Mishka Shubaly cleaned up, but his comedy didn't. Once a tattooed addict who accidentally stabbed himself and used an alias to get treated at the ER, he's now a sober, plant-powered marathon runner with six Amazon Kindle bestsellers. But his jokes are still dirty.
The author/comedian/singer looks like Adrian Grenier mixed with Wolverine and sounds like Johnny Cash reading a Louis C.K. script. Known for his filthy songs and standup, Shubaly mines human despair for comedy in songs like "Your Plus One at My Funeral." Fresh off gigs in Utah and Kenya and newly homeless, Shubaly joins Kristine Levine at Bossanova Ballroom on Saturday to promote his new memoir and first physical book, I Swear I'll Make It Up to You.
Before coming to Portland, Shubaly talked to WW about teaching at Yale, being a deadbeat son and one night in New Mexico with Levine.
WW: What's your take on clean comedy?
Mishka Shubaly: I admire people who can tell funny stories without being filthy or dark. Me, I want it as dirty and depressing as possible. Those are my people: the emotionally damaged, the drug addicts, the problem drinkers. In a 24-hour period we go through so much that wouldn't make it into network TV. I spit on the morality that says that's not high art. Chaucer and Shakespeare did full-on dick jokes. We have this American Puritan idea that high art is something different from vulgarity. It's not true; they're one and the same.
This is your first show with Kristine Levine. Are you a fan?
A lot of standup is white guys talking about their dicks. I like Kristine because she's sharper and filthier. She beats them at their own game. This time we were near the border down in Bisbee, New Mexico. There were all these filthy guys doing their comedy, and Kristine's the one who got the complaint.
How do you feel about pairing with Amazon?
Most of my success had been through online publishing. I know the Kindle reader audience is mostly 59-year-old women whose children left, so they read two books a day and live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. But if I tone it down for them, it's over. Those people secretly enjoy reading a writer whose bread and butter is the shit most people don't want to talk about.
Why do a printed book?
The glut of publishing seems online now. You tell someone that you publish on Amazon and they're like, "Oh, so does my landscaper." But most people still read in print. Making a real book, printed on dead trees, gives a sense of legitimacy. When my dad's neighbor comes over and asks him about "that deadbeat son," now my dad can point to the bookshelf.
Do you think it's true that comics are all depressed, serious people?
Maybe there's a comic who doesn't have that sense of fear and self-loathing, but if that person exists, I don't want to hang out with them. What we do is say, "Here's a thing that's humiliated me." The best way to defeat it is saying it out loud in a room of strangers, and they're going to laugh.
We all carry around some dark secret knowledge, like that time we got drunk and pissed the bed, and we think that we're the only one. I tried to put every bad secret I had in my book. Then last week I got this text from a friend saying, "Hey man, used to make out with dudes for free drinks, too."
You've been really outspoken about getting clean and becoming a runner though.
I like to think I can talk to everybody. The book is backed by Doug Stanhope, who's one of the dirtiest comics, and Rich Roll, who's a sober, vegan endurance athlete. I'm teaching at Yale this summer, but I play in dive bars all the time. I want to bring it all together to prove that you might learn more in a dive bar than an Ivy League classroom, and you can get just as down and dirty in the classroom as a dive bar.
When I taught at Yale for the first time, I gave the class a printout of my 1 star reviews on the first day. Things like, "he'll never stay sober" or "this is shit." They all looked up at me, dismayed. The point is someone is always going to hate you, but fuck 'em.
So are you living the life, in your mind?
I was living in New York City, then my building got sold and I was kicked out. I bought a camper and moved into my sister's backyard. I'm fully embracing the creepy uncle part of my life. I'm 39, sober, no job, no girlfriend and I've been wearing these jeans for like two weeks now. Things are wearing a little thin.
Starting with this tour, I'll be on the road with no end in sight. You say, "never say die," but you don't want to be that 59-year-old guy with a grey ponytail wearing an arrowhead T-shirt. People say they envy me. I say, "Bullshit! You could do this, but you're more invested in owning a boat." If you ever see me selling aluminum siding, please put me out of my misery.
see it: Mishka Shubaly and Kristine Levine perform at Bossanova Ballroom, 722 E Burnside St., 9 pm Saturday, April 2. $15. 21+.