Brian Bellinkoff remembers when he found out Shane Mauss had lost his mind.
In 2017, the director had been working on a documentary for several months with Mauss, using Mauss’ comedy show about psychedelics, “A Good Trip,” as a jumping off point. As with the drug-themed stand-up show—which Mauss had just taken on a successful 111-city tour—there was a deeper point beyond the jokes and stories about wild experiences with pretty much every psychedelic under the sun.
Using interviews with top scientists and thinkers in the field, the film aimed to show how breakthroughs in psychedelic research are poised to change the way we think about healing, biology, psychiatry, and psychology. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mauss’ groundbreaking tour was sponsored by Santa Cruz’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), or that MAPS Founder and Executive Director Rick Doblin was interviewed extensively for the film.
But Mauss took the idea further—a lot further. Fancying himself a “psychonaut”—which would eventually give the documentary its title, Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration of Psychedelics—he wanted to do as many of the drugs discussed in the movie as possible on camera. Bellinkoff had already filmed him going out with a mushroom hunter and chowing down on psilocybin, as well as tripping on ketamine in a clinical therapy setting. Next up was supposed to be a date with the extremely potent shaman’s brew ayahuasca, which was also to be filmed.
Except that Mauss had suddenly disappeared, leaving Bellinkoff baffled. What neither he nor the film’s producer Matt Schuler knew was that Mauss had already done the ayahuasca without them—way too much of it, in fact.
“We didn’t hear from him for a while,” says Bellinkoff. “And we were like, ‘This is strange.’ Then one day Matt calls me and says, ‘Hey, I just got off the phone with Shane, and if he calls you, unless you’ve got 30 minutes to blow, don’t pick up the phone, because he’s just going to talk a bunch of nonsense. Sure enough, my phone rings 10 minutes later, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to let this one go to voicemail’—not knowing that he was having this crazy manic episode.”
Mauss was overwhelmed by paranoia and delusions, eventually getting himself committed to a psych ward about a month after his trip.
Rather than trying to gloss over it, the filmmakers turned Mauss’ episode into the compelling climax of Psychonautics, in which Mauss recalls what he went through in narration over a stunning animation sequence. It serves as a sobering counterpoint to the movie’s bright optimism about the future of psychedelics; while they may be tools for positive change in the proper context and setting, they are still psychoactive agents that must be respected for their still-unquantified power.
“There’s a built-in disclaimer throughout the documentary, because I did lose my mind in the course of doing it. I eventually got it back, but I had to be hospitalized for a little while,” says Mauss. “I wanted to find the edge of where the human mind could go, and I found it. And in hindsight, I’m not sure why that was a goal of mine in the first place.”
Big Time vs. Big Ideas
When I talk to Mauss by phone in April, it’s been nearly two years since drug-fueled moviemaking briefly drove him crazy—and he’s just fine, thank you. I tell him that I first discovered his comedy several years ago on Sirius XM’s Comedy Central Radio, which would play bits from his 2010 debut album Jokes to Make My Parents Proud. I liked his rapid-fire absurdist takes on everything from common sayings to time travel to electric blankets. They were funny bits, but the structure already hinted at something more ambitious—for instance, the way a joke about the stupidity of macho truck ads led to a story about how hard it was to get the censor to let him do that same joke on late-night TV, which led to an even better bit about the ridiculousness of FCC regulations.
His act started to evolve quickly after his Comedy Central Presents showcase in 2010. His 2013 Netflix special Mating Season had already begun to move away from traditional stand-up subjects, as he worked his thoughts on things like evolutionary biology and negative bias into his comedy.
By 2014, he was doing a weekly science podcast called Here We Are, for which he has now released more than 200 episodes. In 2015, he did a whole album called My Big Break centered around how he broke both his feet at the same time, which he calls the absolute worst way to break them. (“If this is something you really have your heart set on, what you want to do is break one foot first, let that sucker heal, see how you liked it, and then—if you’re really committed to this—go ahead and break your other foot,” he jokes on the album.) In October of 2016, he started the “Good Trip” tour, which stretched into the summer of 2017. Since then, he’s also developed his “Stand Up Science” comedy show, which draws on his love of non-drug-related science topics.
It is, I point out during our conversation, pretty much the weirdest path a successful comic can take.
“Tell me about it,” says Mauss, his unmistakable, Midwestern-accented voice accompanied by an implied sigh as it floats through the speaker. He grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the kind of city that wins a lot of “Best Small City for Doing Business”-type awards, but was also named the 15th-coldest city in the nation and the sixth-drunkest city in America by 247wallst.com. I always kind of assumed the 38-year-old Mauss’ stories on his early albums about getting blackout drunk and doing lots of drugs were exaggerated for effect. Not so much, it turns out.
“I was probably understating it,” he says.
Still, his comedy about his working-class background—he did time in a furniture-manufacturing plant for years before pursuing comedy—and left-field observations quickly got him attention when he moved to Boston and started performing regularly in the comedy scene there.
“I think I got kind of a false sense of confidence early on in my career, when everything went really well for me in a hurry,” he says. “I was doing the traditional comedy stuff like late-night TV and all that, and I just wanted to challenge myself more, do something that was really just following my natural curiosities.”
A New Path
On Saturday, those pursuits will lead Mauss to Santa Cruz, where he’ll perform two entirely different shows at 7:30 and 10 p.m.—first, “Stand Up Science,” and then, for the late show, “A Good Trip.”
Obviously, Santa Cruz is a no-brainer for his psychedelic show, especially with his connection to MAPS.
“I interact with the MAPS organization all the time. I’m friends with everyone over there,” he says. “I imagine they’ll be at my show. I’ll probably have one of them come up and say a few words in the middle of it.”
Still, he was surprised at the reception “A Good Trip” has gotten in cities that most people probably wouldn’t expect. And that was even before some of the more recent milestones in psychedelics research, like MDMA getting a “breakthrough therapy” designation from the FDA for treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and MAPS’ plan to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legal prescription treatment by 2021—for which it just went into Phase 3 clinical trials.
“I had no idea,” says Mauss. “Throughout the country I would do small towns like Minot, North Dakota, and hundreds of people would come out. People were just really excited that someone was talking about this stuff. We’ll see how popular it is now, because a lot’s changed in the couple of years since I stopped doing the show. And psychedelics have been that much more normalized; it seems like people are pretty excited. You know, Michael Pollan’s book that came out last year is still in the front of bookstores. It’s a subject that’s seemingly still taking off quite a bit.”
He admits his personal connection to the psychedelic community makes him biased, but attending conferences and talking to researchers over the last several years has led Mauss to believe that something unprecedented is on the horizon in the field.
“It does feel like we are entering another potential psychedelic revolution,” he says. “I think this one is a lot more toned-down and responsible than it was in the ’60s, and that’s probably for the best. This is a lot more therapy-driven and clinical and taking the science of it and trying to legitimize these things.”
That, of course, is what Mauss and Bellinkoff are also trying to do with their Psychonautics documentary, which was released last month on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play.
The project started when producer Schuler heard Mauss talking about his “Good Trip” tour on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and suggested to Bellinkoff that they approach him about making some kind of special based on it.
“Then Shane was going to be in L.A. performing at the Largo, so Matt said, ‘Brian, just bring the camera and record the show,’ because he wanted to pitch it to Showtime or something,” remembers Belinkoff. “And that Largo show is actually the main stand up that you see in the film. I didn’t even know Shane at the time. I was interested in psychedelics because I’d dabbled in mushrooms and MDMA, but nowhere close to Shane’s level.”
Mauss was initially skeptical, and says he never really had a clear vision for what the movie was going to be. But Bellinkoff won him over.
“In the beginning, he definitely wasn’t quite sure if this was a good idea for his career, and didn’t know if he could trust me,” says Bellinkoff. “But along the way, we became friends. The guy is awesome. He’s got no ego, and he’s super humble. He didn’t even want his face on the poster at first.”
When MAPS did its conference on psychedelic research (which is held every four years) in Oakland in the spring of 2017, the filmmakers realized they could interview many of the leading names in the field in one place. They also found a mushroom hunter, Eric Osborne, who offered to lead them around a municipal park (!) in Kentucky to find psilocybin.
Again, Mauss was initially skeptical. “Eric came to one of my ‘Good Trip’ shows. I met him after the show and he was wearing this mushroom hat, it was just a big hat that looked like a mushroom, and I was like, ‘Who’s this weirdo?’”
However, the mushroom hunt sequence turned out to be one of the funniest in the film, and Mauss has gone on to perform at some of the psilocybin retreats that Osborne leads in Jamaica, where the drug is legal.
Bellinkoff quickly discovered that Mauss had the remarkable ability to actually describe pretty coherently what he was experiencing while tripping on camera.
“I think part of that is that Shane does it professionally,” he says. “His whole last tour was trying to describe these experiences on stage; he is just innately able to do it. These are substances that make most people completely incoherent, but he has this strange superpower.”
Mauss is a lot more critical of his own tripping talk.
“Yeah, it just looks like me drooling in a chair or whatever. It doesn’t necessarily represent the experience that well. You’re having this really profound inner experience, but how you look on the outside is just ‘Uhhhhhhhhhhh,’” he says. “I have never liked seeing myself on television, or hearing my voice. It’s just something that I’ve never liked and never gotten used to, and it was hard. It was really hard. Especially once I became manic and paranoid. I really couldn’t watch myself at that point.”
That was also the point where the shooting basically ground to a halt.
“We would have recorded a lot more stuff. There were several more psychedelics I planned on doing for the film,” says Mauss. Although he felt bad that Bellinkoff was left to turn what they had done into a narrative, he says it’s probably for the best that they stopped when they did.
“As I was getting more and more manic throughout the filming, I was having more and more grandiose ideas about what I wanted the film to be. Next thing I knew, I was trying to make, like, the Christopher Nolan Inception of psychedelics,” he says. “It was a bunch of loose footage to me, and I had no idea how to put it all together. But, man, what Brian did with it was incredible. Ultimately, I’m really happy with what he was able to do with the limited amount of time and footage that we actually got.”
Bellinkoff acknowledges it was a dicey situation, but he says all the craziness ultimately worked for the finished Psychonautics.
“In the end, it actually made the movie much better, because it had a full character arc,” he says. “In the beginning, I was like, ‘Are we just going to go talk about these different drugs, and then sort of wrap it up at the end?’ But because he had this episode, it really rounds out the whole movie, because I didn’t want to necessarily just glorify these drugs either, and say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re all totally safe.’ It’s exciting, but you also have to be cautious.”
Mauss continues to find a natural high by pushing himself out of his comfort zone in his comedy career. He’s done his “Stand Up Science” show around 40 times now, and its success in creating a heady mix of comedy and accessible science talk makes him think he’ll be doing it for quite some time.
When I listen back to Mauss’ albums, it seems obvious that he’s been pushing the boundaries of what comedy can be from Mating Season onward. It’s almost possible to chart how he’s moved away from the most basic—and safest—comedy beats to something a little deeper.
“There is nothing more terrifying, I think, than really intentionally almost seeing how long I can go before delivering a punchline—building up a premise and setting the stage for really big ideas,” he says. “Because then when you get to the punchline, it does have to pay off more, because of how long it took to set up. The stakes are just higher. And, man, I love it.”
Shane Mauss performs on Saturday, April 27, at DNA’s Comedy Lab, 155 River St. South, Santa Cruz. The 7:30 p.m. is “Stand Up Science,” and at 10 p.m. he will perform his psychedelics-themed comedy show “A Good Trip.” Tickets for each show are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. dnascomedylab.com.