By Tien-Shun Lee
Vince Gerardi said he is a natural born comedian. When he arrived in the world, his doctor said, “Nice delivery.”
Thirty years later Gerardi was performing as a comedian in various city venues, including The Improvisation, The Comic Strip and Catch A Rising Star.
While performing on stage gave him a high, Gerardi, who now lives in Forest Hills, said he could not handle the lifestyle of being on the road, working late hours and hanging out in clubs where there was a lot of drinking and drugging.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time you're not on stage. It's practically a bipolar lifestyle,” said Gerardi. “You're on for this intense, short period of time, and the rest of the time you're trying to get work. I couldn't handle it. It was just too rough.”
Gerardi said many times he would go into a club at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and end up performing for empty chairs and the wait staff. Sometimes the humor by other performers could be negative and demeaning.
To help him deal with his frustrations and disappointments, Gerardi turned to drugs and alcohol in the 1980s.
“It was some of my comedy experiences that pushed me over the edge,” he said.
Not only did Gerardi have problems with drugs, he also had problems with overeating, multiple personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
Eventually, Gerardi joined rehabilitation programs including Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous to help him recover from his addictions. While going through recovery, Gerardi found humor in his experiences, and he began incorporating that into his comedy routines.
“I was able to talk about my own addictions, including my compulsion to perform,” said Gerardi.
One of the routines that came out of his addictions begins, “Well, I'm a jokeaholic. That's right. I can't stop joking. I've tried everything. Comediatricians. Joke Enders… Nothing worked til I found JA. Jokeaholics Anonymous. Drunks try to get sober; addicts try to get straight; I'm just trying to get serious.”
Now 57, Gerardi heads a non-profit group called Comedians In Recovery made up of comedians who are recovering from drug abuse and addiction problems. During the daytime, he works full time as a therapist at the Arms Acres drug and alcohol rehabilitation outpatient clinic at 80-02 Kew Gardens Rd. in Kew Gardens.
Gerardi founded Comedians In Recovery in 1990 after he began networking with other comedians who had also had problems with drug abuse.
“We're all recovering from addiction. That's kind of a treasure trove for us,” said Gerardi. “We use our experiences, including the pain and struggle and translate it into comedy, and people identify with that and they laugh.”
The group has performed at many conferences and other events for rehabilitation organizations, including Daytop Village, the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services and the Queens District Nar-Anon Family Groups.
In addition, the group performs occasionally at regular comedy clubs, including Stand Up New York, Caroline's and Gotham Comedy Club.
Al Franken, who plays Stuart Smalley on NBC's “Saturday Night Live,” has been very supportive of the group and has opened for a few of their shows.
These days, when not working at Arms Acres or performing comedy, Gerardi sometimes teaches workshops for social workers and counselors on how to use humor to help with substance abuse recovery. He also teaches general classes on substance abuse relapse prevention and vocational rehabilitation, which helps recovering drug abusers to adjust to employment.
While he sometimes misses the freedom of his early years as an actor and comedian, Gerardi said most of the time he is happy that he has a job with regular day-time hours that allows him to spend time with his wife, three kids, cat and dog.
Much of Gerardi's more recent material for jokes, which he writes down in a small notebook that he carries around with him, has come from his family and his clients at Arms Acres.
“When we interview clients, we ask them 'Do you have safe sex?'” Gerardi recalled, while looking through his notebook. “The client said, 'Yes. If the girl doesn't get pregnant, then I'm safe.'”
When looking back at his life, Gerardi said he feels God helped him through tough times, giving him a counseling job and a teaching job when he needed it.
“God definitely has a sense of humor. He made me,” he joked.
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.