Once homeless, comedian Lauryn Petrie finds a home on stage
Anybody who gets into stand-up comedy has a story to tell. Lauryn Petrie’s story is probably unlike any you’ve ever heard from a comic.
Petrie, who I first saw perform at this year’s Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington, N.C., is an Austin, Texas, native who lives in Portland, Oregon. That isn’t that unusual.
The fact that Petrie is a former homeless junkie-stripper who has found a home on stage telling jokes is.
I realize my terminology in the previous sentence might seem harsh, but Petrie used homeless, junkie and stripper to describe her former self during the course of our interview and I don’t want to sugarcoat her story in any way. It’s a fascinating, sad, scary, enlightening and ultimately triumphant tale that features a teenage runaway, addiction, murder, Juggalos, Louis C.K. on a laptop in a strip club dressing room and much more.
TC: How long have you been doing stand-up?
LP: I did my very first open mic Dec. 17, 2012, and it was the first time I’ve ever even attempted to go do comedy. I went up and I did six minutes that I had worked on for two weeks in the mirror. That first night at the open mic, I got asked by a Portland headliner to go out on the road and I said, “Are you sure? Because I’ve been doing this for about never.” (interviewer laughs) So I went out on the road for about two months and I’ve been going out on the road ever since.
It’s been good for me and it’s accelerated my growth and my learning curve because all that road time made me prepare for different kinds of audiences. … My act is abrasive and a little bit edgy, as people would say. I hate that word, but it’s made it a little more palatable than it would have been if I had been staying in one place.
TC: The road work can not only help you as far as learning your act but learning crowds too. That has to help, right?
LP: You nailed it on the head. I would be inclined to say that, even when you’re just starting out, everybody should try to go out on the road and just do guest spots for free. Just get up and get out in front of different audiences. Some of it won’t be good, but that’s great because then you learn. You’re like, “Oh, you know, I probably shouldn’t start with the abortion joke in this little town. That’s a bad idea” or “They love dirty out here. I can work on that material.”
I don’t want to sound pretentious, like I know everything. I don’t know everything, at all. I have so much to learn and when I watch my act on video and I listen to myself, I’m constantly pissed off and critiquing and upset because I can see the puzzle pieces in my head of where I want to be, where I want it to go and how I want it to sound. I’m so far away from that.
TC: What led you down the path to stand-up?
LP: That is a loaded question, my friend. How long can this interview be?
TC: As long as you want it to be. I’ve got nothing but time over here.
LP: My life has been a series of unfortunate events and serious mistakes and that’s why I’m doing stand-up comedy. I was a child actor, did a couple of little commercials and eventually did a TV movie that Goldie Hawn directed and I was doing well.
Then puberty hit and I got fat and I stopped getting roles. Then I got really depressed and upset. I had a bad relationship with my mom, ran away from home, went to live with my dad in California. Then I got really into drugs, really seriously, and then it was just this avalanche of shit that kind of happened. A decline into the abyss.
I ran off to live in Portland, ended up under a bridge shooting heroin. A group of people tried to kill my boyfriend and a girl I knew got raped and murdered under a bridge and I was like, “I should probably leave.”
I went to Idaho because my boyfriend had family there. I got clean, went to college, dropped out of college, became a stripper, got fired from stripping because of my weight, which is always a recurring issue in my life.
I had always been a giant stand-up fan. I loved Doug Stanhope and Louis C.K. Those were the two things I would always go to. At the strip club, they herded all the strippers into the dressing room. They didn’t want strippers hanging out with customers in the dark, because they didn’t trust us. It was like stripper day care. I had my laptop and I would put on Louis C.K. and it was like entertaining children for two hours. (interviewer laughs)
I got fired from stripping. I’m web-camming. I’m miserable. I should just get back on heroin. That would be a lot easier. That’s what your mind thinks. You’re like, “Fuck this.” I went from not having any responsibilities and being able to get high off my ass to having bills to pay, having deadlines, failing college, disappointing my parents. What do I have to lose?
Then I smoked ayahuasca (a South American psychedelic) and I felt stuff that religious people would probably call God. It was this incredible sense of unconditional love that I’d never felt in my life and I started viewing the world differently.
I kept asking myself, “If I could not fail, what would I do?” and the resounding answer I felt was, “You should do stand-up comedy. Go do it. Try stand-up.” I’m having these spiritual revelations while I’m stuck in this drug house with these morons who are listening to like, Insane Clown Posse and I’m over here having this awakening. Of course, they were trying to keep me trapped there.
I cleared out one of their closets and I web-cammed, 400 bucks in a night and I just left. I went back to Boise, web-cammed for like, a week straight and I made enough money to move to Portland and immediately started going to open mics for two weeks. I observed, just watched and said, “OK, I’m going to do it next Monday.” I went to this place called the Red Room and I did my open mic. That’s my comedy story.
TC: Wow. You include your addiction and the pitfalls of it in your act. Were you hesitant to do that or does it help you deal with it in a way?
LP: It totally helps me deal with it. For a very long time, I hid all of that. I never told anyone I used to shoot up. Then one day, I started posting pictures I had taken when I was homeless on my Facebook page. My mom called, and she’s English so she sounds scary. She’s like, “Why are you doing that? Why are you posting those pictures?” It feels good. It’s my life. I want to talk about it.
There’s a segment of society that has only heard about being homeless or being on drugs and once they hear about it, they want to hear more. It’s like rubbernecking at a car wreck. It does hit people like a ton of bricks. They’re not expecting it, especially if I dress conservatively (on stage). It’s a bait and switch. I love talking about it casually. Like, “Yeah, you know, I used to shoot heroin. I also enjoy long walks on the beach.” It humanizes the entire thing.
TC: When I saw you at the Cape Fear Comedy Festival in Wilmington, your dad was in the audience. What does he think of your stand-up?
LP: My dad is an interesting guy. He’s a computer scientist from Stanford. I definitely didn’t always get along with him. He’s been running the Burning Man airport for about 25 years now. He’s retired and that’s what he does now.
He’s a crazy motherfucker. He gets in motorcycle wrecks all the time. He dates women my age. He’s a womanizing bastard, but I love him and he’s kind of emotionally not normal. He thinks (my stand-up) is great. He thinks it’s brave and he’s fully supportive. My dad enjoys shock value. He thinks it’s really funny to see me shock people.
When I yelled at him from the stage, he told me it almost made him cry because I was including him and he felt really special.
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find In Five Minutes:
Why Did I Start This Conversation: A Memoir
— molly (@Molly_Kats) May 28, 2014
Photo by Katherine Clark