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Comedian: Take My Life, Please

He sees his former self among San Francisco's down-and-out.


SAN FRANCISCO — Doug Ferrari grimaces as he lumbers along the talk-out-loud-to-yourself streets of the Tenderloin District--past the urine-tinged doorways of one-night-stand hotels and slumbering men sprawled across dirty sidewalks.

Ferrari is a 43-year-old comedian with an eye for the outrageous, but just now he doesn't feel too funny. He has returned to this city's toughest neighborhood to confront his past, moving again among the drug users and down-and-outs to gauge how these streets have changed him.

"I hate this place," he says, wiping his brow under the September sun. "I don't hate the people anymore. But I despise what these streets stand for--a concentration camp for the mentally ill."

For almost 12 months, after abandoning a career as a nationally touring stand-up comic, Ferrari endured a succession of seedy hotels in the neighborhood near Union Square as he battled the fallout from years of substance abuse and a long-undiagnosed mental disorder.

Rescued by friends last month after a fellow skid-row denizen profiled him in a publication by advocates for the homeless, the 6-foot-5 comedian known as "Dougzilla" has returned to performing in the Bay Area--clean, sober and decidedly straight-faced following what he calls his comic's tour of hell.

And as he receives treatment for a borderline personality disorder--which manifested itself in violent mood swings and impulsive behavior that ruined his marriage and landed him in jail--Ferrari wants to use the comedy stage to publicize the plight of the mentally ill and other homeless castoffs.

In every city, he says, there are neighborhoods like the Tenderloin that have become forgotten places that serve as way stations for people with untreated mental and emotional conditions. "Everyone knows somebody who's dropped out, who's lost the battle with drinking, drugs or depression. Many end up here. If they don't kill themselves, they just go on surviving. But I learned that mere survival is no way to live."

Yet Ferrari is no social worker. He's a 275-pound bundle of nerves who once shared stages with Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey, a comic whose trademark is manic hourlong monologues during which no one is safe from his sarcasm.

The way Ferrari deals with his past is to poke fun with a punch line. "All my truth is told in jokes," he says. "And if I hit my mark, people might stop to think about where the humor comes from."

During recent performances, he has suggested a way to make the mentally ill less menacing: hand fake cell phones to wandering schizophrenics so it seems their rants are actually directed at someone.

And his jokes target the neighborhood that still scares him, a place "Dante would have to do a rewrite on hell" to describe. Like his bit about how they're cleaning up the Tenderloin by "enforcing a four-tooth minimum."

Ferrari doesn't worry his humor might offend. "People say, 'That's not funny, you're making fun of the disabled.' And I say, "Look, lady, I am the disabled. I'm Rainman, except I'm not good at numbers.' "

The Cupertino high school graduate's twisted path to the Tenderloin took years to travel. A decade after joining the likes of Robin Williams in winning the prestigious San Francisco Comedy Competition, Ferrari reveled in the often-excessive road life of the touring comic--earning $100,000 a year zigzagging from Los Angeles to Atlantic City.

His muse was marijuana, but Ferrari rarely met a drug he didn't like. "I don't want to say I did a lot of cocaine," he now tells audiences, "but there are statues of me all over Colombia." In a more reflective moment he admits: "I did not have a sober, straight, legal day from 1974 to 1994. Not one."

Six years ago, on a day Ferrari now calls the St. Valentine's Day massacre, a Chicago club owner found him passed out in his hotel room with a bottle of bourbon. "Everybody misses gigs," he says. "But back then I lived for the stage. So it was a warning sign."

He quit using drugs and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He also sought to cope with his the symptoms of his yet-to-be diagnosed borderline personality disorder. Doctors say the condition, characterized by fear of abandonment and sudden rages, affects 5 million Americans.

One night, he threw a Christmas tree through the window of the San Francisco house he shared with his now-estranged wife, Beth. "People with BPD can't handle holidays," she says. "They're afraid they're going to be disappointed."

Beth often had no choice but to call the police during Doug's rages. Following the Christmas episode, he spent several weeks under observation in the psychiatric unit of the county jail.

Through it all, Ferrari kept his dark sense of humor, recalls friend Mike Pritchard. "When I visited him in jail, he looked at me and said, 'You gotta get me out of here. This stint has cut my sex life in half.' "

Then Ferrari stopped laughing. "In 1998, I took a sabbatical. I didn't have writer's block, I had living block. It's deadly for a comedian not to feel funny anymore."

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