You might walk away from this profile of comedian Sam Rager wondering if she’s actually funny on stage. “I’m willing to set a low bar,” Rager, 32, jokes by phone from a hospital room in Columbus, Ohio. She’s been staying there to take care of her ill father, who has kidney failure, heart failure, a collapsed lung, and myriad other ailments.
It’s the type of grim reality that will likely creep into a joke somewhere down the line.
But it’s hard to feel uncomfortable with anything Rager talks about on stage. She has a way of making it all seem … well … totally OK — as if we’ve all been through it, that none of our families are perfect, that there’s always something to find funny even in death, domestic abuse, self-harm, mental illness, and all the other unpleasant stuff we like to sweep under the “we-don’t-talk-about-that” rug.
It’s hard enough to talk about these things with a friend or a therapist; Rager drags it all out onto the stage with her as often as she can. It’s given her comedy a sense of purpose over her nine years of performing.
“Grief and recovery is not a linear process — or as linear as we want it to be. It’s OK to feel like you’re taking a few steps backwards and that humor can be part of the process,” Rager says. “You don’t have to laugh about these things behind closed doors because you’re afraid that people are going to think less of you.”
Rager first tapped into this superpower of hers early on in her stand-up career after ditching the “party girl stories” that she couldn’t really relate to. She started leaning instead into a more authentic style of storytelling that pulled from her own life experiences, like when her mother died on the unfortunate date of Sept. 11.
“I had a friend who was doing comedy at the time, and they were going through the process of losing a parent, and they were laughing their ass off,” Rager recalls. “People who had been through it could find humor in it. And that kept the momentum going.”
Hour Detroit: What’s the worst you’ve bombed?
Sam Rager: “I opened for Dustin Diamond [Screech from Saved by the Bell] for a fundraiser show. It was supposed to be mental health awareness. I was like, ‘Awesome, my crowd!’ They were all crisis hotline workers — and they hated all of my suicide hotline and cutting jokes. It was very uncomfortable. I don’t know if they wanted to leave work at work or what.”
Even when Rager has focused on highly specific and personal topics — as in a self-harm and mutilation bit on her 2019 debut album, Trigger Warning — she’s found an audience that relates to her.
“If people travel to see me, it’s because it’s the first time they’ve heard someone talk about cutting in a comedic sense that wasn’t punching down,” she says.
Of course, like all stand-up comedy, Rager’s approach to the craft isn’t for everyone. And some people can’t help but let her know when one of her sets has made them uncomfortable.
“It’s very healing to be able to connect with so many people, especially when there’s strangers coming up to you, but then I’ve had people come up to me and get really upset with me based on my set,” she says. “When that happens, it feels very isolating. I feel almost like a freak show. I feel guilty for bringing it up.”
But it never changes her mission of sharing bits of herself to connect with others.
“It’s not going to stop me,” she says. “But in that moment, I’m going to feel like a steaming pile of garbage.”
This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.