Comedian Paul Rodriguez sits on the red "therapy couch," which… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
In Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada's perfect world, each of his stand-up comics would kill it onstage at the Hollywood comedy club — then they'd head upstairs and retreat into the club's inner sanctum, a small, wood-paneled private office on the top floor. There, he or she would lie back on a plush, red couch and partake in an often pricey indulgence that can bring on feelings of calm, release and euphoria.
Debauchery of choice? Psychotherapy.
On Monday, Masada will be starting an in-house therapy program for Laugh Factory comics — no joke. One of two clinical psychologists will be on hand four nights a week at the club to treat stand-ups; the free, no-appointment-necessary sessions will take place on a therapy couch that, appropriately enough, used to belong to Groucho Marx.
"This is serious. This is something we have to do," Masada says in a recent interview at the Sunset Boulevard club. "From Richard Jeni putting a gun in his mouth and blowing himself up [in 2007] to Greg Giraldo taking drugs and overdosing [in 2010], I just can't stand to watch all of my family, one by one [self-destruct].
"From Sam Kinison to Rodney Dangerfield to Paul Rodriguez, Dom Irrera — every comic, they have a little demon in them."
Having run the Laugh Factory for 32 years, Masada has worked with practically every major stand-up who's cycled through the L.A. comedy scene. Richard Pryor was a close friend, as was John Belushi, both icons of comedy and self-destruction. Over time, Masada carved a niche for himself as a counselor of sorts to the comedy community. Just last month he was advising Dave Chappelle at a nearby coffee shop. "His demon is a lot of people in three-piece suits telling him what's funny and what's not," Masada notes.
Kevin Farley is relatively new to the world of stand-up, which he finds "very, very tough." After his brother, Chris Farley, passed away in 1997 from a drug overdose, he struggled immensely, partly because fans would approach him noting their physical likeness. "They'd say: 'Oh my God, you look like Chris.' And I'd say: 'Well, then you're looking at a ghost.'" To cope, Farley sought therapy. "I had to. It was a rough couple of years there. But it's been 13 years. I've come to terms with it."
Still, Farley plans to embrace the program at the Laugh Factory. "I like therapy. I mean, I'm always scared of it. I'm trepidatious. I worry about everything, though."
Clinical psychologist Ildiko L. Tabori, will be "in residence" at the Laugh Factory for an indefinite stretch. She says the program, which represents a sizable financial commitment for Masada, is well worth it. "Comedians are especially vulnerable," she says. "It's the only profession where you get heckled. You're being criticized right in front of your face. Can you imagine someone standing over Picasso's shoulder saying, 'No, you idiot, more green!' If you don't have the self-esteem, the confidence, the support system, it does impact you and then you crash and it can lead to other things."
Tabori can only speculate about the chicken-and-egg question — whether it's the pressure of being a stand-up comedian that leads to depression and other emotional problems, or whether certain personality types are drawn to stand-up as a profession in the first place. She suspects it's a little of both.
"Research shows that there is a higher degree of depression and bipolar disorder in comedians," she says. "Laughter is a defensive mechanism. It's one of the more mature defense mechanisms, but it still masks whatever it is that's going on inside."
"Weeds" costar Kevin Nealon, who performs at the Laugh Factory, says many of his colleagues are drawn to stand-up as a form of validation. "A lot of comics, they're onstage getting attention and approval. It's one of the reasons they do stand-up," he says.
Comic and actor Tom Arnold already has two therapists, he says, so he doesn't need another one at the Laugh Factory, but he thinks it's a good idea. "You can feel a little bit of desperation here, some loneliness. The one thing that's usually neglected by comics is a personal life," he says. "It can be a very lonely job, a very scary job."
Being a comedian though, he can't help but make a joke out of it: "I feel worried myself. The thing I'm worried about most is hearing therapist jokes from 20 people!"
Veteran Laugh Factory comic Rodriguez says he's never been to therapy — "It's culturally not looked upon positively among Latinos.
"The audience is my therapist, the stage is my couch," he explains. "Only you know what's real and what isn't and it helps to pound it out, it does. You lay it out there."
That's not to say that Rodriguez doesn't see the need for stage-side therapists at the Laugh Factory. "Every time somebody from our fraternity passes, whether from their own hand or the hand of God, we are told to make God laugh," he says. "Sometimes the pain, the frustration, it all comes together and you think: Maybe my name's the next one on the marquee."
"We've lost a lot of our brothers to suicide," says comedian Sunda Croonquist, who has phoned Masada from TV and film sets for advice and calls him her "comedy godfather." Croonquist thinks the Laugh Factory therapy program could make a difference. "It's a good thing. I see performers right now that are on their way out. But maybe [Masada] can be the person who's the conduit and makes it stop."
Masada — who grew up "thin and starving" in Iran and Israel — is no stranger to philanthropy. He's been hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for "lonely people" on-site at the Laugh Factory for 31 years. "I don't ever want to forget where I came from," he says.
As such, Masada's therapy commitment to his "family" of comedians will go on "as long as it takes," he says.
To this, Rodriguez jokes: "He will not rest until I get self-esteem, a healthy dose of it."