Scalpel sharp-tongued Mark Lundholm has been clean and sober for 26 years now. Although he has helped countless recovering addicts in that time, he won't call himself motivational—but he won't try to change your mind about it either. Given his story, why should he?
The 55-year-old characterizes his tale as a typical love/hate story. Long before performing comedy for heads of state and appearing on Comedy Central, Lundholm grew up in a dysfunctional family in which alcohol and prescription drug abuse ran rampant. In a household that started with two parents and five kids and would become a family of nine parents after years of divorces and re-marriages, humor was always there for him during dark times.
“If you were funny, it didn't hurt as much on the outside [and] you could actually get some attention that wasn't negative, sexual or predatory,” he says. “If it was serious, it was always, 'We'll talk about that later,' and in a dysfunctional family, later never happens.”
Comforts gradually turned from items of youth such as TV, sugar, athletics, grades and romance to Ecstasy, marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and eventually methamphetamine. By the time he was starting college, Lundholm says he was more into chemicals than learning.
At 29, he weighed 120 pounds and was living under a bridge in Oakland, Calif., doing everything to survive. On Oct. 20, 1988, he took a bus to Hayward, Calif., and checked into a hotel room so he could commit suicide privately without anybody knowing.
“I knew I wanted to die, but I didn't want to look bad doing it,” Lundholm says. “I didn't want it to ruin my reputation on the street.”
But when he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, it jammed. Disappointed and embarrassed, Lundholm says he crawled into a detox about an hour later. He says he has been clean ever since.
After a month of treatment, Lundholm went to a halfway house where he began volunteering to do comedy at treatment centers, jails, shelters and other locations with others who sang, read poetry and performed theater.
“I was the comedic relief," he says. "And I've been doing it ever since in hospitals and institutions."
Rather than go to open mic nights at comedy clubs that served alcohol, Lundholm decided to pursue his path on a semi-professional basis.
“A comedy club is a bar with a stage and [alcohol is typically] a part of the process,” he says. “People drink, they laugh, they go home. When I drank, I didn't laugh or have a home.”
Eventually Lundholm went from having to beg correctional facilities to let him do comedy shows to getting hired 300 times a year for performances and other appearances. He also runs eight-hour humor-based process groups—what he calls “Zero to Hero”—in 26 facilities in the U.S. and internationally. In fact, he says most of his work is clinical in nature now.
“I've got zero CEs to my name and I've never finished any kind of school except for county jail,” he says. “So I'm lucky to say that.”
“Funny has been more useful to me than any college degree,” Lundholm adds, admitting that he's never said that out loud before.
The best part of his job, he says, is that he can be original and the material never stops. “I get hired for the same reason I don't get hired—because I'm Mark L,” Lundholm says. “There are places that won't touch my work because it's too aggressive, outside the box or risky, and that's just fine.”
According to Lundholm, humor does three things: It removes shame, it lessens the threat of a topic should you choose to discuss it, and it invites trust.
“We're really lucky to have laughter,” he says. “I think God designed it as a really powerful antiseptic, medication, conduit … I've seen it do things that money couldn't do.”
Lundholm enjoys how his shows (which he says are rated "PG-35" for adult material) tend to bring parole officers and ex-drug dealers together. And of course he plays upon these differences.
“I like to divide and conquer,” he says. “I like to separate old and young, he and she, gay and straight, smart and otherwise, and then bring them all together in the end.”
There's also a board game based on his show, which Lundholm describes as a combination of Sorry, Truth or Dare, and Chutes and Ladders. “You draw cards, move along the board and life happens,” he says. “There are consequences, benefits, discussions, silence, truth, tears—the game is very visceral. There are parts of the game that can get very personal and historical and people will clam up, well up or speak up.”
The idea came from Iowa farmer Jason Salter after he had seen Lundholm's show. After years of Lundholm rejecting the idea, the two eventually started a partnership.
“I don't know if this was in the design—I'd like to take credit for it, but I can't—but you could play this game five days in a row and it will never be the same to you,” says Lundholm. “It's spooky almost.”
He says that you don't have to be in recovery to play the game. Ever the comedian, he adds that although he would never try it, it probably would make an excellent drinking game.
Lundholm admits that he's been in relapse mode thousands of times.
“If I'm not actively seeking recovery, I'm automatically in relapse,” he says. “For an addict like me, it's like a binary tree—you just have those two forks: relapse or recovery, that's it. There's no middle ground; there's no third choice.”
He adds that in the 12-Step community, gratitude never relapses, so finding something to be grateful for minimizes the risk of falling backwards. It's clear that his seven-year-old son, Grayson, plays a big part in this.