Brian Finkelstein’s one-man show: Suicide, untimely deaths, masochism and humor

September 23, 2014

In Brian Finkelstein’s one-man show, “First Day Off in a Long Time,” he describes the true story of how, at 19, he was miserable in his relationship with a “Smiths-listening, vampire Goth chick who was addicted to crystal meth. And as much as [she] was addicted to meth, I was addicted to [her].”

So when she announced that she had slept with his best friend, Finkelstein drove to his father’s home in Del Mar, grabbed a bottle of tequila and his dad’s .38 pistol and drove to a nearby beach. He sat in the car, trying to figure out where best to place the gun, until he vomited all over the weapon. “The absurdity of throwing up on my suicide gun kind of snapped me out of it,” he says.

During an interview at a Hollywood diner, Finkelstein, 45, who has expressive blue eyes behind tortoiseshell spectacles, recounted how he then waded into the Pacific and had “one of those perfect moments.” He realized that just as the waves waxed and waned, so would life’s pain, but those occasional perfect moments would be enough to get him through each day.

Seven years later, Finkelstein said, he was working the graveyard shift at a suicide hotline in New York when he received a call from a depressed New York University student named Amy, a story he also relates in the play. As he coaxed her into conversation, he learned that she believed she didn’t have the right to feel so sad.  “I don’t want to die,” she told Finkelstein, “I just want the pain to stop.” But then she began slurring her words — turned out she had taken myriad painkillers mixed with alcohol; suddenly she stopped talking and the line remained silent for many minutes. Meanwhile, Finkelstein’s colleague had dialed 911, and, after a quarter of an hour, Finkelstein heard Amy’s door crash open and a voice on her line say, “It’s OK, we’ve got her.”

Nevertheless, Finkelstein became obsessed with what had happened to Amy. “I had talked to a lot of depressed people at the hotline,” he said at the diner. “I was there during the AIDS epidemic, so it was really sad when somebody called who had no money, no health insurance, their lover just left them and they were about to be homeless. There was not much I could say to make it better, so that was hard. But that call with Amy was like talking to someone who was like me; I was emotionally connected.”

And so Finkelstein relentlessly combed the newspapers over the following three days until he found an item in the Daily News about a New York University student named Amy who had recently died of an overdose. Her death proved devastating to Finkelstein, who at the time was a student at Queens College aspiring to become a psychologist. “She was like me in that car, if I had pulled the trigger,” he said. “But she never got to find out what I did, which is that while life can be terrible, there are those perfect life moments, and they are enough.”

Finkelstein was so rattled by her death that he immediately quit the hotline, left college one class shy of graduation and dropped his plan to become a psychologist. “I thought, ‘What’s the point of trying to help people; you can’t,’ ” he said. “I don’t believe that now, but at the time I was really mad, really hurt and messed up.” 

About 10 years later, Finkelstein channeled all those feelings into “First Day Off in a Long Time.”

“It’s a true story about what it’s like to be suicidal from a couple of different perspectives,” he said. “You’re meant to laugh at the absurdity and horror of life. It’s a pigsty, a s—storm, but if you don’t laugh at it, what are you going to do?”

Finkelstein worked a variety of odd jobs — including one well-paying gig at a high-end skin-care store — until he discovered stand-up comedy in his early 30s and found a home at the storytelling series The Moth and the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater.  Over the years, he has developed a reputation for comically recounting his own painful life experiences onstage.

Finkelstein grew up in Monroe, N.Y., the son of a Jewish police officer who worked tough neighborhoods in Harlem, and an Irish-American Protestant mother. But by the time Finkelstein was 12, his father had walked out on the family to start a new life in San Diego (Finkelstein noted that his therapist of late has insisted that they talk about that troubled time).

In his monologues for The Moth and elsewhere, Finkelstein has recounted the time he went camping for five days, naked, in order to nurse a broken heart; his masochistic four-year platonic relationship with an unavailable Muslim Indian woman who was engaged to marry her cousin; being so broke that he “had sleep for dinner” and having a panic attack in Gelson’s when he learned his wife was pregnant (she miscarried three months later).

Finkelstein has also created a total of eight solo shows, as well as earning two Daytime Emmy Awards nominations writing for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” These days he hosts The Moth’s Los Angeles StorySlam and is also shopping around a screenplay, “Good Grief,” based on the time he had to step out of his own depression to bolster his family when his 22-year-old sister nearly died after suffering a stroke.

When the comedian learned that the body of monologist Spalding Gray, who presumably committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry in 2004, had washed up just three blocks from his apartment, he sat for a long time at the site, sadly nursing a six-pack of beer. “I just kept thinking about how cold the water was when he jumped in,” Finkelstein recalled of his storytelling hero. “It was crushing that he could jump off a boat when he had kids, in the middle of the winter.”

Soon thereafter, Finkelstein tried to write a solo show about Gray, but when his director, Adam Swartz, began questioning him about his work with the suicide hotline, the play morphed into a story of Finkelstein’s own suicide attempt and his encounter with Amy.

“First Day Off in a Long Time” is billed as a comedy about suicide, and, Finkelstein said, one woman emailed him wondering, out of curiosity, how he would create comedy from such serious material. “My response is that it’s really not a traditional comedy — I just say that because I don’t want [the audience] to go in thinking that I’ll freak them out. I want to tell a very dark true story that has levity, but it’s not a satirical look at suicide,” he said.

People have responded strongly to previous productions of the show, approaching Finkelstein in tears after each performance to recount their own experiences of depression or suicide attempts. “There have been really self-indulgent stand-up people, really cool nice guys, famous guys and not-so-famous men and women,” he said.  

And so, Finkelstein has found that he has become an accidental advocate for discussing the still somewhat taboo subject of suicide: “I show my crazy side [onstage] so people know they’re not all alone,” he said.

“First Day Off in a Long Time” runs Oct. 1, 8, 15 and 22 at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood. For tickets and information, visit trepanyhouse.org. 

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