An American stand-up comic writes about the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs. By Elizabeth Flux.

Comedian Shane Mauss

I’m pretty sure the two businessmen at the bar are listening to our conversation. To be fair, they probably can’t help it – they’re the only other customers here. We’re sitting at opposite sides of a hotel restaurant but that doesn’t matter – everything is hard surfaces and echoes.

Shane Mauss isn’t bothered. As a comedian he’s used to an audience, and, after completing a 111-city tour of his native United States in less than six months, the fact we’re talking about psychedelic drugs, as he does through his show, does not seem to trouble him.

There’s a strange intimacy in seeing a performer off stage, seeing them with elements of their public persona stripped away. The Mauss who sits in front of me is different to the one who held the attention of a packed audience for an hour-and-a-half the night before. He speaks more softly, more slowly, but is still no less in command of what he wants to get across.

“A lot of times there’s nothing terribly fun about the psychedelic experience,” he explains as I pour us each a glass of water. “It’s a learning experience. It’s about becoming more mindful – and a lot of times it’s really hard … like a psychological boot camp.”

His work skirts a difficult line. Mauss describes himself as a psychonaut, a person who advocates the responsible use of psychedelic drugs as a method of gaining deeper understanding of the mind. Taking audiences through the history of different types of psychedelics, including psilocybin and LSD, he discusses their potential medical applications as well as the impact they’ve had on his own life – in particular, how he uses them to treat his bipolar disorder.

In some ways, the show should be a failure. The way he tells it, though, it all just comes together. He talks about the night when he and a group of other comedians found themselves without an audience. “Weather issues,” he offers, with a smile.

Having already been paid, and with the venue expecting them to perform, they took the opportunity to try out new material on one another. “I just started telling some stories of recent psychedelic experiences that I’d had, threw in some jokes, and tried to just keep on talking about it for as long as I could,” he says. “Next thing I knew, an hour had gone by and so I was like, ‘Oh. Guess I have a show.’ ”

He pauses to take a sip of his coffee and I wonder if he truly believes that story. There are two constants to both our conversation and his performance – his consistent underselling of just how hard he works and his willingness to be completely open. The show is successful because it is well thought out and honest – it didn’t just fall from the sky on a rainy night. “It turned out that there was a much bigger audience for it than I realised,” he says.

The experience has mostly been positive, but he’s also received backlash – some of it from within the psychedelic community itself. Mauss takes a scientific approach, aiming to demystify the experience, which is at odds with those who take a more spiritual view. Once in a while he gets called out on his scepticism.

More commonly, though, criticism comes from those who find out about his show by accident. “People think all drugs are the same, so to some people doing a show about psychedelics I might as well be going around telling people to smoke crack or something like that. So I get push-back in that regard.”

Tucked away at a table in the corner, I still feel conspicuous. It’s strange; ridiculous even. Twenty-four hours earlier, Mauss was talking about the same topic to a crowded room and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Here, however, in this sparsely populated restaurant, where the pauses in our conversation are filled with background music, the taboo is back in force.

“Sometimes I think that I’m figuring out ways to articulate these experiences in ways that anyone can understand, and if people just come to my show or hear me talking about these experiences on podcasts with even the slightest amount of open-mindedness, I think it will absolutely change the world,” he says. “That’s what I think when I’m manic. When I’m depressed I think that none of this matters.” He pauses, then laughs. “And so when I’m just a normal person, I think that every little bit helps.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2017 as "Turn on, tune in, stand up".

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Elizabeth Flux is a writer, editor and critic.

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