With a life of crime that began at age 6, Felon O’Reilly went on to rack up 73 arrests, seven incarcerations, 17 stints in rehab and almost a decade spent in prison before he got sober. O’Reilly credits his 14 years of recovery to stand-up comedy, motivational speaking and service. He regularly speaks at prisons and assists in training programs for professionals working with criminals and addicts. Here, my interview with O’Reilly:
Virginia Gilbert: How long have you been in recovery and from what addictions?
Felon O’Reilly: I celebrated 14 years on April 13. My main drugs were alcohol and cocaine, then heroin for about the last 15 years of my active addiction. Whoever said laughter is the best medicine never tried heroin!
VG: What was the lowest point in your addiction?
FO: I had many low points. Some people have a bad day; I had a bad decade. I guess my lowest was when I spent about four or five months living in a woman’s garage. She didn’t know I was in there. She was elderly, had very poor vision and was not very mobile. I had all her spare furniture set up: loveseat, sofa, recliner. I even had carpets laid out. I called it “The Garage Mahal.” I was on the run from the law for nine felonies. I had a path that led to the back door of the closest barroom. I would go there in the morning and the bartender would give me a couple drinks to help me get straight. Then I would get into the trunk of my friend’s car and we would go cop heroin and get fixed up. Then I would spend the rest of the day and night stealing and scoring more dope.
VG: When did you start doing recovery stand-up?
FO: I started doing stand-up when I was about two years sober and right away was doing recovery gigs and also nightclubs. I had always used humor to try to get out of trouble, or to help run a con. When I first got sober I would often be asked to speak at meetings because I was funny. I was speaking at a meeting on Martha’s Vineyard when I was about 18 months sober. [The comedian] Lenny Clarke was in the crowd. After the meeting he approached me and asked, ‘how long have you been doing stand-up?’ I said, ‘Lenny, I’m a fucking carpenter.’ He was adamant that I should try stand-up. Many had told me that throughout my life, but it was Lenny Clarke who convinced me to give it a try.
VG: Give me your funniest addiction one-liner.
FO: One joke that always gets a hit is, ‘I never knew I was an alcoholic; I always thought alcoholics slept under bridges. Then one morning I woke up under a bridge! I thought, holy shit! Normal people do this too!’
VG: How has doing comedy helped you in your recovery?
FO: Doing recovery comedy has helped keep me sober because it has kept me in constant contact with the recovery community. In the early days I would think, Well, I can’t get fucked up today; I’ll lose the [comedy] gig this weekend. I also think it’s important that newcomers realize you don’t need drugs and booze to enjoy life. That’s another one of addiction’s big lies.
VG: There’s a theory that most comedy comes from pain. Do you agree?
FO: I don’t think comedy has to come from pain, but I think a lot of us use humor to get past things that are painful. If you can laugh about it, it takes some of the power from the pain away.
VG: What’s your best piece of advice for people new to recovery?
FO: I guess my only advice is don’t give up! Listen to the messages you hear repeatedly in the rooms. Get a sponsor. Get a home group. Do 90 meetings in 90 days. That’s the message of recovery that you hear over and over from different people. Hell, don’t listen to me; if you listen to me, you won’t be doing 90 in 90, you’ll be doing seven to 10.
VG: You find humor in incredibly painful events. Is there any topic that’s off-limits to you?
FO: It’s our job as comics to find humor in everything. So, no, I don’t think anything is off the table. I may pick and choose what crowd I use a certain joke on. You have to read the room and you only have about 30 seconds to do it. Timing and delivery are the two most important components. You can’t be making jokes about a tragedy that occurred yesterday. But given some time, I think it can actually help with the healing and grieving process. Also, I think it has to be delivered in a way that is not hurtful or disrespectful. That’s what makes one person funny and another one bomb. It’s all in the delivery.
VG: Any upcoming projects you’d like Addiction.com’s readers to know about?
FO: I’m working on a second book and I have some possible film projects. I have one book out called Laughing On the Inside: The Life and Crimes of Felon O’Reilly; it’s about crime, addiction and recovery. It’s not a comedy but there are some funny stories.
For more about Felon, visit his website. Photo of Felon courtesy of Felon O’Reilly.