Sarge is an entertainer, comedian, motivational speaker and probably the one guy you’d really want to be with in a foxhole. He’s a busy guy, but Jlife was able to pin him down for a rare glimpse into his extraordinary life.
Jlife: You just got back from Israel, right? How was your trip? S: It was good. I was all over the country on a comedy tour. I was there for 11 days.
Was that a part of your “Comedy Therapy?” My comedy therapy is an outgrowth of my 25 years of being sober. It’s a unique unintended consequence of my life really. It kind of just happened as a direct outgrowth of how active I am in the recovery world. It’s weird because to me it’s such an obvious thing that laughter is the best medicine. You need to laugh and you need to not take yourself so seriously, but it’s never been a primary component of helping people get well.
And times have changed. The average age of the patients is younger and the substances that they are trying to get off of even more difficult to kick. You’re dealing with a whole new generation of people—we’re talking about late teens and early 20s—so there’s sort of the confluence of immediate gratification of technology. Phones, internet, gaming and social media have converged to forge this generation of people who may already be socially inept even without addiction. They are so geared towards communicating with their thumbs as opposed to their hearts. So now you have people that are addicted to these massively addictive poisons—narcotics and opioids—and then the centers take their phones away and try to talk them out of addiction with talk therapy or other modalities. To varying degree they’re useful, but the only thing that really works is in my opinion is spirituality. It has helped me resurrect my life from what it was to what it is. There is a lot of validity to meditation, affirmation and prayer (M.A.P. I call it). It’s like the map back to who you really are.
It’s kind of interesting that the same spiritual components that I used to eradicate stage fright and fear in the artistic and creative process are very much what you need in life. It’s almost like a mirror image of what I needed to do in order to elevate my life from homeless and addicted to a bold courageous performer.
And how did you do that exactly? I read that you had an epiphany one day and just decided to quit cold turkey… is that true? I had been on the streets for a while with a massive cocaine and crack addiction (plus a little PCP). It wasn’t so much an epiphany… I just had a friend whose apartment I robbed who helped me get into treatment. When I got there, the guy that was on duty at the time suggested that I pray the obsession away… just one prayer. So when I arrived there I guess I was ready to receive that particular message because I did what he told me to do and then the spell was broken. It was like the curse had been removed and that was 25 years ago. That’s truly the way it happened.
Jlife: So I assume you are pretty open when you are sharing your story with these people? Oh yeah, that just goes towards your legitimacy. If G-d forbid you needed to get a mastectomy, would you want it talk to a scientist, a surgeon, or another woman who has been through that? You’ll probably want to talk to another woman who had navigated that very serious situation. I mean that would be more important to you than having some scientists tell you what’s happening with the cells or having some surgeon tell you the nature of the procedure. That’s all really good, but that doesn’t help you emotionally and spiritually get through it. What would actually be more useful to you would be to talk to somebody who had a double mastectomy… Another woman. So you know when it comes to addicts you know the most useful thing that addicts have available to them is the ability to talk to other people who know how to not use. It is something you have to learn how to do. Using is something you do innately because that’s who you are as an addict. I believe you are preordained to be an addict, it’s like homosexuality… you are either gay or you’re not. You’re either an addict or you’re not. You’re either someone who alcohol affects you in that way or you’re not. You’re either someone who breaks out in hives from strawberries or you’re not. You either allergic to strawberries are not allergic to strawberries. You’re either somebody who is afraid of the dark or you’re not afraid of the dark. People don’t understand that the nature of addiction is that it’s in your DNA. Just like heart disease or Down syndrome or brown eyes. Some people smoke pot or do cocaine and they can’t stop. On the other hand, some people do cocaine and think oh G-d I don’t like the way it makes me feel. It makes me feel jittery. It makes me feel ridiculous. So they don’t do it anymore, but an addict doesn’t have a choice. No matter how it makes them feel they have no choice.
If you’re the kind of person that has a propensity for addiction then you’re somebody who can’t stop doing that. Everyone tries to sell everyone all kinds of quick fixes, but there is really only one solution for it. You know it’s just like weight loss. Everyone has a new idea or a new pill or a new way of doing it. For example, they have these TV shows where everybody is working out like maniacs to take off the weight and then they just put it back on like three months after the show… and then they sue the show. With addiction it’s the same thing. Temporarily there are all kinds of cures (like hanging somebody by their thumbs in the middle of the Amazon jungle). Sure you’ll be able to get off heroin that way but it’s not because you were hanging by your thumbs, it’s because there is no heroine in the jungle. As soon as your back somewhere where it is available you’re in trouble.
If you are an addict and you haven’t done the work necessary to solve the addiction problem then you’re going to be back doing heroin. And people think it’s stupidity or they think this is a bad person… just human garbage but the truth of the matter is unless you devote yourself to some spiritual discipline it will be hard to be successful. Unless you are prayerful and meditative and permanently positive through affirmation you have no shot.
Jlife: Do you feel that age has anything to do with an addict’s ability to accept therapy and make changes? A lot of the therapy is trying to figure out why your mother loved your brother more or why you have the fear of relationships. Knowing why you are the way you are doesn’t really help you, knowing what to do about the way you are is what matters. If you are lying in the woods and you have just been bitten by a poisonous snake and you and I are hiking…will it help you to know why the poison is going to kill you? Will it help you to know why a snake bite can be fatal? The only thing that matters is what we are going to do about it right now. That is the only thing that is relevant. You can tell me all about the poisons and the snakes and how the poison shuts down your central nervous system…. You can tell me about that later, but right now we need to figure out how to save your life. And the only life-saving thing is to know what to do. So the “what to do” part is prayer is as evidenced by my own life story. You know I prayed. I became quiet. I slowed down my mind with meditation and I had to decide that I was going to be positive about this and not negative. Not say “there’s no chance” but instead say “you know hey I’m doing this.” There is a lot of validity to meditation, affirmation and prayer (M.A.P. I call it). It’s like the map back to who you really are.
And then there’s another problem which is the whole G-d problem, because there is a whole higher power thing that is central to recovery. However, the problem with this whole generation of young people is that they have no concept of G-d… at all. Our society has gotten away from religion especially young people who for them, religion is technology. Their religion is Face book, Instagram, Snap chat and Periscope. They don’t have time to go to church or temple, but they check their Face book status 100 times a day. So what I present to them is an alternative vision of a higher power which is the universe. Much like Maryanne Williams said and the other spiritual dynamos that we have out there. The universe is something very vivid and mind blowing to people.
For instance, the sun is a higher power… a life-giving star. It is something very powerful, very hot and something they can actually see. It is something that sustains life on earth and something that create the atmosphere that we live in. All of the biology of our universe is predicated by our environment and the sun so what I try to do is help them to envision themselves as a living thing on this planet. Like a beaver or a giraffe or a tree or a dolphin. You live here, you breathe so you’ve got to find a way to be grateful for every breath.
The first breath of every day needs to be laced with gratitude. If you’re diving in the ocean as a diver and your tank is out of air you’d be very, very grateful if you could get one more breath to get yourself to the surface. I mean what if you woke up in the morning and there was no air? What would you do? So the whole idea of what I teach them is… If you can find a way to become grateful for your own existence, then you might not seek to undermine it with poisons like drugs and the way you were living.
So what I’m actually doing is introducing them to reality as it really is. Religion isn’t reality. Religion is a man-made construct to some extent. The books that have been written, that ideas and the philosophy of religion…. you can’t present that to somebody whose life is in jeopardy.
These people really are reconnecting with their real existence. If you get picked up by an ambulance they don’t ask are you Jewish? Are you Muslim? Are you Christian? They take blood and they take your vitals. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. You are a living thing, you are a human being and you are a biological entity. What I try to do is take all of that out of it and just present them with the facts of their existence. Then I teach them how to, on a daily basis, turn praying, meditating and deciding to be positive as a bodily function.
Jlife: Was this a concept that you were able to bring into the prison when you visited and did the documentary that you filmed? I realize that a certain amount of people are inspired by religion and are inspired by the religious definition of G-d, but there are millions and millions of people who will die because they are not able to get on board philosophically with all the stuff that other people are able to take at face value. So just because you don’t have a religion per se or just because you don’t agree with or are inspired by the Jewish definition of what G-d is… (Or Christ or the Jesus thing or Mohammed) you can still get well.
There are a whole lot of people that don’t really relate to the G-d thing. So my whole narrative was morphed. Yeah I pray to G-d, I don’t care what I call it, it saved my life. I don’t know what it is. I know it exists because one day I wasn’t aware of it and my life was in shambles and the next day I was praying and I was better. I was relieved of this hopeless state so something is in charge.
My message and the narrative I use with addicts in prison (and in treatment centers all over the country) was born out of just wanting to reach them with the life-saving information. I don’t really concern them with all of the nuances. I’m not here to have a debate with them about what G-d is, because everybody can have those debates. There are a lot of people who can make a very good argument. They can say, “Well if there is a G-d then why did my father die when I was 11? If there’s a G-d than explain 9/11. If there is a G-d how come my mother has leukemia right now? God must not be listening. What I do is simplify the approach… I say things died here, things live here… Acknowledge their existence and be grateful instead of just fearful. I find that the people that pray for their own existence do better than the people who don’t.
Jlife: And that is something you can do whether you are behind walls are not, right? Right. I’ll give you an example. This whole modality that I operate from came out of some real research I have done. I’ve been in AA for a hundred years. Well, I’ve been sober for 25 years and have been to thousands of meetings… I’ve been around people who are staying sober, trying to stay sober, just screwed up and they went out again and they came back…everything. You know what I mean? And there is something central to all of them that I found. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are clean for a while and then stopped being clean. They went back to doing what they were doing and I would ask them “what happened?” I’d say, “Aren’t you doing meditation and prayer? Weren’t you choosing to be positive?”
And they say, “There was a time when I was doing that and I was happier. I didn’t want to use and I was doing great”
And I’d say, “What happened?” And they’d respond, “Well I stopped doing all that. I don’t know why, I just did.”
There is a direct correlation between doing the meditation, affirmations and the prayers every night and every morning and not wanting to use. And when you stop doing it you want to use. So there it is there is a cure. You have to convince people to incorporate a certain amount of focus and discipline. Listen, everybody brushes their teeth every day otherwise your mouth tastes awful and your breath smells. You have to keep up on your recovery in much the same way. You wouldn’t leave the house without brushing your teeth right? So why would you leave the house without doing your prayers, meditations and positive affirmations regarding your addiction? Is it important to not have bad breath, but okay for your life to come down around your feet?
What I teach them is that there is a protocol, there’s an additional level of responsibility that an addict has that goes beyond human being its “addict being,” you’re an addict who is a human being. In addition to brushing your teeth and washing your behind when you poop… when you wake up in the morning you have got to dedicate yourself to a certain level of spiritual involvement. It will help you to make a left turn out the door in the morning as opposed to a right turn.
If you don’t treat it yourself it doesn’t get treated. There’s no treatment center, there is no surgeon, there’s no doctor or priest or Rabbi that can lay hands on you and eradicate your addiction. You are the only one that can disarm the bomb every day. If you don’t disarm the bomb, if you don’t clip the red wire you will blow up again. That’s been the case for all people who suffer from addictions. So I’m not pretending to have all the answers. This is just an outgrowth of how I live successfully. I’m like other people who share the recipes for delicious brownies or for how to make $1 trillion in real estate.
Jlife: You literally have to attack addiction and work on it every day right?
S: You are attacking it just by making this into something that you just always do. When you have to pee, you pee. The only difference here is that you have to remind yourself that I’m an addict and I have to do this. When you get hungry you have an urge to eat. When you go sit down on the toilet you have an urge there’s something that needs to happen and there’s an order to it. You sit down, you take a poop, you wipe your butt, you pull your pants up and you walk away. However, when you’re five months old you don’t know the protocol. So you pull up your pants and hopefully there’s somebody to change your diaper, clean up your tushy, put on the cream and do the whole thing. And you hope that there will be someone there to help you put your diaper back on until the next time because you don’t know what you’re doing.
See that’s the thing with addicts they don’t realize that there is a protocol to it. You pull your pants down, then you poop, then you wipe your butt and then you put the cream on and pull your pants up. So that’s the whole point. There is a bodily function that just automatically happens and people learn as they get older to master it. That’s the whole thing with recovery. You have to teach them that if they don’t take the necessary steps every day, then they are not going to get well. They’re not going to stay clean. They don’t realize that there is a direct connection between doing these invisible actions that you’re doing when you’re praying and recovery. Sometimes you’ve got to teach them who to pray to, what prayers to do and you have to teach them how to meditate because there are lot of ways to meditate.
However, there is a specific way to meditate for an addict. An addict has to meditate so that they give their brain a chance to calm down on its own. You’re not doing it to get closer to G-d—that might just be a byproduct of meditation. You may be more peaceful, but that is just a byproduct. As an addict you have to treat meditation as a primary function because if you don’t slow down your mind, your mind is going to run the show. Your brain is going to run the show because your brain is what is broken. Whenever you drink or use a drug for the first time you flip the switch in the pleasure center of your brain. And all you want forever after is to do that. It’s the same with the gambling, sex, drugs and alcohol. When you trip the pleasure center you want to keep doing what it is that gives you pleasure.
For example, some people like to go fishing they get pleasure from it. People like to have sex with other people they do that because there is pleasure involved. People like to go to the casino or others may go for a run because they get that “runners high.” So everyone is addicted to what gives them pleasure. Unfortunately, with an addict the things that bring them temporary pleasure actually destroy their life, entirely… because there’s no moderation.
You can go to the casino once a week or once a month, but you can’t every day. An addict will seek to go every day. That’s the difference in the brain of the normal person and the brain of an addict. A normal brain understands that they love to gamble as much as the next guy, but they’re not I’m not going to go to the casino every day for the next 40 days in a row because they’ll have no money left. The addict thinks, “yeah but when I don’t have any money left, I’ll just steal some or write bad checks. I’ll just max out my credit cards.”
There is a progression to it and an illogical insanity that goes with being an addict. What restores the sanity is severing your connection to these activities and then taking the same addictive personality and that same addictive drive. You have to apply something healthy and then becoming addicted to prayer affirmation and meditation. Over time your desire to use will diminish. You’ll always want to, but nowhere near as much as yesterday or the day before or the day before that. It is a whisper, which is manageable. However, when your addiction is shouting at you, “go get heroine, go get heroin or you’re going to be sick,” then it is impossible for you to resist that temptation. A year or two from now it’s just going to be like, “you want to get high don’t you?” Hopefully, at that point you’ll say, “I’m really happy, I’ve got a lot of great things going on in my life and I’m not going to sabotage them for anything. I’m spiritual, mindful and calm. I’m happier and there are important things riding on this. I’ve got a great life. You know that’s the whole point, but the differences I don’t stand there yelling at them like a professor at a college. I relate to them through my own personal experience and I use a lot of humor. And it’s not just the message it’s the messenger.
Jlife: You probably make them feel very comfortable I would think. Yes, they relate to me and they like me and I’m kind of ageless… Even though I’m 55 now people usually see me as someone in my 30s. I don’t represent as an authority figure. I represent love and the truth. And I represent somebody who’s done it himself so it isn’t like I’m trying to convince them of anything. I’m only trying to share myself with them and it just so happens that my unique personality and my immense amount of experience as a performer help in this respect. It’s just kind a hand in glove.
I’m who I’m supposed to be. Other people are sitcom stars and movie stars and their talent gets them massive amounts of fame, mass media projects and all kind of national attention. Maybe it’s for being an actor or for being a really funny comedian. Maybe they’re really good at standing somewhere for an hour and doing this really brilliant monologue of the comic ideas. I was really close to stardom the whole time I was in Hollywood. And it never happened for me so I had to ask the universe, “what is it that you want me to be doing?” Because all my friends are zooming past me… getting massive TV deals. I mean I’m black. I’m Jewish. I have freckles. I would be the ultimate star of movies and television (laughs). How come I’m not getting all the stuff that all these other people are getting? How come I’m not becoming a big star? How come I don’t have my own TV show for 10 years like all these other marginally funny people? How come I’m not invited to the Montréal Comedy Festival? How come? How come?
You know I was with William Morris; I was with International Creative Management (ICM)… how come it never happened for me? And you know every time these people ever saw me perform they were sure I was going to be a massive star (laughs). However, G-d had a different plan for me.
Jlife: How did you reconcile that? Was it difficult to adjust? Yes it was very hard to accept at first. I’m immensely talented and a great comedian who doesn’t have the fame. I do have rewards on my shelf, I mean I have a bunch of plaques and certificates, but they are saying “thank you so much for giving your time.”
For a long time I couldn’t watch TV because it made me too angry. All I saw were people who didn’t want to follow me in the line up at comedy clubs They would all say, well I can’t follow him… he’s like the funniest guy around.”
And now these guys, they’re all getting $200,000 a week to be on some show. I’m watching commercials and HBO specials of all these people getting fame and success in the industry. However, I’ve been given a different kind of success. I’ve been given the ability to help people save their own lives. It’s not as glamorous and it doesn’t come with a massive paycheck. When you work for G-d you work for God’s wages. When you work for the universe, you get paid what it wants to pay you, not what you want. And really it’s very fulfilling. My life has been consistently on the ascent I’m not done. All of my friends who have become very famous and very successful have found it hard to replicate. It’s hard to top yourself because after your first special, you’re already on your way to not being famous anymore.
Nobody has been able to really top their first great comedic show with their second. Well maybe nobody except George Carlin. People don’t understand that most comedians, for their first special, go with their hard-fought material that they have been honing their entire career. Then they do the second one, which is full of all the material that they didn’t put in the first one and then it starts to tail off. Even the greatest ones have had that happen because the material that you just wrote this evening is nowhere near as good as the material that you have been working on for the last 13 years.
Jlife: Exactly. Its like “Raw” was very funny, but it was never quite as funny as “Delirious” right? Exactly. I had to stop looking at myself in terms of show business and start to realize that my show business stuff was just my job. My “career” is sharing myself with people who may not make Christmas or may not make Hanukkah or may not make July 4 weekend because if they don’t master this right now they’re going to be in deep sh*t. Like soon. I realized that was the best use of my talent. I still persevere and try and work in show business, but my days are spent in treatment centers doing groups with people who are in their first 10 days of trying to tear themselves away from this stuff that is killing them.
I have a unique relationship with thousands of people. I get emails everyday that would make your eyes pop out. I got one just yesterday. It lets me know that I’m right on target and it lets me know that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve never gotten myself certified as a therapist and I’ve never got myself licensed as a therapist because licensed and certified people cannot talk to the patient’s after they get out of treatment, which I think is very flawed. In other words, you are not allowed to maintain any contact with the patient once they have graduated from treatment. For two years you’re not allowed to talk to them. I know the most important conversation to have with them is after 60 days. After they’ve been in treatment for a month and have conquered the next 30 days.
I’ll give you an example. I just got this email yesterday from this guy who wrote to me and said, “thank you Sarge. You brought the light back into my life. Thank you for M.A.P. You changed my life and I can’t thank you enough. Your groups were electric and the best medicine for this disease. You are an inspiration and learning from you and reading your book gave me so much hope. It showed me that life will get better than my wildest dreams.”
It couldn’t be said any more specifically than that. So that the impact I’m having. What do you suppose would have come of that guy if you didn’t meet me? Would he have been similarly inspired by someone else? Maybe? Maybe not? I also have a group of 14 guys that I sponsor directly that are in my sponsorship family. These guys meet with me every Wednesday and I work with them specifically.
So yeah, I’m a really great comedian, but G-d has found a unique use for me that I never would have imagined myself. I didn’t get into comedy to be this guy. I became a comedian because I had to find something else to do with my life after I got sober. They asked us, “what would you do if you had a fresh start, had this immense power in your life, G-d and all that stuff… What would you do?”
Well, I always wanted to be a comedian. I became inspired at a very early age. My grandfather took me to see Don Rickles and I always wanted to try it. I just never thought I could do it. And then when I got sober I figured I had nowhere to go but up. I just decided that I was going to take it very seriously and I never gave up. I started in my first year of sobriety back in 1992. I got sober in 1990 and in February of ’92, I started going to open mic nights. I officially decided I was going to be a comedian and since ‘92 the sole way I make a living is to do comedy and make a little money at it.
Jlife: How did you tackle your stage fright is that something you took on during that year or did it take longer? Oh yeah. I noticed that the other comedians I would see in the clubs, they would be drinking before they went on are they would smoke marijuana outside the theater or whatever… And that wasn’t an option for me. I went to the bathroom and knelt on the floor next to the commode like I was going to throw up… but I was praying. I would go in the men’s room and go to my knees and that was the way I learned how to deal with massive amounts of fear in my body.
Do you feel that stage fright on stage can cross over into having stage fright in life? Yes. My whole process was born out of me doing comedy and overcoming fear. I would do comedy and have all this physical fear. I had the shakes, diarrhea, cold sweats, cottonmouth, etc. etc. You know… all the fear that comes on with going on to do a show. I would eradicate it by doing my prayers and meditation. I learned that when I would do these prayers and these meditations, I would get focused on my spiritual stuff and the fear would go away. So after 10 or 11 years of having amazing shows and never being scared on stage I noticed that my colleagues were still drinking and doing drugs in order to get rid of the stage fright. I realized I had a system so then I thought, “Well if this works so well for my shows maybe I should be putting this at the beginning of my day. Maybe this could work for my whole life.”
And so I started putting my process in front of my whole life (like in the morning instead of before a show). It worked really well and it involves about six different prayers that I do, meditations and some visualizations of people that are special to me. And now this is what I’m sharing with all of these addicts. They’re reporting back that it works and I’m not surprised because I know it works. It really just comes down to if it works for me, try it. It’ll probably work for you. And they do.
What would you say is one of the most rewarding parts of your job? The most rewarding part of my job is how good I get to feel about myself because I’m so good at something. For instance, I’m able to connect with an audience three quarters of the way on the other side of the planet. I can have the show be exactly as wonderful and creative as I envision. I went to Israel to perform and even though I was over there to do comedy shows, I still went to a treatment center out in the mountains over there called Retorno. I met with a group of English-speaking patients there and it was very special.
Everywhere I go I try to find a way to spread the message and connect with people. I don’t necessarily get to be Jerry Seinfeld with the private jets and compounds and huge amounts of money. I’ve had to accept the fact that I have a different path. I don’t know how well I would actually do if everybody was always looking at me when I was in the car. I have friends that are that famous and I thought I wanted that. However, I didn’t get that and I had to decide what is my raison d’être? What is it? I have a chance to be someone who has done more with his talents than someone who just has just lined his own bank account you know. It’s really fulfilling and really meaningful.
Jlife: Are you able to be around people that are drinking socially or does it annoy you? No it’s not annoying. I don’t wish I could drink. There are times when I would like to have a beer. Even though I drank like a fish, alcohol was never really my drug of choice. It was the cocaine that was the core of my downfall. Have you ever been on a diet?
Jlife: My entire life. See well then you know that there are certain things you will cheat with and certain things you won’t. Someone may tempt you with something, but you’ll think, “If I’m going to cheat, then I’m going to have that. As long as I’m cheating, I’ll have pizza with extra cheese you know? I’m not going to cheat with a chocolate chip cookie. I’m going to cheat with a box of donuts. So it is the same thing with drugs and alcohol. I’m not going to ruin my life to have a scotch on the rocks (and I know it will ruin my life). But, I’m also not to smoke crack (which is what I was doing). There is a certain amount of neural linguistic programming that comes into it too. I don’t say, “I can’t.” I don’t say, “I can’t use drugs or I shouldn’t use drugs.” I say, “I don’t use drugs.”
If you’re on a diet and somebody offers you kugel and you say, “No I really can’t.” What you’re really saying is, “I want to and I probably will.” But if you said to somebody, “I don’t eat kugel. That means you are not having kugel.
It’s like cheating on your relationship as well. I don’t cheat on my wife. My first wife cheated on me and I don’t do that. I don’t like the way it makes me feel and I don’t want to make others feel that way. So I don’t say “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t.” I say, “I don’t!” And this empowers me. Really you have to become your own power. There are people that can listen to tapes all the time and incorporate some of those principles that strike you as empowering or inspiring, but until you incorporate it, it doesn’t work. You’re a slave to listening to a CD.
So what I do is give addicts the basis for a custom-designed personal recovery program. I let them know they need to treat their recovery like a bodily function such as brushing their teeth.
Also, prayer is like air for your recovery. You’re not praying to be relieved of your sins. You’re not praying to be reverent in temple. You’re praying because your life depends on it. You quickly find out who wants to live if you want to live you do this. If you’re too far gone for it to matter you don’t. And some people are too far gone. And you have to accept that to you can only save the people who are savable. Recovery won’t save the ones who won’t be saved. For instance, if you don’t want to get in the lifeboat, then have a nice time drowning. This is the lifeboat. If you want to get in you have to at least grab my hand so I can help pull you up. However, if you’re in the lifeboat and you jump back out, hat’s on you. There something wrong with you and it’s Darwinian. It really is. There are some people that are too screwed up. They’re just not made for this world and we have to own that. Is it any secret? I mean look at all these major stars, these people like Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Jimi Hendrix’s of the world. I mean none of these people were average Jones is from down the block.
Jlife: And Prince…. I’m still torn up about that. Well yeah with Prince that was all a delusion. Everybody wanted to think that he was this quiet, straight talking genius and he was actually a tortured mongrel. I mean he changed his name to a symbol right? He’s freaking nuts … living in an aquarium in Minnesota. This glass house with all these servants around and all these velvet clothes. I mean, come on, are you kidding me? If he was the king of a country you would think he was a nut! He’s all over the place with his entourages and he’s making billions of dollars and not one of those dollars could have saved him, not one dollar. He was so human. I could have talked of Prince for two weeks and gotten him straightened out. Maybe. If it was possible to straighten Prince out.
I see these people and I want to reach out to them. I want to tell them to just hang out with me for a couple weeks and get this stuff sorted out. However, they’re so busy getting used and abused by the people around them that are enabling them. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t even ask them for a dime. I would just want to get them someplace away from everything. I don’t know, maybe I am ridiculously misguided, but it’s a lot easier for the average 24-year-old to get sober than it is for someone who has got unlimited amounts of money and fame. And it’s the same every time. It’s was the same with Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Hendrix… Prince.
Everybody elevates you to the status of superhuman and no one talks to you the way you need to be spoken to. These people become so insulated by their fame and success and by their money that there’s nobody in their inner circle that really grabs them by the shirt and says listen up! It’s the people in their life that stop them and tell them to listen up, that get well. There are people that don’t have those people in their life and they don’t get better.
I may be the only comedian in the country that has dedicated this many hours of himself to this cause. This is what I do. I continue to amaze people with my show because I was a child prodigy at the piano. I could play the piano when I was five. I went to Juilliard and I hadn’t even had lessons. They didn’t even know what to do with me. If Mozart walked into Juilliard they’d say, “Why are you here? There’s nothing we can tell you.”
It was kind of the same thing I was five. I mean, I’m not bragging, I’m just saying my parents took me to a show and I came home from the show and I could play the piano… that’s it. There’s nothing more to it. So I’m kind of this extraordinary and blessed guy who has been flying below the radar of the entertainment industry for 24 years.
Gary Marshall saw me once onstage in Beverly Hills in front of a thousand people and thought I was the funniest guy he’d seen since Robin Williams. “I wish I could figure out a way to use him,” he said.
Gary Marshall came into my life in 2010 and validated everything I knew about myself as a performer. He actually did put me in one of his movies, but they cut all the scenes out. Now I come to LA and I’ll sit in his office with him and talk for two or three hours and it’s validating for me. Now on the flip side, all of my scenes got cut from his movie because I was funnier than the stars I was in the scenes with. Bon Jovi couldn’t do improv so all the funny scenes I did with him got cut. Hilary Swank got a weird look on her face because I wasn’t on script. It was like, “We can’t have the freckle -faced guy who nobody knows be funnier than the star. We have to reshoot that.”
So that’s what happened to me there. I have to own that. When you are an extraordinary kind of person and funny you may be more talented than a lot of people. You may be too talented for your own good.
I’ll tell you an even better one. I was in Bermuda doing a benefit with Samuel L Jackson and 200 other celebrities. So one of my friends was the actual comedian that was booked and he got a part in a T.V. show so he replaced himself for the gig with me. So I went and I did the show. And I’m talking major stars. Michael Douglas was there, Denzel Washington, Sam Jackson, and Dustin Hoffman… a couple thousand people on the island of Bermuda. It was for big charity that Samuel L. Jackson was campaigning for. So I did the show and afterwards people were coming up t me and telling me how great I was and that I needed to see Tony Howards because she was looking for me. Don’t worry she can make you a star.
So finally, I was on the golf course the next day (and I don’t even play golf). I was doing B roll footage for the e Channel. They asked me to hold the microphone and ask questions because I was the least known celebrity there (laughs). So I’m over there and now it’s lunchtime in this woman comes up to me and says, “I’m Tony Howard.” She said, “You are amazing. You are the funniest comedian I’ve ever seen in my life. My husband loves you, everybody loves you. You’re amazing and you can be a huge star. I want to sign you right now.”
She pulled out a napkin from the bar with a pen and told me to sign. So I asked her what to tell me what I was signing and asked her who she was with. She looked at her friend, chuckled and said, “He’s so cute.” Can you imagine he doesn’t know who I am? I run ICM.”
So I said, “Well that’s funny because I’m already with ICM.”
She said, “No you’re not, that’s preposterous.”
I said, “No ma’am I swear to you I’ve been with ICM for year and a half. I haven’t had one job.
So she tells me that that is ridiculous and that she was going to get to the bottom of it and to that I should come see her as soon as I got back to LA. So when I got back I called her and she told me that I was difficult to work with and that I was always late to everything. So I said, “What do you mean?”
She told me that that was the information that was relayed to her from the head of their television department. So I told her that obviously that person is covering their ass because I haven’t seen them since I signed with the agency. I mean, how can I be difficult to work with I haven’t done any work? How can I be late to everything when they’ve never sent me anywhere? How can I be late if I’ve been waiting a year and a half to get a phone call already?
She came back with, “Well, you’re very difficult to cast. You’re not black, you’re not white, you’re not young, you’re not old, you’re not fat, and you’re not skinny…. you’re very tough to figure out.
So I said, “OK, well I guess I’m not with ICM anymore because if the head of the agency thinks I’m going to be a star and the people that work for me don’t even know I exist… well then that’s a problem.”
So that was G-d saying to me, “Dude you better come up with another plan because these people are jerks and they don’t know what they’re doing.”
So that’s why my life now makes sense. I work for the main man, who never misses payroll. I don’t have to worry about some schmuck in some office. The main man called me one time and that’s all it took. I now answer the call every day because it’s fulfilling and it makes me happy. I’m useful and productive. I’m integral to people’s lives and I’m making a difference everyday. So even if it’s not a particularly big show business month, it’s still a good month for me.
I went to Israel to perform and even though I was over there to do comedy shows, I still went to a treatment center out in the mountains over there called Retorno. I met with a group with English-speaking patients there and it was very special. Everywhere I go I try to find a way to spread the message and connect with people. I gave them a bunch of my videos and I gave them some books. One of the books was of my life story called “Still Standing Up.” I self published it because I couldn’t get anyone to publish it and my life story is unbelievable. The point is that, for whatever reason, with all the promotion and all the publicity, all the public relations and all the amazing people with amazing stories I seem to have fallen through the crack. I would say the crack has to be pretty wide for me to fall through but for the last 25 years I’ve fallen through the biggest crack that there is I guess.
Just a few months ago we ran an article about substance abuse in the Jewish community that we titled “No Longer a Shanda.” So this is great timing to be hearing your story. Well my birth mother was an Orthodox Jewish woman who got impregnated by a black man back in the early 60s. I was a “shanda” basically at birth. She didn’t tell anybody the nature of the pregnancy. She fled from Chicago to Miami and had me. It just so happens that my grandfather’s best friend was the head of OB/GYN at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach. My grandfather told him that his daughter was looking for a baby because she wasn’t able to have children herself. He told him not to worry and that he would find him something. He told him to just bring him a chocolate babka (with no nuts) from Brooklyn and that they would find him a baby. So I was traded for a babka! He went to their favorite bakery in Brooklyn; he got them a babka and brought it to Miami. My grandfather’s friend took him down the hall of the hospital and said, “You see that girl? Whatever she has is yours.”
The next day I was born and nobody could figure out why I wasn’t white like my birth mother. However, they really didn’t think about it too much because you know babies are weird colors when they’re born. The next day I was adopted and I went home to a very affluent suburb of New York: Great Neck. You want to talk about beshert? The day after I was born I would have been unadoptable, but because of the babka… I went home to a beautiful and loving family. I’m sending you a photo now. You are going to laugh because my parents swore to me that I was white and came from people that were just like them. (Sarge then e-mails me a picture of him as a baby… an adorable and obviously part African American baby so we both start laughing).
That’s how in denial they were. My mother told me that I was white. Think about that for a second and look at the picture. That’s part of my story though. I came into the world different.
Any words of wisdom you’d like to end on? Well the title of my book sorta sums it up. “I’m Still Standing Up.” I’ve fallen down 1,000 times, but not in the last 25 years. That’s the direct correlation between my recovery, my comedy and who I am…. I don’t fall down anymore. I don’t even really get knocked down. I live in a nice home. I have a great wife and a seven-year-old little boy who looks just like me. I’m 55 and I have a seven-year-old, that’s the coolest trick in the world. My parents live two blocks away and are the most annoying, verklempt elderly Jews you’ve ever seen in your life. (Laughs). So it’s all for real.
For more information on Sarge and his wonderful work please visit iamsarge.com.
Space did not permit us to run our interview in its entirety. To read more about Sarge’s fascinating life and view his featured video short, please visit jlifeoc.com.
Tracey Armstrong Gorsky is a contributing editor to Jlife magazine.