BY: TIM O’NEAL
Describing a psychedelic experience to someone is a lot like telling them about the dream you had last night. It’s impossible to put the visual images, profound emotions, and staggering new connections and insights into words, and the listener really doesn’t give a shit. Shane Mauss, stand-up comedian and self-described “psychonaut,” is taking on the challenge. He’s in the middle of an eighty-city tour to describe the experience and to advocate for research on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.
Shane is accomplished in the field of comedy. He won the Best Stand-Up award at the HBO US Comedy Arts Festival in 2007. He’s been on Jimmy Kimmel, Conan, released a comedy album, and had a Netflix special, “Mating Season.” He currently hosts a podcast called “Here We Are” with fifty-thousand subscribers. He’s using the attention he’s earned to take the conversation around psychedelics beyond those who are already supportive.
I went to “A Good Trip” to see if he was able to pull this off. The show was sold out. As I looked over the crowd I saw far fewer animated stereotypes than I expected. There was one burned-out older dude in a tie-dyed shirt and a beret, and a younger guy dressed in what could only be called a costume. Of what, I wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t keep himself from dancing as he waited in line to be seated. Other than that, it was a room full of typical looking folks. Some of them seemed like the last people you would ever expect to be interested in mushrooms or LSD.
The show was just what I had hoped it would be. Shane delicately balanced between hilarious anecdotes about his own experiences and observations around tripping, and fact-based information about the current state of regulation of these substances. It was clear that he has a lot of personal experience and that, despite using comedy as the vehicle, he takes the subject seriously.
He talked about the discovery and use of mind altering substances among ancient cultures, and the spiritual importance it holds for them. He somehow made the topic of the Federal drug scheduling system hilarious, despite its frustrating absurdity.
One of the funniest moments was when Shane talked about Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of LSD’s psychedelic properties in 1943. About Hoffman’s decision to test the substance on himself with four times what is now considered a dose, he said, “I guess that was science in the ’40s: if they didn’t know what something did they just put it in their mouth.”
The show really hit the mark for me. As Shane says in his show, you can kill a rat with poison bought in a store but a researcher could go to prison for giving one a hit of acid in a lab. There is an amazing amount of potential for these substances. This show could be a step towards allowing more research.
A couple days after the show I spoke with Shane to ask about some of the topics he addressed and to get his impressions on the tour so far. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Tim O’Neal: How’s the tour going? In particular, how is it going over in the smaller towns and more conservative areas?
Shane Mauss: It’s going great. I’m selling out about half the venues and the rest are usually pretty packed. The size of the crowd has more to do with the night the show is on than the actual place. I’ve definitely had some misses here and there, like Mobile, Alabama. There’s a psychedelic community everywhere, or at least there are people who are into psychedelics everywhere. Sometimes the more rural areas have less of an opportunity to hear about things like this so some of those places are way more supportive than you’d think. I mean, Fargo, North Dakota sold out.
TO: This show has a message. Do you think it’s reaching beyond those already on board, or is everyone in the crowd already supportive?
SM: People often comment on how informative the show is, which isn’t what they were expecting. People seem to attach to that a lot. There was the guy in Billings, Montana that kept yelling, “Super Troopers!” He thought that was the type of show it was going to be. The show is definitely not about the time some guy got high and did something stupid, you know.
I get a lot of couples where one of them had done psychedelics and the other one hadn’t and they’re trying to explain why they do them. The point of the show isn’t to get everyone doing psychedelics but to just raise awareness so that anytime laws do pop up for a vote we’re voting on the side of science.
I’m trying to do a real grounded show. I’m trying to demystify. I think the more new age-y side of the psychedelic community is a little too wrapped up in taking the experience at face value. These are some of my favorite people, but just trying to be reasonable about it, I think trying to communicate with the general population, the New Age aspect is too easy for the general population to point at and say, ‘these people sound crazy.’ It’s just a little too far out there for them. I’m trying to promote a more balanced view. The New Age group aren’t the people I need to inform anyway. I love the New Age crowd. I mean, I’m a skeptical science type of person so I might not see eye to eye on a lot of their beliefs. It’s just that they’re already there.
I’m not having to convert them or convince them of the healing properties of psychedelics.
TO: At the show I came to I immediately thought that everyone in the room was probably already on board, but then it occurred to me that many of them were probably experienced with psychedelics but maybe mostly in a recreational way. Maybe they were hearing information about the therapeutic potential for the first time.
SM: There are a lot of people who are taking a bunch of mushrooms and going to a concert, which is fine. I have nothing against that, especially if it’s done safely. I do think those are the environments where people run into trouble, too, but a lot of people who love psychedelics have never used them outside of that context, never used them with a kind of conscious intent of trying to explore the mind and set intentions and sort out some things they need to work on.
I hope they’re seeing some possibilities beyond that.
This is an important time. I think the war on drugs is starting to turn for cannabis and psychedelics are, I think, not too far behind. I think the psychedelic community really needs to keep its nose clean right now, and needs to have a measured, reasonable…let’s help people who need it the most, use this stuff for drug addiction [recovery] and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and then let’s win over those skeptical people. And then once we start getting safe environments, then we can get a little more wild. I think we’re really going to have to make some compromises in the meantime.
Unfortunately, the people who can benefit the most from psychedelics and medical marijuana are the most close minded to it, and the people that are least informed about it. One of the wonderful things about psychedelics is it’s not a pill to take every day. It’s something you can take once a year and get a tremendous amount of benefit.
I think where psychedelics could really make an impact is in trying to communicate to people who would never think of going to therapy or doing yoga but might be into trying this drug they’ve heard people talking about. I think that’s when you’re talking about something that could change the course of the world. We’re a long ways away from that.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to do this. I started doing this show just as a fun little project. Since doing it and collaborating with MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) and various research organizations, I now know this is far more important than I realized. I see the impact something like this could have on people.
TO: How did you first get into psychedelics?
SM: I was really rebellious and had a very sheltered upbringing. I did everything I could to resist anything any kind of authority figure could tell me. I really lucked out because at the time of my life when the first bit of drugs were coming around, marijuana was the first one, and then psychedelics were after that. I’m really fortunate that it wasn’t coke or heroine that came into my life first because who knows what my response would have been.
I don’t really remember my first trip but I know that it was life changing. It was something that made me see life in a different way. I felt like I was so different, like I was alienated by my upbringing. I felt like I was some crazy person and no one saw things the way I did, and I really struggled with that. Psychedelics were this way of…if I was around other people on psychedelics I could talk about things I thought were funny and interesting and people would be interested, for the first time ever.
It gives you the ability to make yourself more susceptible to hearing new ideas and new ways of looking at life. It was tremendously impactful in my life. It definitely took me a long time to really understand the therapeutic benefits but that was always kind of creeping into my world. I’ve continued regular use for twenty years.
When I did DMT three years ago that was something that was life changing. It was just so thought provoking and it got me more into neuroscience and I started coming up with a lot of ideas. It was just this crucial part of my life where I was just a little unsatisfied with what I was doing and I was wanting to be speaking my mind a little more and figuring out ways to communicate bigger scientific ideas with people. That’s when I started thinking, well, maybe I’ll put together this show. I wasn’t planning on doing this show for another five years or so because I didn’t think the world wasn’t quite ready, and they aren’t, really. I mean, the stigma is still very real.
But I gave it a shot. I lined up a few shows just to see what would happen, how it would work, and the response was different than anything I could have foreseen.
You can find remaining tour dates and more details here.