CREATIVE EXPRESSION: STORYTELLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH DE BURGH
“With everything I say on stage, it just has to be said. I have no choice. I have to say it. Not just for laughs. Do I absolutely need to say this? Does this come from my deepest being?” That is Adam Strauss’ standard for his comedy. Is it necessary? It is a view that resonates deeply with him and that was reinforced by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (a book he describes with a deep fondness). “I hesitate to call it a self-help book, but it’s given me tremendous help,” he says about the early 19th century classic. Adam knows a thing or two about self-help. After all conventional cures had failed to treat his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), he embarked on what he calls a “program of vigilante psychopharmacology.” Adam explored how various psychedelics could cure his OCD. He narrates this journey in his solo show, The Mushroom Cure.
Adam arrived at a career in comedy after years of searching and deliberate self-discovery. Growing up, he felt the urge to create but wasn’t quite sure what medium or art form best suited him. After studying psychology and music at Brown, he enrolled in jazz music school for a masters in piano. “I never really gained technical mastery over the instrument. It was a struggle between what I wanted to express, and my technical facility to actually express it…That’s a fancy way of saying that I wasn’t very good,” he says. In addition to starting music later in life, Adam’s development as a jazz pianist was stifled by a need to be flawless. “I wouldn’t say that I had full-blown OCD at that point but I had the precursors of it…perfectionism, being one of the big ones. That was problematic for my creative expression. I’d be very obsessed with playing things perfectly. And that gave a certain rigidity to my playing,” he adds.
When I suggest that his need for perfectionism would have made him been better suited to a career in classical piano, as opposed to jazz, which is more improvisational in nature, Adam has a different view, “Even an accountant. Even a job that you would think of, oh, it’s ones and zeroes, it’s binary. Really bad perfectionism is a detriment because you will always need a little bit of freedom. A little bit of creativity. …Even a classical musician. If you are too caught up in playing something perfect, you…destroy the chances…of that freedom…that play that comes in that makes something special. There’s that Leonard Cohen quote, ‘Everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in.’”
After leaving music school, Adam joined a startup in New York only to depart shortly thereafter due to a falling out with its founder. He proceeded to start his own company that at the time housed the largest library of downloadable sound effects for film production and video games. “It was a good idea, but I didn’t really care about it,” he says. “I wasn’t good at running a company but I was good at raising money…I was good at playing that role of salesman and visionary…but I really didn’t care that much about it,” he adds. Adam’s company, Sonomic, was acquired a few years ago (the company is now owned by StockMusic.com).
His foray into entrepreneurship left him with a longing to pursue work that truly resonated with him. “There’s that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, ‘Not for nothing does this color strike this eye,’ meaning, if something connects to you deeply, …that’s a deep, innate thing. I think what he’s saying is that a certain frequency of light may strike one person’s eye and not another’s. What resonates with you. …What touches you? What moves you? What do you love?” he says. Adam successfully applied to graduate programs in psychology and business in the period after leaving Sonomic but neither of those fields deeply caught his fancy. “I’m grateful that I’m passionate about what I do now, but…if I could be as passionate about trading derivatives as I am about writing and performing…why not man?! Why not make a billion dollars?” he says laughing.
So, how did Adam go about finding his calling? Was it during an intense psychedelic trip? Deep meditation? A trek through nature in the far reaches of the Amazon? No, none of the above. “I took a career test,” he says. “It was based on aptitudes…I still subscribe to the notion that, ‘Find out what you’re really good at, and you will most likely get joy from doing that,’” he says. As Adam was taking the test, he found flaws in the test’s design. Some sections of the take-home test had a time allocation, and others did not. “So I sent in my test with a letter saying that, ‘Your test is flawed in the following ways,’” Adam says chuckling.
The CEO of Rockport Institute, the company that created the test, included a note back to Adam with his test results. “He pointed out two things. It’s unusual to see someone who is so strong in some areas and so weak in others. He also said, ‘As for your concerns about our methodology, your letter is exactly what I would expect to receive from someone who is 99th percentile in diagnostic reasoning,’” he says cracking himself up. He scored highly in diagnostic reasoning, which involves finding flaws in logic, and very low on spatial relations. The test offered 3 career recommendations: 3) lawyer, 2) college professor, and 1) stand-up comedian. “You would think that I would have read these results and said, ‘Well, maybe I should go to an open mic and try stand up,’ but I didn’t. Because I knew the test was flawed!” he says laughing. It was only a few years later that Adam tried stand up after experiencing his first live show with a friend. At the show, he thought, “This gives me part of what I like about music, which is the idea of creating spontaneously with other people. But instead of being limited by the speed of my fingers, I’m limited by the speed of my thoughts, and the speed of my tongue,” he adds.
Entering the world of comedy in New York City was tough. Adam spent 2 years handing out flyers on the streets of Manhattan before building up enough of a reputation to allow him stage time without having to pay in sweat equity. The more Adam did it, the more he was drawn to the interplay between comedian and audience. “I’m more of a writer than a performer, but what I don’t love about writing is…I don’t have the stomach to be alone for that long,” he says. “I like the shared creation…I’m doing maybe more of the work than the audience, but I can’t do stand up without an audience. It really is a co-creation. And if you don’t think that’s true, watch the same comic perform in front of four different audiences…it is a very different experience because the audience changes,” he adds.
Rather than view himself solely as a comedian, Adam has a broader view of how he needs to express himself, “I need to share my experience with words. Stand up is one way to do that…it has advantages and drawbacks. It’s a very odd, specific form,” he says. “I have a weird job. My job is to elicit a pleasurable physical sensation from you without touching you. Cause there are only 2 pleasurable physical sensations that one human can elicit another: laughter and orgasms. So I’m kind of a prostitute. Also, why do people pay to laugh? Because it releases dopamine. So I’m kind of a drug dealer. But then when an audience laughs, that releases dopamine for me, so we’re kind of sixty-nining,” he beams, as I laugh away to the impromptu comedy. We’re kind of sixty-nining.
And speaking of neuro-chemicals, just what is the breadth and depth of Adam’s experience with psychedelics? Which ones has he done? He laughs. “Pretty much all of them. There’ve been new ones that have come out since the heyday of my psychedelic career,” he says, amused. But he offers clarification, “The events of my show, The Mushroom Cure, are based on events that occurred many years ago. That sort of ended in 2010…that was my period of heavy psychedelic use experimentation…I hadn’t had any significant psychedelic experiences until February  when I went down to Peru and I drank ayahuasca there,” he adds. While in Peru, Adam had an intense ayahuasca immersion that involved him drinking it 10 times in 16 nights.
Some who have consumed ayahuasca describe intense, immersive visions, where they feel like they have been teleported to a vivid iconic location like St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have any visions whatsoever,” he says. Adam suspects that his previous use of anti-depressants to manage his OCD may have contributed to his lack of visual hallucinations while on psychedelics. While he was lying on his back in pitch blackness, as the shamans were singing around him, he recalls “physically coming back again and again” to his body. Adam felt hyper aware of his body in a way that was new for him; after all, spatial relations are not a strong point. His overall experience consisted of “feeling every millimeter of [his] body at a very minute level.” “At some point, it felt unpleasant. It felt like some parasite was burrowing through me,” he says.
One night in Peru particularly stood out. “I became convinced I was going to die and totally lost my shit. I was screaming. I was crying. I was yelling at people who were trying to help me. …I became verbally abusive to people who were trying to help me because I thought they didn’t get it. I was fucking dying. I would say something like, ‘I’m thirsty, I need my water.’ And they would say, ‘Your water is by your right hand.’ Remember, you’re in pitch blackness. I’d say, ‘Don’t you fucking get it? If I’m saying it out loud it’s cause I can’t get my own water. Really nasty. …They were walking me eventually to the bathroom, because at some point I was like, ‘I’m just gonna shit my pants. I don’t care. I’m gonna die anyway.’ And they were like, ‘Let’s get you to the bathroom,’” Adam says laughing.
“This guy, Joe, who runs the center, an American MD, he’s walking me to the bathroom. I’m practically a fireman’s carry. My arms are around him. He gets me to the bathroom and he says, ‘Listen Adam, I know you’re really struggling and suffering, and we’re all trying to help you, but you’re being very rude right now.’ He said that, I closed the door to the bathroom, and it just hit me. What I was doing was actually a choice. I hadn’t thought at all. I was just lashing out trying to get help. But when he said that, it dawned on me that every action I’d taken had been a choice. To yell was a choice. To scream out loud was a choice. I was crying…maybe that wasn’t a choice. It suddenly hit me that I was choosing to be very selfish and that I very often make that choice in my daily life without realizing that it’s a choice. I react without realizing that it’s a reaction that can I control…it’s actually a choice. That was a pretty profound moment for me. And I didn’t die…so far as I know, unless this is the afterlife…and I didn’t shit my pants. I didn’t die…and I didn’t shit my pants,” he concludes chuckling.
As Adam recounts his experience in Peru, you get a sense for how he narrates his solo show, The Mushroom Cure: his hour and forty minutes long production that he describes more as “theater” than stand up. “With The Mushroom Cure, the most important thing is the narrative. The story. The laughs are incidental to that. With stand up, I wouldn’t say that the laughs are the most important thing, but they’re certainly integral. The most important thing…for me…is that there must be some element of truth…my truth…this is how I feel. This is what I see. This is what I think,” he says. “Stand up is a limited medium because you have to get laughs frequently. I think of stand up like snorkeling…you can dive down but you have to come up for air every 30 seconds. You can’t go a mile down. You can’t spend a half hour down there. Every 30 seconds, I have to pop up and get a laugh, and then I can talk about what I want. It really limits what you can talk about,” Adam says. “I could certainly see a point where I stop doing stand-up,” he adds.
But don’t bet on Adam permanently exiting the stand-up stage any time soon. He is too intrigued with laughter’s medicinal qualities. “Laughter to me is as profound a spiritual mystery as anything in the universe. What the fuck is laughter? It’s this weird involuntary spasm that feels good and opens our hearts. You can’t be judging and hating on something and laugh at the same time. And that’s powerful because…the highest purpose of laughter in my own craft is that it opens people up. And when you’re open, I can cram some truth down there,” he says. “If you’re laughing, you’re open. You’re mine bitch. I can do whatever I want…there’s that little opening,” he giggles mischievously.
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