By Kendal Patterson
On Oct. 19, 1988, Mark Lundholm was, in his own words, “a broke down 29-year-old street guy” with no friends, no family who would still talk to him, and raging addictions to alcohol and drugs. He was also ready to end it all.
“I put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger, and the gun jammed. And my first thought was, ‘I suck at everything I do!’”
That night, he walked into a psychiatric detox center just three blocks from his childhood home in Oakland, California. Sixty-two days into his recovery, while living at a halfway house, he saw a flyer announcing auditions for a troupe being formed to tour venues such as prisons, shelters and treatment centers. He did a five-minute piece about smoking crack and was in.
The troupe’s first performance was at San Quentin State Prison. “I was terrible!” he remembers. But he was hooked. When the group broke up a year later, he continued solo.
Today, 25 years later and 25 years sober, Lundholm performs around the world, always blending his humor with hard-earned insights about self-acceptance and self-care. He’s never stopped appearing at prisons, shelters, 12-Step events and treatment centers, but he’s also added comedy clubs, Fortune 500 companies and professional organizations to the list. He’s been seen on Comedy Central, Showtime and most of the major networks, wrote and performed in an acclaimed one-man off-Broadway show, and created the “Humor in Treatment” DVD series and even a recovery board game.
It’s a career that has allowed him to “fine-tune my defects into marketable skills,” he says, and to function as both doctor and patient – helping others as he helps himself.
“Humor in its essence is an invitation to trust,” he says. “At its core, it’s a shame remover and a threat lessener. It takes away some of the stigma. I found that if we laugh at what we are afraid of, we don’t have to go back to it.”
Lundholm’s Unlikely Path To Comedy
Lundholm grew up the oldest of five kids in a family he describes as a “warped mess” and one marked by addiction. He narrates the progression of his own addictions this way:
“At 5, I was addicted to attention. At 7, I was addicted to performance in school. I also started drinking on a regular basis. At 11, I was totally addicted to being the most important person in the room. I was either the loudmouth or the bright shiny object kid. At 13, I had a drinking problem. At 15, I smoked pot and was addicted to coffee and sugar. At 17, I discovered cocaine and sex. At 19,I was addicted to criminal [activity]and the rush that comes with breaking the rules. At 21, I was addicted to cocaine and methamphetamine. And at 25, I was on my own. I didn’t have a friend anywhere. I had no favors left to use up.”
And at 29, at 120 pounds and with one set of clothes to his name, came the failed suicide attempt.
It seems an unlikely path to comedy, but humor has always been part of his makeup, he says, even in his darkest moments – or perhaps especially in his darkest moments.
“Surviving my family, if you weren’t funny, it hurt too much. If you didn’t use funny as a shield and as a crutch: A) you didn’t get to talk at the dinner table and B) if you wanted to be serious about something, you were told to wait till later – and later in a dysfunctional family never comes.”
He quickly learned that “the funnier you were the more air time you got. And the more air time you got the more connection you felt – at least some kind of importance. As unstable as the family was, I could always shine because my family was funny, but I was funnier.”
It was a mask he wore, he says, but one that ultimately proved lifesaving. “When I got into recovery I learned some things about taking trauma, tragedy, dysfunction, abuse on a grand scale, putting it into this funnel in my head and it would come out my mouth – the bottom of the funnel – funny and true. And those two things are what’s kept me going – funny and true.”
The Early Years Of Lundholm’s Comedy
In the early years of his performing career, Lundholm was “always working graveyard somewhere,” while leaving the days open for the “H&I” (hospitals and institutions) appearances. Soon, he was also performing in bars and clubs – necessary venues for a comedian. “I cut my teeth doing one-nighters on the road,” he remembers, often driving hours for “maybe $50, or a hotel room and $40.”
The hard work paid off. His comedy became “better, cleaner, more professional, more efficient and a lot more fun.” And it paid off in a more significant way, by helping him stay focused on his recovery.
“Some years, doing comedy was the one thing that was the motivation to stay sober,” he says. “I knew at the time, I’m in relapse mode, but if I get drunk, I can’t do the prison tomorrow at 9. It was the only incentive at some points.”
By 1992, he was able to give up the side jobs, do comedy full time and begin to pick and choose his gigs.
A Man Of Many Languages
Nowadays, he might do a sold-out show for 2,000 in the general community one day. On another, he might lead a corporate workshop titled “Humor Begins and Ends with HR” to show employees how to create healthy separations between work and home. Later the same day, he might reveal his “shortcut No. 1 to healthy” to a group of prison inmates: “If you gotta keep it a secret, don’t do it.”
Laughter, he says, is the key. “It’s that Mary Poppins-spoonful-of-sugar-makes the-medicine-go-down thing,” he says. “I didn’t invent it, but I sure swear by it.”
At times he admits to feeling like “bacon at a bar mitzvah” when following speakers with strings of letters after their names. He has no clinical degrees or licensing and “I never graduated from anything except county jail.” But he simply follows his philosophy of believing he is the most important person in the room – same as everyone else there.
“There’s no group I can’t talk to now. I speak about nine languages, and they’re all English – corporate, collegiate, clinical, child, and I’m trying to become more fluent in female.”
But his first language, he says, is recovery. The 55-year-old gives hundreds of hours each year to 12-Step sponsees and recovery groups. “A lot of us get too busy to remember where we have to serve,” he says. “It’s something I believe in, and it works for me. If I don’t do these things at the penitentiaries today, if I don’t do these treatment centers tomorrow … then I have no right to take the stage at an event and get paid a big fat check.”
He never fails to connect with those whose struggles mirror his own, he says.
“They’ll tell me things in group they won’t tell their parents, their priest or their therapist. They’ll tell me after two hours ‘cause I’m a goof. There’s no harm there. And they aren’t being taught anything. They are allowed to be who they are. They see a broken boy in a man’s body doing group. That’s no threat to them at all.”
It’s not uncommon, he admits, to hear that he’s changed a life. “But I tell them, no, I didn’t change anything. You did that yourself. Right now.”
‘Embrace Where We Are Broken’
These days, Lundholm is on the road from his San Jose home about 200 days a year, down from a high of about 260. And he’s hoping to reduce that a bit more to increase his time with his 7-year-old son, one of three children, whom he’s helping raise along with his ex-wife. He has a new book almost ready for the publisher, another DVD series about to be released and a one-man show planned for next year in Los Angeles. And he never stops honing his stage appearances.
“What I’ve come to terms with as a performer is that the more I tell the truth and take away the masks on stage, the more an audience will listen. And if they’ll listen, I’ll get ’em.”
He also never stops honing himself.
One thing he’s learned, he says, is the need to “embrace where we are broken.”
“My nature is criminal. I want to get over, get around, go under some kind of truth. If I can admit the fact that that’s who I am, I can walk straight over the awkward or the ugly or the devastating and still have a place of grace at the end.”
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