Be Here Now: The Ram Dass Inspiration For Comedic Mindfulness07/15/2021
Gone are the days of comedians being yanked from stage and arrested for obscenities. The Lenny Bruces, Richard Pryors, and George Carlins often feel as if they have been replaced by social-justice layabouts whose flippant views on culture turn on a dime to match the latest wokeism. But within this softer side of comedy are also independent thinkers, philosophers, and psychedelic adventurers who push the boundaries of not only culture, but their own psyche. This group grew up on radical religion and crooked capitalism and got a glimpse of truth by looking deeply into themselves. Much of their politics fall into the libertarian point of view, and much of their weltanschauung derives from the words of one of the most subversively sincere psychologists, gurus, and spiritual leaders of the century: Ram Dass.
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Richard Alpert started his career as a psychologist at Harvard University where his experiments with LSD pioneer Timothy Leary provided him with glimpses of god and a greater truth. Searching for alternative paths to the same destination, Alpert ended up in India on a spiritual quest that mimicked the scale of Siddhartha. He eventually found his way home to Nainital, India where he stayed in the ashram of Neem Karoli Baba, known as the Maharaj-ji. Neem Karoli Baba wasn’t just the spiritual teacher and advisor to Ram Dass either. His ashram was visited Steve Jobs and Dan Kottke in 1974 and two years later, Jobs built the first Apple prototype computer with Steve Wozniak. Jobs also convinced Mark Zuckerberg to visit the ashram. Later pilgrimages included Google founder Larry Page and co-founder of eBay Jeffrey Skoll.
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A devoted follower of Hinduism and the deity Hanuman, the Maharaj-ji influenced much of western culture in both spiritual, technological, and social media-driven advances whose impacts still radiate like an atomic bomb sending shockwaves throughout the culture. But while many of these followers turned to tech, Ram Dass retained the spiritual elements of his teachings and released the powerful book Be Here Now that went on to inspire countless retreats, ashrams of his own, and funny enough, some of the top comedians and podcasts of the decade.
A New Genre of Comedy
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Somewhere around the time of Mitch Hedberg and Sam Kinison’s deaths, the daring, drinking, and drug fueled lifestyle that surrounded stand up comedy proved itself unsustainable. The vagrant outlaw nature started to concern those who fell in love with the art form. Comedians started to go through their own Siddhartha-esque self discovery phases. Jim Carrey started to deviate from impressions to find his own voice, and Robin Williams took a similar path. Comedians like Bobcat Goldthwait dropped the voice and found one more akin to their own thoughts and ideas. At this time, the drugs were swapped out as well. Cocaine was replaced with magic mushrooms and Heroin was exchanged for DMT. During these phases of self-discovery, it was only fitting that comedians known for self-examination like Duncan Trussell and Pete Holmes started to appear at the forefront of the new rising comedy scene.
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Duncan Trussell first discovered Ram Dass through scouring his mother’s library (she was a psychologist and a featured guest on his podcast during her bout with cancer). Known for his esoteric beliefs and his openness and honesty, he embodied the spirit of both Ram Dass and the Maharaj-ji and spoke often of their influence on him during podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience and the Jimmy Dore Show. He was able to leverage his comedic reputation to attend several retreats with Ram Dass and the Love Serve Remember foundation in Maui. The two got close and recorded several podcasts together. Accompanying Trussell on one of these retreats was fellow comedian Pete Holmes.
Holmes grew up Christian and attended Gordon University, a religious college in Massachusetts. After struggling with his faith, he discovered that spirituality served as the middle ground for someone wishing to avoid chronic guilt or organized faith but also explore their beliefs in the unknown and unimaginable. This led Holmes to read a variety of religious texts after his post-Bible experiences including the Bhagavad Gita and eventually Be Here Now. Holmes has spoken highly of both Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba on several occasions and stated their influence on both his comedy and his career.
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While religious figures previously had sermons, lectures, and books, modern teachers of religion have podcasts. These open-platform at-length discussions allow comedians and thinkers to explore their personal philosophies without the confines of commercials or a ten-minute set. The medium quickly took off and different genres and categories emerged. One of those subsections included the spiritual podcasts which featured far-out questions, thought experiments, and an openness that allowed personalities to have deep conversations without any interference. Two podcasts to emerge within the comedy/spiritual realm were Duncan Trussell’s The Duncan Trussell Family Hour and Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird. Two two comedians often appeared as guests on each others podcasts, but a variety of their guests overlapped as well. These included religious advocates and spiritual thinkers ranging from Raghu Markus who runs the Be Here Now Network and the Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation, world-renowned buddhist scholar David Nichtern, and Krishna Dass who was also a student of Neem Karoli Baba.
Both podcasts quickly gained popularity which revolved in live shows featuring a cult-like support group for other individuals doing their own soul-searching. Conversations ranged from meditation and mantras to personal flaws and foibles that provided a seamless blend of heavy spiritual discussion with comedic relief. With everyone having their own unique experiences and interpretations of religious readings, discussions about mortality, purpose, reason, and being served as endless gateways to timeless knowledge. For Trussell, these experiences and conversations cultivated in several podcasts recorded with Ram Dass himself, eventually leading to Ram Dass marrying him and his wife Emily.
In April of 2020, Duncan Trussell teamed up with acclaimed animator Pendleton Ward and together the duo released the Netflix series The Midnight Gospel. The show featured clips of conversations from from the DTFH podcast with interwoven dimension-jumping storylines that featured heavy themes of buddhism, Hare Krishna, occult, and psychedelic thought. The show culminated in the perceived death of the main character Clancy, who now in the after life, takes a seat on the spiritual bus next to Ram Dass himself, ending with the forever-poignant advice and mantra “Just Be Here Now.”
Holmes too ventures into television. He teamed up with acclaimed producer Judd Apatow and created the semi-autobiographical comedy series Crashing which also featured deep dives into spirituality, religion and the teachings of Ram Dass. It also featured other iconic stand up comedians ranging from John Mulaney to Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman which solidified Holmes as one of the now-established greats.
With a penchant for spirituality, a desire to grow, and the ability to foster character flaws with the intent of learning valuable life lessons, both Pete Holmes and Duncan Trussell embody the spiritual work of Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba. With both spiritual guru’s having left their human form in exchange for another incarnation, both Holmes and Trussell might be carrying the proverbial church into the next generation of listeners. And with compassion, kindness, and unconditional love, both podcast hosts and comedians embody the lesson Ram Dass learned from the Maharaj-ji, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
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Sources: Observer, GQ, NYTimes, ScreenRant, Deadline, BeHereNowNetwork, FloodMagazine, VillagePreservation, Ziggibson, RamDass, SoulPrajna, BBC, Detechter, TheRevealer, Today, Variety, HollywoodMask, Jacksonville, Boston.com, TheMindfulWord
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