Interview: Rick Shapiro, comedian

Rick Shapiro battled a serious heart condition earlier this year, but nothing could stop him coming to the Fringe Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Rick Shapiro battled a serious heart condition earlier this year, but nothing could stop him coming to the Fringe Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Somewhere along the way, Rick Shapiro forgot to get a life. He had sex and he had comedy, but that was it. Then in 2007 a car accident erased his memory. He forgot how to put on his trousers, forgot what a fork was and how to use it. He slept for an entire month, then he climbed out of bed and returned to the one place where he felt himself: the stage.

How do you reassemble your life when you’re not sure who you were in the first place? That’s the question I’ve come to put to Shapiro and his manager, Tracy DeMarzo. The good folks at Earthy provide a non-stop flow of herbal tea and brownies, while we wrestle the world to rights. Shapiro assures me that no questions are out of bounds, and DeMarzo promises she’ll fill in any gaps, should Shapiro stumble over a fact or two.

That accident was only the beginning. This year, on his birthday – 13 April – Shapiro had a cardiac incident. The long-sober former addict had been taking a range of prescription meds, often joking: “I take more drugs now than when I was taking drugs.” But those drugs made him ill, and he’s only been out of the hospital for six weeks. He’s clearly fragile, but nothing could stop him getting to this year’s Fringe.

DeMarzo lays it out for me: “The medicines he was prescribed caused an infection in his heart and the only way to remove it was to remove the medications. That drained his nervous system. He was in hospital for 60 days, immobile for 45, in a wheelchair for 50.”

The best medicine, she reckoned, was work. When he woke from his epic sleep she booked him into obscure clubs and, she says, “through the process of constantly performing, Rick’s memory started to reawaken.”

Shapiro says: “I always perform, no matter what. I just kept showing up. I remember talking to my shirts like they were human beings, like they were my friends. I remember falling in love with a lamp, calling her my girlfriend, bringing her up on stage. And when someone said it was a lamp, I jumped in the audience and had a fight – and I don’t do that.”

That’s true. When I caught up with Jim Jefferies recently he spoke warmly of his fellow comic, saying: “Rick is a funny guy. I like people who are slightly messed up. He hasn’t got a mean bone in his body, he’s just f***ed up, like the rest of us.”

Shapiro’s memory started to return after he relocated to Los Angeles. “A year in, my brain popped out like a dent in a fender,” he says.

When pressed, he says he can’t really explain the process of rediscovering himself. “I was always creating on stage. That’s all I knew, it’s not like I have a lot of hobbies.

“When I started, I used to call it grabbing at straws. I never went to college, so I never had a science for what I did. I didn’t lose that. I knew how to go on stage and do my thing.”

But no-one performs 24 hours a day. Who is he when he’s at home?

“I know what you mean. When Tracy met me, I lived on stage, and just had sex and comedy. I never had a life off stage. I would go home and sleep.” In other words, there wasn’t much identity to lose in that crash? “Right, except the comedian. There was a fire-brain. I just kept trusting the fire in my brain.”

I’m struggling to picture what he must have been like growing up in New Jersey? I know he’s got a twin brother, but what else? “I was hyper,” he says, “I made a lot of trouble. I didn’t look like a delinquent, but I got drunk from the age of ten or 11 and would act out all the time. I’d go to the bookshelf in the middle of class and dump all the books out the window. My twin brother was sweet.

“My father and I didn’t get along. He was violent as hell, so I had no guidance. You only got along with my father if you had his interests. He was a doctor, so he wanted everyone to be interested in science and maths. I was the class clown. I was an artist. I would write poems, and he would rip them up out of anger and throttle me and choke me and say he was going to kill me.

“A teacher told him I was writing plays at age 12. She said, ‘He has a talent, your son,’ and my father looked at me with an angry face which meant we wouldn’t discuss it any more. And I stopped writing and painting. I started drinking and doing a lot of drugs. [At first] it was pot and drinking my parents’ booze. When I left home, I discovered coke.”

It’s a poignant tale, but Shapiro’s conversation regularly turns sharp corners, and his silly streak is always lurking, ready to assert itself. He tries explaining the kind of fun, dumb, surreal joke he loves telling, and how he starts with Attention Deficit Disorder.

“And most people wash dishes, watch CSI again and again. Mine is more intense. I should buy a pink Stingray so I can get paid, put on a knitted cap, look like a gummy worm. I’ll be like, ‘Heroin. Sparrow.’” Though I totally lose the point, I wind up giggling anyway, because his blatant delight in life’s absurdity is infectious.

Being ill has inspired him to reassess his craft. Will it force similar changes off stage? “That’s what I’m being confronted with. It’s becoming more important to me to have a life. Or it’s becoming as important. I ask what people do for fun. My shrink constantly asks me, and I say comedy, and she’s like, ‘But what about outside?’ I said, ‘All I ever did was comedy. That’s why I could have amnesia, go on stage, and go home.’”

• Rick Shapiro: Rebirth, Assembly George Square. Until 27 August. Today, 6:10pm.