DESPITE HOSTING a podcast where he regularly quotes Ram Dass, expounds the virtues of hallucinogenic drugs, and beckons listeners to unfurl their "psychic tendrils" before delving deep into the dark corners of conspiracy, philosophy, metaphysics, Duncan Trussell insists he's a comedian first—and certainly not a guru.
Nonetheless, the mix of comedy and philosophy on his podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour—and in his live stand-up—is producing real-world effects.
"This guy came up to me who was a military contractor," Trussell tells me over coffee. "He was crying. He said he would listen to [the podcast] when he was in Afghanistan. He said, 'A lot of the shit happening out there is just really fucking bad, and listening to you guys made me realize that I didn't have to stick to this career path for the rest of my life, so I quit and I left and I thank you.'"
Trussell was taken aback. "That was a really intense moment for me," he says. "Just the thought of people listening to my fucking raspy lesbian voice in Afghanistan, that's enough to melt my brain." And as the podcast continues to grow, so do such encounters.
"It happens after every single show," Trussell says. "I think it's a really sweet thing. But I try as quickly as I can to make sure that people understand I'm an information DJ."
Raised and schooled in North Carolina, Trussell came to both philosophy and comedy relatively young. Before majoring in the former at Warren Wilson College, Trussell discovered Eastern literature as a teenager. Not long after, he began taking LSD. Comedy, meanwhile, was ever lurking.
"I've always been a funny guy," Trussell says. "I would use comedy as a defense mechanism because I'm not an athletic dude and I hate sports. So if you can make people laugh, they like you... but I never had the confidence to be like: I'm gonna be a comedian when I grow up. That just seemed ridiculous."
In his late 20s, Trussell moved to Los Angeles where comedy offered another life raft. After running out of money he applied for a job at the Comedy Store, not as a comic, but simply because "it seemed like a fun place to work." There, he learned the craft. "It's kind of like Hogwarts for comedians," he says.
In particular, Trussell was impressed with George Carlin, and the way Carlin's sets progressed "from a sort of silliness in the beginning to this kind of dark, existential surgery where he's sort of... snipping the wings off the precious little bird that defines their existence.
"The way Carlin was doing that was so beautiful that you realize, yeah, this is something more than telling jokes," Trussell continues. "But still, the jokes are the medium through which that media is transmitted."
See below for a complete transcript of our interview with Trussell
MERCURY: You're from North Carolina. How did you come to both stand up and Los Angeles?
DUNCAN TRUSSELL: I was going to move to New Orleans or LA. I chose LA because I thought it was going to be a fun place to live.
How old were you?
I moved to LA, my landlord was a crack addict and was taking me to all these badass underground raves, like out in the desert. It was just a really fun, careless time. Then I ran out of money. I applied for a job at the Comedy Store because it seemed like it'd be a fun place to work. So I start working there and when you're working at the Comedy Store it's kind of like Hogwarts for comedians. You just get sucked in. Then I started doing stand up through there. That's where I learned how to do it.
Was there perhaps more draw to the comedy store than just wanting a fun place to work? Like a buried desire to actually do comedy?
I've always been a funny guy. I would use comedy as a defense mechanism because I'm not an athletic dude and I hate sports anyway. So if you can make people laugh they like you. I think that's generally how it starts with comedians: It's kind of a defense mechanism that mutates into something. I've always been funny, but I never had the confidence to be like: I'm gonna be a comedian when I grow up. That just seemed ridiculous.
But I would memorize jokes. I had all the qualities of a comedian in the sense that I got obsessed with these "Truly Tasteless" jokebooks and I would memorize stock jocks and tell them on the school bus. But I never thought: that's me, being a comedian. It just sort of happened.
What drove you to give the podcast such a philosophical edge?
I love having philosophical conversations with my friends and I love those conversations where you feel like you hit a place where you don't even have language to describe this crazy thing that you're running up against. That always makes me happy to have those conversations. It's my favorite thing.
There's something about when it works, this weird, magical thing happens where something comes out of the dialogue—some kind of old school salon, where some kind of philosophical moment happens. It's an exciting feeling.
Is it tough to get that philosophical on stage?
It's the same thing. It's just got to be more condensed. People are there to see a show. Otherwise you're lecturing. You need the punchlines or you're not doing stand up comedy anymore.
There is a prevailing wisdom that if you want to talk about serious stuff live and in person—and not be a politician—that one must get laughs for people to pay attention. Thoughts?
Bill Hicks said: "Jokes are parachutes for when your improv isn't working." And that's a great way to put it. That is true. What do they say? A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.
I think agendas can be dangerous, because they limit you. All of a sudden you're a comedian whose got an agenda, like "this is the thing I want to accomplish," or to spread great pearls of wisdom to the people—suddenly you''ve really limited yourself this insane way. Standup feels more like a visceral kind of connectivity with a group of people that at the very best can become a kind of transcendent moment where something's coming out of you that you didn't expect and it's really beautiful and amazing. But if you go in there with that planned, "tonight I will channel Osiris!"—then you're gonna stumble and fall. It's more like just being in the moment.
It's what's between the lines that matters.
How do you mean?
You're using words as a medium to transmit into what I think, for lack of a better word, is a form of love. It's a sense of joy and happiness to be up there. It's a goddamn blast, man.
An example of a super professional who I loved to watch do this was George Carlin, and the progression of his set from a sort of silliness in the beginning to this kind of dark, existential surgery that's happening, where he's sort of clipping whatever the goddamn subjective paradigm that the audience is living by, sort of snipping the wings off the precious little bird that sort of defines their existence. And the way he was doing that was so beautiful that you realize, yeah, this is something more than telling jokes. But still, the jokes are the medium through which that media is transmitted.
How many people are getting to that point? Clipping the wings, as you say?
Some people like doing it. Doug Stanhope, Joe Rogan likes doing it, Louis CK does it. It seems the thing they all have in common is a deep commitment to telling the truth. But in a real serious way where they decided to stop questioning themselves and what they're thinking, and are just purely sort of channeling exactly themselves.
Sometimes the effect of that, depending on the psychology of the person, can be extremely subversive and shocking. Sometimes it can not be subversive and shocking, but brilliantly funny. I mean, look at fucking Jim Gaffigan. Jesus, man, the guy's hilarious but his comedy is totally clean. Is he rattling the cages of society when he makes fun of whales? I don't know, but he's definitely delivering this kind of magical thing through his energy.
There was a time I thought comedy had to speak about important subjects to be really great, but i was reminded that Steve Martin was nothing but absurd, yet still had a profound power and connection.
The moment you decide that this is what you're going for you can get real didactic and preachy. It seems like it's not going to be as fun.
Do you wrestle with that?
Oh, I'm sure [laughs]. There's so many things that you'd like to talk about. But a joke is an animal that grows.
Right now I'm trying to do a series of jokes about money, that there's these symbols of Egyption idolity all over our currency and the fact that nobody seems to notice it, that's a funny thing to me. And over time it is growing in to something really funny, but it just starts off as a kind of shrill, hippy, "what's happening with money, mannn!" But over time it grows and you find the comedy in it. And this is all from interaction with the audience.
I see on this upcoming tour you're playing non-standard venues—rock clubs instead of traditional weekend comedy clubs. Is that something you seek out?
There's good and bad aspects to it. You know man, you just can't judge. I remember once it was a Saturday, and I had three shows at Zanies in Chicago, 7PM, 9PM and 11PM. Three fucking shows, a spectrum of inebriation. From one to the end where the audience is just a drooling wreck. I remember watching the crowd come in and seeing more than a few tables of people in their 70s. And I remember thinking: man, you're fucked. There is no way you're going to connect with these people. You are goddamn doomed. The comic before me made some comment about, "7 o'clock shows, we got to keep it clean!'" I'm like, "keep it clean!? What are you talking about?!"
But it ended up my favorite show of the weekend. It was awesome. I wouldn't have expected it. But these older people, they've been through wars, they've certainly done their fair share of fucking! It's not like they're living in some monastery. So it's not fair to judge audiences in that way.
On a recent podcast you opened with a man telling a wild conspiracy tale about a dog's penis being chopped off and somehow becoming the Washington Monument. How often are you finding weirdos on the road?
Every night. Every night after the show I like to go hang out with people. It's really awesome, man: some people have shit they really want to tell me. People are real into something called chaos magic, a sort of post-modern magic. It's awesome. It's kind of an approach to the old high-magic systems of ceremonial magic to induce some kind of change in the universe, but from a post-modern perspective where you're like: I recognize that these are just symbols that I'm utilizing to induce a shift in my emotional state, to put me in a place where I can accomplish whatever tasks I want to accomplish. It's still magic and they still use a lot of the old forms. But the way that they understand it is not from the idea that there's some kind of secret electricity, but that you're just sort of using tricks to induce certain mind-states.
I run into chaos magicians, physicists... an awesome physicist that immediately had a list of bullshit that I've fucked up on the podcast, where he's like, "no, wrong, no, that's not it." Which I love because that helps me. The thing I love about this medium, its a real game of information ping pong that you're playing with a group of people and they correct or they send more proof of whatever the thing it is that you're talking about and that gives me something more to bring to talk about on the next podcast. So yeah, it's pretty amazing, man.
Anything you regret having been a proponent of only to later come around on?
Yeahs, sure, tons of stuff. It's a problem, man. Sometimes you'll say something with confidence and later down the line you'll realize, like, no no no, I didn't fully understand it.
What about from a philosophical standpoint?
What's interesting is that what makes this philosophical shift happen is the interactions I've been having with my guests. And lately, these guys from Ram Das's camp have really been getting in my head because sometimes on the podcast—and I still do it, and I'll continue to do it because it's fucking fun—I'll RAIL against the man, against the drones and the wars. And this creates an "other"-ness. You create dualism the moment you do that, when you rage against a thing that you're angry with, you become as guilty, or at least the spark that's behind it is the same spark that's causing the thing you're so upset about. It's like you sort of become the enemy that you're so desperate to defeat.
This is a cliched thing to say, but unforuntately the reality is, generally, that there is not a clear distinction in right and wrong. For example, I remember after a show a fucking special Ops guy who listens to the podcast came up to me, and he wasn't attacking me, but he was like: "When we use those drones, it's like a last resort, and we're trying to not get killed and we're desperately trying not to accidentally kill people when we're using them—that's like the worst thing for your life, because you have to deal with that for the rest of your life."
Look, I am so overjoyed at the thought of us getting out of Afghanistan.
The total of war is a monstrous thing. But the pixels of war, you've got people who just want to go to college. They knew what they were getting into, no doubt, but still, there's an economic draft happening where a lot of great people are getting sucked into this boiling hell-vortex and trying not to get their heads blown off. Suddenly now, you can if you want, villainize the pixels, from some libertarian perspective, that these people knew well what they were getting into. But you've got to understand that a lot of these people were raised by people who taught them that there's nothing more honorable than serving your country.
The more I get to do this podcast and the more I meet people who I consider philosohically advanced, the more difficult it becomes for me to demonize and create that fun reptillian overlord stuff, that Darth Vader character. There might not be Darth Vader. There might just be a shitload of people on the planet who haven't quite gotten to the point where they realize that there's no such thing as countries, there's no such thing as a homophobic god living in the sky.
Where did you originally get turned on to these types of philosophy?
Since I was a kid, man. When I was a kid my mom was into it and I would read those books. And then, of course, if you've ever taken LSD, then right away you get firsthand information of like the fact that the thing you might have considered to be yourself is just one tiny facet of who you are.
Bhagavad Gita, Be Here Now by Ram Dass, the basic scriptures, even the New Testament. The first book I ever read on this type of stuff is a book called Raja Yoga, Yogi Ramacharaka, who turned out to be a fraud—he just changed his name to Yogi Ramacharaka [cracks up laughing]. He was like, William Timothy!
Still, that was the first one I ever read, this idea that... When you say: "this is who I am," you've created this weird bi-furcation in yourself because there's some "I" that you're talking about and then there's an I talking about the I. Who's the "I"? This is the beginning of a lot of different yogic systems, which is this question of who the fuck is the "I"? Who is the "you"? This where you get into the place of what's called "mindfulness," or what's called the "witness," which is this place where there's "the you" and the unit of consciousness that you are a part of that's this state of awareness, and a lot of yogic systems are designed to get you into that state. But it takes time.
I believe the prescription in Raja Yoga, the exercise they suggested, was: begin to think of yourself as though you're reading about yourself in a book. So when you're going around it's like: "Duncan is drinking a diet Coke. Duncan is doing an interview right now. Duncan just smoked a joint." It separates you from the idea that most people are trapped in that's: "this is who I am, and when I'm angry I gotta do something!" Reactivity, as they call it.
When you first came on to this sort of stuff how old were you?
God, I must've been 14? 15, maybe.
There was an acid boom, brother. There was an undocumented acid boom in the '90s, and for whatever reason acid flooded that area for most of the last few years of me being in high school and me being in college. It was like falling out of trees.
Remember that boom? That all came from a missile silo. You should check out Vice magazine, they did a great writeup about it, that 90% of all the LSD in America was all coming from one place, which was under a decomissioned missile silo—fascinating story!
How much have drugs been—and how much do they continue to be—important to you in that way?
Well, I'm a huge fan of psychadelics, and I think that, when used used appropriately and used responsibly, they can become massive tools for personal evolution. You can look at the John's Hopkins studies that are coming out that they're doing with psilocybin. A lot of the great research that MAPSS [multi-disciplinary association for psychedelic studies is doing is kind of vanquishing some of the horrific stereotypes and rumors that were perpetuated by the Reagan administration way back when. And Timothy Leary freaking everybody out, trying to advise this wild, Dionysian approach to psychedelics, which is great, but I think it's a double-edged sword and an idiot if you think they can't fuck you up.
I'm a huge fan of any drug, philosophy, meditation or activity that can push you out of the sort of auto-pilot state that I think so many people have gotten into as a for of escapism for taking responsibility for their lives. Psychedelics—even eating marijuana—can just rattle your fucking cage.
So many people, when they eat or smoke pot, they're like: I get paranoid. And you ask, what are you paranoid about? "Well, I get paranoid about money, I think I'm fat, I worry about my love life, I feel lonely." It's like, no, you're not paranoid. You're experiencing who you really are. You're experiencing the shit you need to work on.
That's, I think, the healing effect that psychedelics have. Most bad trips are generally just your subconscious, or a deeper part of yourself, throwing up flags being like, come on, let's fix this shit, let's work on this.
There's a great story about a major league baseball pitcher who threw a perfect game on LSD, Doc Ellis. how about doing comedy on drugs?
Awful. Awful. It throws your timing.
So you've done it?
Oh yeah, but it was stupid. It was way back when. You can get stoned and get on stage, but like taking mushrooms or a real strong psychedelic that creates temporal distortions... so much of comedy is based on timing that when your timing is thrown and you're all up in your head and the audience looks like some seething mess of flesh and eyeballs that you're communicating with, it's hard to keep it together, man.
Whether its drugs, philosophy or what have you, we're talking about expanding consciousness, and I imagine that a lot of people listening to the podcast could be getting turned on to that from you for the first time.
It happens after every single show, man. I think it's a really sweet thing, but I try as quickly as I can to make sure that people understand I'm an information DJ.
Beople could start seeing you as their own guru.
I immediately knock that away as fast as I can. I think that's a kind of lazy, convenient thing to do, because people really want this idea of someone to follow. But I do believe that there are higher, advanced beings out there, or people who have really open hearts so when you get to be around them you just feel very loved. They say that the guru is kind of a reflection of what's most beautiful inside of you, the same way that your enemy is the reflection of the most nasty and horrible thing inside you. So when you're around them you wake up to your potential, and to how great love is. But that is definitely not me, dude. [laughs] I wish it was, but it isn't. Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday, man.
Maybe more of a rhetorical question, but do you even get to choose?
Well, I don't know. That's a great question. That's a question that maybe a guru would ask? Who's the guru now? [laughs]
The way I look at it right now is like, there's a shitload of information out there and we're all trying to share it with each other.
You were saying it's about expanding consciousness, but for me it's more about endorsing connectivity. That to me is the most important thing, connecting, re-connecting with how important life is. A lot of people will go months, if not years, without feeling any kind of real gratitude for their life. Now, when people say, "you should be grateful," now, that'll never work. You can't manufacture gratitude. Gratitude is the way that you spontaneously express the feeling of connecting with what I consider to be the transcendent, super-eternal truth of life. And whenever that happens, right away, you'll be like: thank you! Fuck, I'm so happy to be alive. That's the best feeling. And as much as possible, people should be trying to make that happen again. When you were a kid you had it all the time, depending on who your parents were. But kids are always in this state of awe and joy.
People could hear that from you and assume that you never get bummed.
No, man. There's this great Buddhist philospher by the name of So Gim Trumpo. The spectrum of human consciousness, if they're not dead already, your parents are going to die. The people you've known the longest on earth are going to be consumed by oblivion. You're going to get sick. Your girlfriend is gonna break up with you. This is a brutal universe. So the idea that you're always gonna be dancing through life as some joyful baby, that's not what I'm talking about. In the times that you're not in these turbulent moments, why not start building this connectivity with life, so when those turbulent moments come you know that you can get back to that place again. If you've done it in your adult life, you can get back.
We talked about about people coming up to you after shows. I imagine a few have shared stories with you about taking ideas from the podcast and applying them to their lives...
This guy came up to me who was a military contractor when I was just on this tour. He was crying. He said he would listen to [the podcast] when he was in Afghanistan. He was a military contractor. He said, "a lot of the shit happening out there is just really fucking bad, and listening to you guys made me realize that I didn't have to stick to this career path for the rest of my life so I quit and I left and I think you." That was a really intense moment for me, just the though of people listening to my fucking raspy lesbian voice in Afghanistan, that's enough to melt my brain. That moment stuck in my head. There's been many, many more, which I think is the most bizarre, flattering, crazy, I try not to think about it too much.
One of my favorite verses in the Bhagavad Gita is: you have a right to your actions, you do not have a right to the fruits of your action. What that means is that if you're always getting caught up in result oriented thinking it's going to throw you out of the moment and that's when you start getting weird. That's when you start keeping score or points, and having these expectations of what's going to be a result of what you're doing. There's no way to avoid that mindstate—that's a function of the ego—but it's possible. Just fucking get in the moment with the intention of being a servant of the force of connectivity in the world, and then from that, everything else seems to fall into place.
Not to put you in the shoes of a guru, but for people looking for that sort of thing, what's a good first step?
Go to the Ram Dass website, "Be Here Now." There's always meditation groups around in your area. You need a spiritual community, you need people that you can. I mean, look: there's a professor at my college, Warren Wilson College, Sam Scovel, he's a genius. Something he said has always stuck with me: become your own filter. You know how they have those crazy straws that people can just stick into piss-water? Well you can become that for information. You can derive great information from almost any source. You can get really good at it. Even the foulest, most greasy televangelist you can find on TV will still be dispensing some truth within whatever their saying that you can extract from that and learn to grow from. So in the same way, you can go to churches, you can go to weird, cheesy meditation groups. You can go wherever and something will click. And you'll eventually run into somebody who's working on themselves and that'll help a lot.
We all want this to be a solitary activity, because it's soo much easier. Like when you get around these cheesy meditators, they make you want to fucking puke! A lot of them are such—and I'm not supposed to do this because it's dualism—but a lot of 'em are so rancid. They're SO rancid!
I think CS Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters, or maybe it wasn't CS Lewis, maybe it was my therapist—I was bemoaning some group of cheesey new-age meditators, he's like, that's like going to a hospital and getting mad because there's sick people around. People are getting into this shit because they're working on themselves. If they weren't all fucked up and cheesy maybe they wouldn't be engaging in it in that way.
I wonder how you fit in Los Angeles. is it the "piss straw" that gets you through?
It's very fun to do geographical hierarchy where you're like: this place is better than this place. There's more wise people here then there are there.
Apparently Buddha said this thing: people will tell you that in this place people are smarter, and in this place people are wiser, and in this place the kings are more just, but I say to you: the whole world is on fire with the suffering that comes from an idea that an attachment to things remains permanent. And so in that way I think if you just look for it you'll find it. It's amazing how quick you'll find it too. It would be easy to believe that there is some kind of disembodied, transcendent force that wants people to not suffer. But that's an improvable thought that might lead you to a lot of freak-out tents. [Laughs] But you can definitely find it. It's out there. You just have to take the first steps.
Publicly you've talked about your breakup with comedian Natasha Leggero. I think about it as a musician, and it's easy for someone to go write songs about heartbreak. How does that work with comedy?
Marc Maron had this great one-person show where he talked about his breakup, and man, it was soo funny and so honest and brutal.
Natasha is a comedian who I publicly had a podcast with. So I would feel pretty garish and cunty if I suddenly started going on-stage doing jokes about that relationship because it's not anonymous. You get a lot of great things out of dating comedians, but if it starts falling apart and you get on stage yapping about them, you're doing them a massive disservice and you're being a real fucking asshole.
Also, with that relationship, I wasn't exactly like a shining star. I learned a lot from that.
Way before Natasha I had relationship jokes and it just felt, just chewed gum? Hasn't everybody done it? And lot of people in the audience, they're on fucking dates. And it's like, I don't feel strongly enough... I don't know if I'm turning in to some hippy freak, because I'min to love right now. [Laughs] I think it's beautiful! I think it's so sweet when people make it work.
I don't have babies. I haven't been in a shitty marriage. I haven't witnessed the time suck of having kids and all this stuff that Louis CK so beautifully and terribly articulates. I just don't have that much to say about it, except for some mild observations.
Aside from a good show, what's the ideal day?
Dude, I'm obsessed with my podcast. For me, a really great day is when I have someone over who blows my mind and I record that conversation and it's funny and I know I don't have to edit it. I'm sorry, I'm obsessed with it. That's a peak experience. And another ideal day, I don't know, I've been hanging out with this amazing girl. Maybe that's why I sound so fucking jovial. You should interview me in four months. Maybe I'll have a fucking gun in my mouth and overturned bottles of pills in my house. [Laughs, slaps table] It's all bullshit!