Tragedy plus time equals comedy
BY GWEN FILOSA Citizen Staff
What’s so funny about a near-fatal heroin addiction, seven stretches in prison, and 13 attempts at detox?
Pretty much everything for stand-up comedian Felon O’Reilly, who somehow lived to tell about it.
O’Reilly, who has nearly 11 years clean and sober at age 57, has spent the past decade on stage and behind a microphone giving up his experiences with the lethal disease of addiction for laughs.
“Most of my comedy is based on true events,” said O’Reilly, a Massachusetts native living in Los Angeles who will perform in Key West on Saturday night. “I just put a convict twist to it, an old-school convict twist to it. None of it was funny when it was happening, but they are some pretty funny stories now.”
Of course, there are those times when all those cops asked him to step out of the car years back.
“It’d be a hell of a lot easier if you just climbed in,” O’Reilly says, in a video clip on his website.
He references the insidious nature of addiction in a deadpan: “I tried cocaine once, for 22 years. Decided I didn’t like it.”
As part of the comedy trio “We Are Not Saints,” O’Reilly will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Key West High School auditorium, 2100 Flagler Ave. The show is a fundraiser for the Anchors Aweigh clubhouse, 404 Virginia St., which hosts 12-step program meetings.
The traveling stand-up troupe includes O’Reilly, Ian Harvie and Amy Dresner. Harvie is billed as a “transgender funnyman who used to be a girl,” while Dresner, the newest member of the group, likes to find the humor in her former days as a methamphetamine addict.
The anniversary of O’Reilly’s sobriety date of April 13, 2001, deliciously falls on a “Friday the 13th this year,” he notes. The show is for everyone, he says, but organizers suggested ages 16 and over.
“People who are in recovery certainly get it,” said O’Reilly. “People who have a loved one with the disease maybe get an inkling of how our brains work.”
Each comic will do about a half-hour set, and after the show audience members are invited to stick around if they’d like to ask recovery-type questions of the three comics. But O’Reilly said he can share only his own experience with troubled family members exasperated over a relative’s alcoholism or drug addiction.
“The reality is you can’t help anybody that doesn’t want help,” said O’Reilly. “It’s a total waste of time, emotion and energy and then you end up getting really frustrated. It’s hard to separate the disease from the individual.”
He doesn’t have any pat answer for the success to his own sobriety.
“People ask me that all the time,” said O’Reilly, whose current sobriety time was preceded by almost four years clean when he was in his early 40s. His relapse lasted 2½ years, despite every intention to “go back into the halls,” the lingo for when an addict or alcoholic begins again in a 12-step program that includes regular meeting attendance.
He couldn’t stay sober for the son born when he was in prison, even though he wanted to.
“I wanted to try and stay sober for him but I couldn’t,” said O’Reilly.
“I just didn’t know how. At a book signing, somebody’s mother came in and she wanted the magic solution. For me it was a culmination of things and over time, it wasn’t any one thing.”
When his parents died within the same year of lung cancer, O’Reilly said his brain started coming up with reasons to break sobriety and return to shooting up heroin.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to have an excuse this good again. If I don’t get high now, I’m never going to have an excuse to get high.’ That’s how my brain works.”
Felon O’Reilly — a stage name inspired by his Irish roots and 73 arrests for mostly drug busts — is Al Joyce, from Lancaster, Mass., who earned a degree in criminal justice while he was in and out of courtrooms.
“I was a junkie for most of my life,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who had a habit that bad. It got so out of control for me. I had to have 10 bags (of heroin) for a wake-up. Another 10 before noon.”
His “stand-up convict” career includes a memoir and a lot of free shows in prisons. The Key West gig, the group’s second consecutive show here, allows O’Reilly to set up about six appearances at Florida state prisons to “carry the message” of recovery, he said.
“Luckily I caught the 11 felonies and went to jail,” O’Reilly said of his last bender. He came to in a Boston-area police lockup and “kicked like Bruce Lee.”
The comedy troupe’s name, “We Are Not Saints,” comes from an oft-quoted sentence in the 1939 book “Alcoholics Anonymous,” which outlines instructions for getting and sustaining sobriety from an illness that has baffled the medical world for more than a century.
O’Reilly said the comics wanted to appeal to people with all addictions, and plant some seeds of hope for those who know despair up close and personal.
Just look at this Felon fellow.
“It takes what it takes,” O’Reilly said. “And it’s never hopeless if they’re still breathing.”
Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door.
Buy advance tickets online at www.anchorsaweighclub.com/events or at the Anchors Aweigh Club, 404 Virginia St., which is open daily.