by Elizabeth Coady
Every euphoric high, messy low and uncomfortable ambivalence in Dan Luther’s life becomes fuel for his inner beast, which churns out material for stand-up comedy.
The beast’s name is bipolar disorder, and for 10 years Luther, 46, has been transforming the arcs and dips of living into an anecdote, a joke, a punchline to deliver to audiences.
And while bipolar can be debilitating, comedy has been Luther’s saving grace. About a decade ago he shucked the sterile stability of corporate America for the love and rush of performing comedy on stage. “Comedy is kind of like a high if you do real well,” said Luther, a Plymouth Meeting native who now lives in East Falls. “You’re like on fire for a week … when you got the crowd eating out of your hand.”
Tragicomedy is the currency of stand-up, a theme capitalized on “Crashing,” a six-episode half-hour series about comedy that recently wrapped up on HBO. “This new premium for standup comics [is] that they have to bare everything,” Pete Holmes, the creator and subject of the series, says in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ clip of the show’s premiere. “They have to use everything that happens to them in a real artful way.”
As Luther will confirm, there’s healing in the telling. His whole life people have called him funny, but he was compelled to try comedy only after his father fell ill.
“My dad was dying of cancer,” he said. “When he died, I had all this pain in me, and I just went and did an open mike.”
He says he touched a chord in the audience and received instant positive feedback, which kept him going back to the clubs. ”I guess I got lucky that one time, and then I stuck with it.”
And though he still works part-time at Capone’s Bottle Shop in East Norriton, it’s the chance to perform at clubs in Montgomery County or Philadelphia that keeps him striving.
Self-deprecation and a deadpan manner are his stock-in-trade. Nothing is off limits, neither mental disorder nor parents’ deaths nor the sexual romp with a hookup in a cemetery during which time nine cop cars descended. He jokes on stage that he has a lot in common with Bradley Cooper’s character in the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook” — minus the good looks, the cool dad and the hot chick.
Among his biggest rushes working in comedy has been appearing with Artie Lange at the Ardmore Music Hall; his lowest point was having the audience turn against him and start throwing things during a show in Florida. The manager told him, “You just got to go; you’re scaring people.”
Comedy attracts an inordinate number of individuals suffering from depression and bipolarity, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. In a study of 523 American, British and Australian comics, they scored ”significantly higher than the general population” for mental illness and manic thinking. And some big names in the field — Robin Williams, Russell Brand, Stephen Fry, Chuck Nice — have suffered from bipolar disorder. The connection is even documented in the movie “Misery Loves Company,” in which 60 comedians appear talking about their battles with depression.
Luther will attest to this: “A lot of comics that are really good are totally mentally insane. They’re so much fun to hang out with.”
For his particular strain of madness, Luther takes the antipsychotic Zyprexa which causes short-term memory lapses and weight gain. Luther admits the drug makes him feel like a zombie a lot of the time, and he’ll skip it when he’s scheduled to perform. But he also says without the medicine he wouldn’t be alive and that he’d rather be a zombie than a ”maniac.”
“You can’t function if you’re not on meds,” he said. “You get so manic-ky … It’s like you drank a hundred cups of coffee; you’re out of your mind.”
Just like Pete Holmes in “Crashing,” Luther has benefited from support from a group of “debaucherous … degenerates that we call comedians in New York.”
One of these “insane” characters is “The Reverend” Bob Levy of Howard Stern Show fame. Levy was ultimately banished from Howard’s show after he posted a live rant online about the notorious radio shock jock; the FBI showed up at his door. (“I might have threatened him,” Levy said in mock innocence.)
Luther and Levy are close friends, and Levy shares tips on writing, delivery and audience control. He excels in the crude brand of comedy called ‘insult,” and he exercises his craft when talking about Luther. “He’s the kind of guy who will call you and tell you the same thing every half hour and not realize that he called you.”
But Levy also says of Luther, “He’s a unique character … I’ve never met anyone like him. He’s a growing comic who should get busier … and he’s such a good guy.”
Luther is grateful for support from other comics, in particular Levy, whom he calls a “great guy.” And he’s also thankful that at his lowest point, when the window of his high-rise apartment beckoned, his therapist encouragingly asked him, ”Why don’t you go do what you want to do in life?”
It wasn’t long afterward that Luther walked out of his job in the middle of the day. He is thankful for the therapist’s advice. “You had to run around and get rates,” the former PNC accountant said of his last corporate gig. “It was such just a stressful job, and you sat in your chair and got fatter and fatter … I feel like I’ve been on vacation for the last 10 years. I do battle with a terrible illness, but I don’t let it bring me down.”
A comedy benefit for Bob Levy, who was injured last year in an accident caused by a drunk driver, will be held April 17 at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, N.J.