Like many of you, we first heard of Bill Corbett in the late 1990’s as the voice of Crow T. Robot and “Brain Guy” in Seasons 8-10 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and, like many of you, continued to enjoy his humor through Rifftrax, among many other of his projects, and followed him on social media. It was from his remarks on social media that we learned from Bill that he was in recovery. So, when we launched AmericanRoads2Recovery we felt we couldn’t pass up the chance to chat with him if he could fit us in to his schedule. Bill graciously gave us that opportunity on a crisp October day just outside of Minneapolis, MN where he continues to offer the world his creative spirit through more projects than we have space here to name. The interview was interjected with Bill’s wry sense of humor. If that sense is missing from our presentation, it is the fault of these writers.
Bill first came to Minneapolis on a theatre fellowship after getting his BA at Yale College and an MFA in playwriting and screenwriting at the Yale School of Drama. With such talent, one theatre fellowship lead to another, and soon he garnered a string of acting gigs at the Guthrie Theatre and other local venues until, as he told us, he “kept staying and staying.” Although he has spent brief stints here and there across the country, Bill and his wife, Virginia, and their two children have made Minneapolis their home.
In Bill’s words, his recovery story “is not a young man’s recovery story.” Although he has spent the better part of the last 20 years sober, some 8 years ago Bill had a 2 1/2 year relapse after 7 years of sobriety.
“I made a lot of false starts before I got here and put some time in sobriety even though I had done it here and there before I always found a way back [to drinking] and, you know, I may yet again.” He said, acknowledging that recovery is an ongoing process. “That’s one thing you learn to do, not to assume that you’ve just got it made and that it’s all buttoned down.”
When Bill managed his first long stretch of sobriety he turned to AA and found a strong recovery community in Minneapolis, which he affectionately called the “land of recovery.” Here, he told us, he found every kind of meeting every day of the week, from those with a more fundamentalist religious tone to those of a much more agnostic disposition; meetings that treat the 12 steps with great strictness and rigor and those that use those same principles within a much more flexible framework, and meetings of pretty much every complexion in between. Over time, he found the constellation of meetings that met his needs.
It was during a stretch working and living in L.A. that Bill became less enamored with AA for a while. There he found that a fair number of celebrities attended meetings, which subtly influenced the dynamics and interactions in meetings.
“It seemed like people were there to make connections,” he said, and the celebrities were deferred to in ways that seemed to treat them as “first among equals,” which diminished the sense of integrity and authenticity Bill had come to rely on from meetings, so he stopped going.
Facing his addiction without that support, he did what so many of us do and began to rationalize the ways in which he could “manage” his drinking.
“Instead of guzzling 18 Budweisers, I would have 2 or 3 craft beers. Fine bourbons and better wine. I thought I’d get to know wine, which is an eminently civilized thing to do.” He said of his primrose path.
“Cut to a couple of years later,” he said, “I was [working] in San Diego… and I found myself driving drunk. I just said, I have kids now, I can’t do this. So, I just stopped and went [back] to meetings.”
When he returned to Minneapolis, he found he had to feel out the recovery community all over again to find the right fit for his needs. With a little effort and experimentation, however, he found just the right combination of meetings and support he needed to maintain his sobriety.
Like many people in long term recovery, Bill describes his current use of the program as sporadic: “I dip in and out as I see fit.” And no-one in AA has ever judged his frequency or infrequency of the use of the program when his needs fluctuated. He told us, “Witnessing and telling your story for other people helps. But it’s that flexibility of the program that works for as many people as it does.”
Bill saw that flexibility and nonjudgmental ethos vividly exemplified while substituting at Kenyon College for a friend on sabbatical years ago. He found himself attending a meeting in Gambier, Ohio, a small town a little off the beaten path. There were several blue collar workers, farmers, a couple of college professors and himself. They were a group of individuals that presented some considerable contrasts of life ways and world views, more than he’d experienced in larger cities with a broader variety of meetings to choose from. But as with AA meetings elsewhere, Bill said he found only a lot of coming together there.
Bill recalled the one time he’d seen politics really intrude on a meeting. Immediately after the 2016 election he went to a meeting in uptown Minneapolis, a more liberal area in the city. “There were several women who were livid and scared at the election of Trump and so a lot of that was working its way into the meeting,” he said. “Finally one guy raised his hand kind of timidly and said ‘well, some of us might be happy about that.’ I think it was a good little bucket of cold water on the meeting… ‘Okay, remember what we’re here for.’ And to their credit those women pulled back and met him where he needed to be [met].”
Bill noted that sometimes people can find the language in “The Big Book of AA” a little off-putting. The language used by the 1930’s “somewhat uptight” Midwestern businessmen, Dr. Bob and Bill W., tends to focus on business and work life and almost entirely excludes women. But he’s seen that over the years people have been good and generous about the way they have translated and interpreted its fundamental message.
“The principles are pretty sound. You may need to tease them out to get what you need, but there’s a solid core there.”
“I see a lot of people who come in especially for their first meeting or two,” he told us, “and they’re extraordinarily hard on themselves. They’re ashamed. Sometimes they’ve left a trail of tears behind them in relationships or financially.” Reflecting on his own drinking history, Bill says he really relates to that shame and the way it hobbled his journey in recovery. “The more I got filled with that shame, the more I was likely to reject it and go off the reservation again because I couldn’t take the pain of it.”
Unsurprisingly, humor has been an antidote against that shame for Bill .
“Anything that works for me at all has to have an element of humor,” he said. “It’s the language that speaks to me. I don’t need everything to be unserious or silly. But, if there’s not a transcendent lightness available there then I check out.”
“So, it’s like, if you can come to this place every week and not feel like a piece of shit, and have other people who have been through what you’ve been through and they can mess around with you and make you realize you’re valuable even though you’ve left some destruction in your wake, the better. You know, that’s what worked for me.”
“I do try to be a voice of some amount of lightness,” he said of his approach to meetings, “or to bring a smile to peoples faces or a laugh. Not to do a performance, but just to mix it up with that, to speak to people like me who may need the solemnity of the whole thing broken up in order to recover. The more rigid meetings I went to just made me feel white-knuckled and ‘Ah, I don’t know if I can live up to this.’ If there are a few people there who can set me at ease on a human level by joking around a bit, that really opens up the door. And people did that for me… I’m following in the footsteps of really valuable people.”
Bill also appreciates that there can be a lot of comedy in meetings no matter how weighty the story being told, and people are encouraged not to take themselves too seriously. “There’s a lot of laughs people get about their drunk or stoned stories, all the while acknowledging the existential horror they’ve put themselves up against.”
“The last day we filmed Mystery Science Theatre, I spent the night before in jail on a DWI. I came the next day with this horrible gravelly voice.” Bill says he can laugh about it now, but that “it felt horrible and tragic. I let everybody down.”
Laughs are Bill’s bread and butter, of course, and have garnered him quite a fan base. Because Bill has been public about his recovery, from time to time he hears from fans who are coming to terms with their own addictions. While Bill doesn’t want the responsibility of being “the recovery point guy,” he says more and more he’s “embracing being a person who people can come to about this stuff;” though he acknowledges the need to maintain healthy boundaries. When fans have approached him in the past he’s tried not to respond like a mentor or sponsor, but to point them in the direction of their own local resources and provide general encouragement. “The best thing I can do,” he says, “is just tell my story without making it my brand.”
Like many people in recovery, Bill also faces the challenge of “working with people who drink and drink a lot and who enjoy their drink.”
“It’s been a challenge because a lot of my relationship with my partners and my friendship was based, in the early days, on just enjoying our drink together.” He said. “It was kind of a post recording or post show ritual.”
Now, Bill opts out of the ritual or has a non-alcoholic drink and his friends and partners have come to understand the choices he needs to make.
“I feel like I’ve found a good way to just let people know that I don’t drink, I don’t partake, I don’t do anything. I mean, coffee is my biggest vice at this point… ‘but it’s alright if you want to.'” He tells them. “I just found a way to be very direct about that.”
He faced a similar challenge at home until recently when his wife became sober, too, though he said drinking was never the problem for her that it had been for him. “At some point I think she realized that with raising two kids and having a pretty intense job like she does, it’s not doing her much good… It’s not in the house [now], which helps. I was trying to be very cool about that, but I don’t think I realized until it was all out of the house–that’s a real relief.”
Bill has taken a number of other important steps forward in recovery in addition to AA. He’s gotten treatment for depression and anxiety, which he says he didn’t regard seriously for years.
“Boy, that has helped because I’m not trying to self medicate with other stuff anymore. And I’m pretty even keeled and happy, whereas I used to go through swings of enormous magnitude, that needed to be dealt with with booze or drugs. I think that would have helped whether I went to meetings or not,” he said.
His treatment has not relied on medication alone. He described getting enough sleep as a central part of the self care regimen that has been important in dealing with depression and anxiety, which he called “very basic stuff” that he took for granted.
“I was a High School and to some degree a college athlete,” he told us, “who thought ‘I am made of iron and I will just keep chugging’ like nothing can affect me. But when I started getting more sleep I realized that it’s a pretty fundamental thing.”
Regular exercise has been another important ingredient in addressing his mental health, which he said he used to do in a kind of self-abusive way. But a savvy Doctor told him that regular exercise was as useful as any anti-depressant if he didn’t want to take medication, which Bill was loathe to do for many years. “If you do both for now, all the better,” the doctor told him and Bill has taken the advice to heart.
Like so many people in recovery, spirituality, which he called his “weirdo spiritual life,” is an important component of Bill’s sobriety. “It’s a little bit mixed with whether to raise our kids in a church or not and their tolerance thereof, which they haven’t had much of. They’re like ‘we go to school five days a week,’ and I’m like, ‘you know what, I totally get that.'”
Bill told us that he and his wife are recovering Catholics with “the loosest kind of” relationship with churches, who are not interested in a fundamentalist message of any sort or in “the Catholic message as it exists while acknowledging we got a lot of good out of it.”
For a while Bill and his family were involved with a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which he described as “almost too far the other direction.” But through the Unitarians he found a good sobriety community that introduced him to centering prayer, a method of meditation developed by Trappist monks quite similar to Buddhist meditation with a strong emphasis on interior silence. “It’s pretty non-denominational,” he said of the practice. “It’s really a version of meditation you can, with one step in either direction affiliate it or not affiliate it anywhere.”
Importantly, Bill told us that one of the major themes of his more recent recovery is “all of the above.”
“Don’t lean on any one thing exclusively,” he said. “Mix and match as needed, whatever works in the moment is working.”
We think that’s brilliant advice.
And our thanks to a brilliant comedian, performer, writer, pod-caster, husband, father and all around great guy who so generously shared his story with us.