Over his roughly seven years as a part of Chicago’s comedy circles Dave Maher had gained a reputation for many reasons: as the smartly unhinged, wildly funny comedian with a big heart and warm smile, he was an evergreen fixture on the scene. Notably though Maher was also regarded as something of a world-class contrarian in conversation, routinely contesting various individuals’ opinions, often vehemently. This was done, however, not as a show of supposed self-superiority but more to put himself in a position where he could possibly be convinced by their counter-arguments. Music, movies, books, poetry, everything was fair game.
But that was then, before the night of Oct. 22, 2014 when Maher fell into a diabetic coma—one which held him in its grasp for nearly a month, threatening to take his life in the process. It was in this moment that the universe apparently saw an opportunity to prod him further. Fully embracing its trickster nature, it slipped on an Arlecchino mask and tacitly suggested to Maher that there were bigger questions to be asked; questions about life, and fate, responsibility, and absolution.
Now, it is no secret that in life we crave understanding, in part because we’re forever surrounded by uncertainty from within and without. As a result of this there are many who are willing to reject out of hand that which hasn’t been served up neatly, complete with an explainer on how one ought to feel. This accounts for the general attitude of derision in popular culture toward things like modern art and dance. But there is a great distance between engaging with something wilfully obtuse and the agony of attempting to parse seemingly random events with rippling impacts.
It must then be a curious feeling for Maher to have experienced comparatively less of his own personal tragedy than those around him. The event of his coma at times acted as a conduit for others to explore their own pain. While he was incapacitated his social media pages became a pinboard for hundreds if not thousands of well-wishes, encouragements, fond remembrances, and at one point even eulogies. All or most of the posts still yet remain, like a living wake frozen in time. It has to be a particularly interesting, yet uncanny thing to experience.
And so, in an attempt to reconcile all of these conflicting feelings, the Dave Maher Coma Showwas born. Opening this Friday, Nov. 6 at The Annoyance Theater and running every Friday at 10pm through Dec. 18, it feels like nothing short of an essential act for both audience and its eponymous performer, allowing the dialog to be reframed, whereby restoring Maher’s agency within his own life event.
Imagine it like this: you receive a phone call from the Nobel Foundation informing you that you are to be made a Laureate this year, but for work that you had no hand in conceiving, writing, or researching. The hollow feeling that would surely accompany the moment must be akin to what Maher experiences in looking back at the crucible of his coma; having perhaps the biggest turning point in one’s life come by way of chance, and one from which there is a pervasive feeling of detachment despite the major impact that it has had.
That sense of discomfort is never played for pathos in Coma Show, though. Instead Maher mines his coma experience for candid comic moments that are deftly interleaved between those of genuine emotion. Especially effective is the way that Maher patiently regales the audience with the minutiae attendant with coming out of a weeks-long coma, from butt-crack bedsores and boners, to the creeping fear of falling asleep lest it ensnare him once again. The entire show, as directed by fellow comedian Daniel Shar, benefits from a lean, relaxed style that harkens back to the long-form works of Spalding Gray as interpreted through the crooked lens of Maher’s stand-up sensibilities. The minimally appointed stage, a simple chair and a smattering of props, are careful to not pull focus from Maher’s verve. It should also be noted that the show contains one of the most surgically hilarious uses of a light cue in recent memory.
The show’s most striking moments come from the earnest poignancy of Maher’s discoveries in the time since his coma, particularly in how his family’s religious beliefs have allowed him to be more at peace with the idea that something in the lifeforce of the universe—maybe God, maybe not—simply told Maher, “Not yet,” and plucked him back from the brink. Maher isn’t attempting to encroach on Colton Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real turf here though. In fact Coma Show does a good job in working to dispel any fatuous notions that surviving trauma is in any way a shortcut to a greater understanding of one’s place in the universe.
In the end it seems that the real discovery Maher wants to leave his audience with—beyond that of the mysterious existence of “brown jizz”—is that there are no easy answers, that life is the most complex of gifts, but that it can only be made better by challenging, questioning, and exploring it to the fullest.
The Dave Maher Coma Show runs Friday nights at 10pm at The Annoyance Theatre & Bar, 851 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $8, and can be purchased by calling 773-697-9693 or online.