Comedy and Cannabis: A Classic Duo Turns Over A New Leaf

[Editor’s Note: Comedy has been central to cannabis culture since the 1960s. Besides Cheech and Chong, there was the Firesign Theater, George Carlin (a big part of his act was originally about reefer) and a host of others. The style back then was wacky stoner. It’s changing as cannabis becomes normalized in our society.]

Cannabis and comedy are a duo as classic as Cheech and Chong. With two of the most notorious side effects of cannabis being euphoria and uncontrollable laughter, the herb has long been a friend to the funny. In the past, “reefer” was only appropriate for counter-culture acts or a cheap laugh, and while there have been a few “high” profile comics who have made weed part of their persona, like Doug Benson, it was still mostly relegated to the fringes of entertainment. Now that’s it’s becoming more culturally and legally accepted, a wider variety of performers are using cannabis to connect to broader audiences in new ways.

Weed has traditionally been known as part of the artist’s process, with uplifting sativas most lauded as creativity boosters. Comedian Eitan Levine credits the Blue Dream strain with helping him write the AVN award-winning musical porn parody, Hamiltoe. Unlike comedy predecessors who smoked “jazz cigarettes”, he uses more modern technology. “If I have to write something my vape will be the thing that I write off of, smoking [flower] will not help that process at all.”

Comedian Royce Shockley, who produces The Color Collective comedy shows at The Complex Theater, describes how cannabis helps him take his comedy all the way from concept to post-show. “During the writing process, it helps me to dig a bit deeper to find the jokes in scripts and just helps my creativity in general. I typically have to take a couple tokes with a few of the actors before a show to calm my anxiety. It helps me focus and be on point when it’s time to go on stage. And quite a few members of our crowds tend to join us in an after-show joint, or three.”

Recently, marijuana has been able to move from many comedians’ personal lives into their stage work. Nicky Urban is an adorably sweet and experimental performer who’s not afraid to use cannabis on stage. She hosted a late night show where her co-host was her (very late) weed dealer, culminating the show by smoking a blunt together on stage. Her upcoming project, The Nicky Urban Show, has a segment where she visits her friends Indica and Sativa in a magical land of weed puppets.

Urban uses marijuana in her comedy with a genuine love that comes from combining personal experience with classic Hollywood stoner tropes. “My parents were a pretty big influence on me as far as my relationship to weed. They were the local pot dealers in the small town I grew up in, and were pretty fun to be around when they got high with my dad’s band and just hung out. I was influenced by the movies Half-Baked and Friday, but the comedy scene that sticks out in my head the most as far as a positive depiction of weed was Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1 when Josephus buys them time by smoking out the Roman army… so classic. Like, how could you not love weed after seeing that scene?”

With it’s medicinal aspects more widely accepted, cannabis is also helping bring levity to the darker aspects of life. On her weekly Instagram Live podcast, High Hopes, Marcella Riley smokes with comedians to talk about how they use both jokes and marijuana to help manage their depression. “I use weed in comedy because most comedians smoke weed; and a lot of comedians are depressed. Linking these topics into a show felt like a necessary move to make, given the stigmas surrounding them.”

She says cannabis also helps her connect more deeply with her audience. “I love when viewers from the live stream mention that they are smoking, too. Weed is so communal. When things are communal we start listening to each other’s story, connecting with the stories, growing from those stories, and sharing our own story.”

In New York City, where cannabis is still marginally medically accessible and not yet legal recreationally, it’s still burning it up in the comedy scene. Artie Brennan and Anthony Giordano are the co-creators/writers of the variety game show, Super Crazy Funtime. The fantastic funhouse show is a TimeOut NY Critics Pick, and it’s last season was sponsored by weed. There were filmed commercials for weed, some of which went on to win small festivals, such as a leafy hype-man named “High Tide”, and a giant fake joint that they would hit on stage during the show.

Comedian Boris Khaykin has had weed sponsor his work in more tangible ways. He personally awarded eighths of weed during a live show to about a dozen winners of his Marijuana Diversity Scholarship. “The scholarship was inspired because I had all this weed and couldn’t smoke it all, and obviously privilege is in the zeitgeist and I thought about having weed privilege. So I thought it would be funny – and also nice – to share the weed in the context of a diversity scholarship. Sort of an earnest effort and self parody at the same time.” Khaykin risked a lot for his show, putting himself on the line for his comedy, “I had lots of people tell me not to do it and that it was illegal. I thought until I go through with it I always had plausible deniability that it was all a joke, so that was enough to risk it.”

In Los Angeles, where recreational cannabis is legal, cannabis companies sponsoring comedy shows is a very real thing. Comedy is a great way for brands to get exposure to local audiences who are down for a laugh, which often includes a lot of cannabis consumers. Your Late Night Show Tonight at The Pack Theater has had legitimate cannabis brands, such as Lowell Farms, support their show. Executive Producer/Writer Gil Baron says, “Our sponsorship with 806 Buddha Bliss came to us through a sponsorship agent. They were able to give us CBD balms as a gift to people who attended the show, like a goodie bag.”

Director/Producer/Writer Ben Kuershner talks about how they integrate sponsors seamlessly into their work. “Audience participation games are a great way to work sponsorship content into a show. The main worry with doing a “commercial” during a show is that it will hurt your credibility. But the audience is already on board with “prizes” for a game show, so it doesn’t feel shoehorned in, and we’re offering them something they actually want and can use, so it doesn’t feel manipulative. Like, our audience is gonna buy weed and paraphernalia anyway, so getting it for free is just a nice bonus. Plus we never do any promotional content beyond referencing the brand and thanking them. That’s important to us, because we want to control content on our show, and important to the brands too, because they want to come off as cool and fun, not corporate and disingenuous.”

Baron credits marijuana for being an important part of the comedy world, both on and offstage, “I think anything that relaxes you as an audience is beneficial. Comedy is a vulnerable thing. And laughter can be vulnerable, too. The trick is getting any individual to feel safe or relaxed enough to let go and laugh without self-consciousness. Sometimes that comes in the form of a warm-up comic, sometimes it’s alcohol or weed.”

The broader commercial acceptance of cannabis is helping expand the reach of experimental artists who have been longtime fans and users. With weed moving from the outskirts to the general public, comedians who would have once been labeled fringe acts and “stoner comics” may be able to enjoy more mainstream success, too.

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