high, that's a nightmare," he says. "We've only done it a few times. Except we'll do it for 4/20 because we're dank. 

"The paranoia that comes with being high is not conducive to performing clown – it's pretty much the opposite. I went on stage once and the set crushed when we did it, but I did something and they didn't laugh for 2 seconds but it felt like 30. I freaked out thinking that I was never funny and no one thought I was funny and I was a failure."

Before COVID hit, Saling was in a consistent creative routine. "I would not let myself smoke weed in the morning or before [a show]. If I have a rehearsal or a show I don't smoke till after, it's like a little treat at the end," he says. "Comedy and improv have it ingrained and there are shows that use it as a gimmick. I've used it in improv a few times and I tend to steamroll and take the shows down very specific holes."

For Desmarais, it's all about the balance. "Some of the best sets I've ever had are in that magical space between half a joint and a beer and a half. You're like a substance scientist and you've figured out the formula and everything makes sense. Everyone loves you, your parents accept you, all the girls wanna sleep with you all the guys wanna jerk you off but you only half an hour because then you keep going and you lose it."

Saling's cannabis usage has shifted drastically since lockdown. "Nowadays I find I tell myself 'Have you waited more than 45 minutes since you woke up? Okay, why not a little bit.' It is an ashamedly high level of high during this whole period, but I find I can manage any anxiety a lot more. It's a post-work down-the-ramp sorta thing."

Cannabis Legalization

Zucker and Saling are currently in California, where cannabis has been legalised. Woolley is in Ontario, and Desmarais has lived in countries where weed is legal and illegal. They've each spent time in countries with different cannabis laws. So who's getting it right?

Woolley shows off his recently-purchased ounce, as Ontario have begun online cannabis shopping in response to the COVID restrictions. "In Canada there haven't been any measurable downsides," he says. "I want our government to see the people spending money on weed. Ontario is progressive – we have acknowledged addiction and mental health. We have government funded programs and safe injection sites around to help with dealing with hard drugs. It wouldn't surprise me if cannabis tax revenue is going there."

Zucker's housemate shows off his tin of cannabis edibles while we pause the interview for Woolley to smoke a blunt. "Legal weed is narc weed," Zucker says, laughing. "I stopped smoking weed when it became legal." 

Desmarais was able to legally consume cannabis with his family last time he went home for Christmas. "We pick up from a place – through a peace pipe – everyone picks up where you left off. To have that with no stigma across generations is beautiful."

Dispensaries are these shiny white beacons of capitalism and there are so many people of colour in jail for possession or intent to sell.Hunter Saling

Saling has high hopes for cannabis taxes in California. "I would love to see it funded into the public school system. It's so structurally inhibiting and out of touch and it gets some of the least amount of funding. It should be used for prison reformation and prison education for inmate and rehabilitation programs. Use it to repair the damage that it has been used as a f*cking excuse to make. Dispensaries are these shiny white beacons of capitalism and there are so many people of colour in jail for possession or intent to sell."

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Cannabis and White Privilege

Currently, only a handful of legal US states are working on exonerating those charged with minor cannabis-related crimes, in accordance with their newer cannabis laws. It would be disingenuous to suggest that drug related crimes were not racially linked, particularly in the US. Saling recalls a driving trip with friends which was saved by their white privilege. 

"We were caught by US Border Patrol in clear possession. I said I'd bought it legally and they didn't even check. They rattled the cage for about 30 minutes, but they let us go and didn't even confiscate it because we were four white dudes," Saling says. "Seeing people having their head smashed into a brick wall for the same doesn't sit well." 

Woolley and Zucker have a similar story. "We were in LA and the carbon monoxide alarm went off," Zucker says. "The fire department came and saw all our butts and asked if we'd been smoking, and we just said no and they left."

As Saling and I wrap up our chat, his housemates return home from their participation in local protests. I ask if he had any closing remarks. "Yes. Donate to your city's bail fund. Educate yourself on prison reform. Smoke weed everyday. The best way to sneak in weed that I've seen is unscrew a classic Bic and take the core of the pen out and you chuck a joint in there." Any other hot tips?

"The apple you use for a pipe is not for eating."

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Laura Desmond
Laura Desmond

Laura Desmond is an Adelaide-based writer with a keen interest in the arts, gender politics and social change. She is currently working to obtain a Master in Writing through Swinburne University.

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