Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration Of Psychedelics

The ability to filter one’s experience into a humorous anecdote for a potentially receptive audience also forces stand-up comedians to hone in on the social zeitgeist and political atmosphere of their era. Such a skill makes the most observant and smart humorists some of the most profound people working since the first joke was told.

Hasan Minhaj, probably best known for his work on The Daily Show, released a stand-up special/ one-person show on Netflix titled Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King. It is without a doubt one of the most moving and engaging media offerings of 2017. The right joke delivered just the right way, by the exact right talent, can change your views.

All that to say, it makes absolute sense that a comedian would take the audience on a literal head trip. Shane Mauss films himself trying all the psychotropic drugs possible. The results are the documentary Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration Of Psychedelics. The movie focuses on one drug at a time, after a brief overview of who Mauss is and his rising status in the world of stand-up. Mauss travels to Kentucky with fungus expert Eric Osborne. Osborne teaches him how to identify and harvest the proper kind of mushrooms, the first drug examined.  Paleontologist Michael Garfield explains to the audience that mushrooms were found on the ‘Iceman’; a 5,000-year-old frozen caveman, who was found to be in amazing condition, all things considered. Mauss states that mushrooms change the way he sees the world, it is no longer as confusing. He understands that there is more to life than just the daily grind.

“…Shane Mauss films himself trying all the psychotropic drugs possible. The results are the documentary…”

The history of LSD and its lab-based origins are brought up. MDMA, aka ecstasy, and how it, being illegal, means people taking it are probably getting a knockoff version that is infinitely worse for the consumer. Mauss talks about how the drugs make him view things with wonderment, like when he was a child, something he didn’t know he missed.

Taking all these pills, tablets, herbs, and fungi means Mauss does end up in a psychiatric hospital for about one week. During his break from reality, he believes that aliens were talking to him and their voices won’t stop talking. His brain was processing so much that he was overwhelmed and that is what ultimately led to the break. This told via a fun animated sequence to highlight just how much information he believes he was receiving.

Aside from Mauss, director Brian Bellinkoff interviews experts about potential benefits of the numerous drugs Mauss tries. Cole J. Marta is a psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher who discusses how various legal treatments have been clinically proven to help their patients. James Fadiman is a psychologist that explains how the drugs help and hurt the brain. Some of these psychedelics remove barriers that the brain develops over time. A few walls are to block out traumatic events; others just come with age. All the experts agree that the United States government’s “war on drugs” (exclusively aimed to keep down specific groups of people) allowed research into potential uses for patients and therapy to be set back by decades.

“…all these pills, tablets, herbs, and fungi means Mauss does end up in a psychiatric hospital…”

Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration Of Psychedelics also has former roommates and other stand-up comedians on the record. They gave background information on Mauss and where he is at in his career. Dave Waite used to live with him, as they both started off in the comedy scene. Waite believes that Mauss was also ahead of the curve. Zach Sherwin was ecstatic to see Mauss laughing, hard, at his set. Actress Heather Matarazzo is an activist for the good these things can do, and she lends credible stories, from a patient’s point of view.

Based the switching of styles between talking head and animation, the wealth of knowledge presented, and its humorous lead, Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration Of Psychedelics should be much more engaging than it winds up being. All the ingredients are there, but it fails to compel the audience into caring. Are the USA’s drug laws way too harsh? Yes. Do the political motivations that created them (and keep them in place) frustrate those who wish to harness psychedelics for good? Absolutely.

Why then is the movie so boring? Moving on from one drug to another, some discussion about what the drug does, experts expound on its benefits, then Mauss fills in the audience (occasionally via his stand-up routine) about how it affected him. Wash, rinse, repeat. The film is repetitive and feels much longer than its hour and twenty-minute runtime.

Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration Of Psychedelics by all accounts, should be a success. Mauss is likable an fun, the movie isn’t just talking heads, and the many experts give the audience valuable insight. But it is dull, and each specific drug segment echoes the others.

Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration Of Psychedelics (2018) Directed by Brian Bellinkoff. Starring Shane Mauss, Dave Waite, Zach Sherwin, Heather Matarazzo, Cole J. Marta, James Fadiman, Eric Osborne, Michael Garfield. Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration Of Psychedelics made its world premiere at the 2018 Dances With Films.

5 out of 10

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