Now he just needs to figure out what that might be
In the past, Wonder Doug has been cautioned by comedy industry insiders and local gatekeepers that his onstage approach — he always performs carrying a stack of papers that contain his jokes written one per page in black Sharpie marker — limits his appeal. Some clubs hesitate to book him, he's been told, because it can come across as amateurish, like a rookie standup reading material at their first open mike.
“Certain places will give me flak for taking paper onstage … but I did drink hard for 20 years, so my memory is kind of shot,” said Wonder Doug, born Douglas Cuckler 38 years ago. “When I take the papers to the stage, it's like a band takes a set list. If I don't have that, with my anxiety, walking onstage can feel like I'm drowning.”
During a mid-December appearance at Spacebar, this approach lent a distinct aspect of performance art to the comedian's set. Each time Doug finished a joke, he discarded a page, letting it fall haphazardly to the venue's floor. When his time was up, he was surrounded by scattered sheets containing bitter memories, dirty one-liners and pained reminisces — a physical representation of the brief-but-cathartic emotional purge that had just taken place.
In an interview days later, the comedian recalled recording his debut album, Roller Coaster, at a packed Short North Stage on April Fools' Day 2017, and how he finished his set surrounded by so many littered pages that from a distance it likely looked as though he were standing indoors amid a thick covering of snow.
At Spacebar, Wonder Doug's assorted one-liners ping-ponged between self-effacing (“I get paid off dick jokes and dildos,” cracked the comic, who works a day job managing the Garden, an adult shop in the Short North) and revealing to a point that they hardly felt like jokes at all. This included a letter the Columbus-born comedian penned to his father, who left the family when Doug was a child. After reading the missive, Doug flung the sheet into the air, where it fluttered harmlessly before settling face up just off the lip of the stage.
You ran over [my] Ninja Turtle action figure with the lawn mower and I screamed out that I hate you and never wanted to see you again. Didn't mean it. You didn't have to leave.***
For Doug, these types of personal revelations are second nature. Within minutes of sitting down for our late-December interview at an Old North pizza shop, for example, he told the story of entering rehab for the first time at age 14, which followed a two-week stretch spent living in a friend's basement after running away from home. Fifteen minutes in, he recounted coming out as gay that same year while checked into a mental health facility, following up with the difficult family history that shaped his early childhood and remains fuel for his most revealing onstage musings.
“I knew I liked boys, so I came out when I was in the mental hospital, which was easier for me because your parents can't really say shit if you're in the hospital,” Doug said. “My mom was OK with it, though. She wasn't happy, but she was a lot older. My mom had me when she was 36, and it happened after she had her tubes tied for seven years, so they weren't expecting me. I was an accident, and my dad didn't want me, and my mom thought I would save a failing marriage.”
At the same time, Doug is afflicted with intense anxiety, which can hinder his interactions in public settings, making the gap between onstage and off appear cavernous to those who don't know him personally. “I can be onstage talking about my first suicide attempt,” he said, “then walk across the street to Taco Bell and struggle to place an order.”
This divide can be especially difficult to navigate when considering the nature of his material, which tends to draw people toward him who feel compelled to similarly unburden themselves. Doug has spoken to people dealing with illness and depression, parents who have recently had children come out to them, and addicts hoping to overcome their demons.
“People message me all the time, like, ‘Hey, my uncle just OD'd,'” Doug said. “When I invite people to shows, I remember their kid is sick, or someone they know just died. I remember bizarre things about their lives and it never goes away. Like at Spacebar, where you saw me, people were like, ‘Get up there and do your thing! You're fine.' But they're not seeing the 60ish people I see, who I've messaged personally, where I know what's going on in their life. It's hard for me to shut that off.”
“He does have a strong connection with people who are like, ‘Hey, I've been through it. I have been suicidal,' and can relate to him. Or their child has come out on the LGBTQ-plus spectrum, and knowing what Doug has been through, his coming out is very motivational,” said Garden owner Lacey Thompson, who has known the comedian for almost five years and considers him a close friend. “Looking at his sobriety, looking at his success as a comedian in the city … I understand why people can get that skewed and want to unburden on him. But it can be a lot to handle.”
At Spacebar, Doug responded to these pressures by occasionally making himself scarce, drifting between outdoor smoke breaks, the green room and a corner merch table, where, alongside $10 copies of his CD and $20 Wonder Doug T-shirts, he also offered hugs priced at “IDK, best offer.” Likely to the comedian's relief, it appeared there were no takers on this night. As a result of his anxiety, Doug also cut his set short, discarding numerous pages without reading from them, because, closing the show, he was concerned people were tired of being out on a weeknight, and he didn't want to delay anyone's departure.
Entering into the New Year, however, Doug has finally resolved to try and get a better grip on his anxiety, which he used to mask with alcohol, and which has come to take on a more definitive presence in his life since he quit drinking more than 41 months ago with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, diet soda (the comedian often performs with a full pitcher in hand) and his late dog, Gorilla, a rescue he took on, in part, to give himself something to take responsibility for that would also force him to take better care of himself. (Gorilla died suddenly in Aug. 2018, and Doug is still processing the loss.)
“Anxiety is a beast. When I was a teenager, I was hospitalized a lot for depression and anxiety,” Doug said. “I honestly spent more time in hospitals than high school, and they put me on a lot of pills. I was a child of the system. I was on 17 pills a day, and they made me retain water, so I weighed 250 pounds and I couldn't stay awake, and now I kind of have a weird fear of medication. After I turned 18, I stopped taking them and found the bottle and self-medicated that way.”***
Prior to entering the world of comedy, Wonder Doug worked as a club DJ, frequently performing inebriated. “I could be the life of the party or the death of a party, and that could be within the same 10 minutes,” he said. His early days in comedy could be similarly hit or miss, with Doug frequently favoring shock humor over substance, all while navigating blackouts and blowups that threatened to burn countless bridges inside the close-knit comedy scene.
“He was kind of a mess. I think that would be the nicest way to put it,” said comedian Dave Burkey, who first met Doug five years ago at an open mike comedy show that Wonder Doug still hosts at Old North spot O'Connor's Club 20, one of four comedy-themed events he currently runs on a regular basis, including the monthly Wonder Doug Variety Show at the Shrunken Head, the next installment of which takes place on Friday, Jan. 4. “I've literally carried him out of shows on my back before. There were a lot of fun times partying, and then there were times it was like, ‘Holy crap, this has gone too far.' … I think it became one of those things where you'd hear the name Wonder Doug, and it would kind of ring a bell with people, and often it was due to the horror stories instead of the good things he was doing.”
Though Doug is hesitant to discuss his comedy in such terms, rightly believing it can be interpreted as cliche, the therapeutic effects of his onstage confessions can't be ignored. Though he started out with a goal of shocking audiences, he soon grew tired of that approach, preferring to dig deeper in an attempt to say something meaningful. This, in turn, forced the comedian to confront the personal demons fueling his behaviors, leaving him more open to the idea of change. Following a small push from the Garden — he lost his job due to his behavior and was offered a second chance if he attended A.A. meetings — Doug finally decided to give up drinking.
At first, even those close to the comedian weren't sure the decision would hold. Asked if he thought Doug would be able to maintain sobriety, Burkey flatly said, “No, not really.” But after Doug refrained from drinking a few months, Burkey, who had a falling out with the comic prior to his decision to give up the bottle, reached out to rebuild the relationship. “I think a lot of his comedy still comes from the same place,” Burkey said of the change, “but I think he's a lot more hopeful now.”
“Him getting sober, it changed how he worked, and his work ethic and what he wanted to accomplish,” said Thompson. “He was present, and he wanted to put forth as much as he could, bringing in new ideas for what the Garden could do for the community.”
In the years since giving up alcohol, the comedian has managed to find a better balance, moving into management at the Garden, running multiple comedy shows and hosting charity events to raise funds for organizations he holds dear. “I feel like I'm making up for lost time,” said Doug, who has now raised more than $6,800 for organizations like Kaleidoscope Youth Center, Planned Parenthood and Open Shelter, among others.
This drive has been further fueled by death, which has remained a steady, depressive presence. Doug said in the last 18 months he has lost six people in his life, largely to drugs and suicide, and these deaths have served to remind that our time on Earth can be mercilessly brief.
“It reiterates that I need to say more, have more meaning,” he said. “So it's that and making up for those years of just being a drunk party kid. I feel like I have more of a sense of purpose now.”
In some ways, though, this newfound stability has caused unexpected tremors. The last few months, Doug has started toying with the idea of stepping away from comedy to focus more on writing. He recently penned lyrics for a song with his roommate, and he's in discussion with two artists to write a graphic novel sometime in the coming year (a longtime fan of the comic genre, he even lists his alma mater as Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters on Facebook). Following that, Doug would also like to write and film a horror movie featuring all local bands on the soundtrack.
“I'm finding all these worlds that don't fit within comedy,” said Doug, who added that he plans to engage with a therapist in early 2019 — his first attempt at confronting his mental health with professional assistance since the years he spent hospitalized as a teenager.
And if that means stepping back from the spotlight, well, Doug said he's finally comfortable with that, too.
“I think four or five years ago I needed that attention, and now I really don't,” he said. “I kind of stumbled into being a DJ, and then I stumbled into being a comedian. Maybe I'm just ready to stumble into whatever's next. I don't know what that'll be yet, but I think, for once, I'm kind of OK with that.”