Andy Andrist is putting a maximum stress test to the adage "humor heals." The Oregon-based standup comic laughs through trauma stemming from sexual abuse he suffered as a kid. But instead of confronting his demons in therapy, he tracked down his alleged abuser and met him face-to-face in Florida with a camera crew as part of his material. The Sunshine State confrontation set off a legal fight that was recently cleared up by a West Palm Beach court.
Andrist says his abuse began when he was around 10 years old and in sixth grade, in 1978. At the time, his disabled father was making trips from Oregon down to the Palo Alto, California-area for medical treatment at a VA hospital. Andrist's dad befriended a local guy, and Andrist started going on visits to the family friend's house.
An unfortunately familiar pattern developed between the older man and the boy -- alcohol, porn, gifts, photographs, and then sexual abuse. Andrist's family kept sending him on the visits for the next three years, until 1981. The assaults continued the whole time, Andrist says.
In the late '80s, Andrist turned to standup comedy. Years of one-off gigs and clubland tours of duty paid off. He eventually worked on the Man Show and was featured in fellow comic Doug Stanhope's feature film The Unbookables. But he was still quaking with the aftershocks of his emotional damage, struggling with alcohol and dark thoughts along the way.
Then, in June 2012, the comic found himself on floor in the fetal position as the Dan Patrick Show beamed in news of the guilty verdict of the Jerry Sandusky trial. His mind was running old reels of his own molestation. That was when Andrist decided to act on an idea he's idly kicked around with Stanhope: confronting his abuser on camera.
"It was kind of like 9/11 for me," Andrist says of the Sandusky trial. "That was when I decided I would definitely go."
The man who Andrist alleges abused him -- Stephen P. Spleen -- was living in Port St. Lucie. In November 2012, Andrist made the trip to Florida with Stanhope and a cameraman, thinking he might use the material in his act. They contacted Spleen and arranged for him to meet the crew at a local hotel. He arrived with his wife and a police officer. As the camera rolled, Andrist confronted his alleged abuser, and according to the comic, Spleen admitted to the acts and apologized.
The comedians left Florida with the film. But quickly, Spleen filed court papers charging Andrist and Stanhope were out for "money, possessions and/or notoriety to enhance their stand-up comedy careers by falsely accusing [Spleen] of committing disgraceful, deplorable and heinous acts." Spleen also asked the court for a cease-and-desist injunction to keep them from showing the clip. The pair flew back to Florida in late December for a hearing. Then in January 2013, a judge, after listening to both sides, gave the comics the green light to show the footage.
It went live on Super Bowl Sunday 2013. Not long after that, Andrist's inbox began filling up with responses from other victims of sexual abuse. "They appreciated it," he says. "It was the kind of action that made people feel better about their abuse a little bit."
The irony here is that Andrist never meant to out Spleen, he says. In the video, which has since been taken off the web, the man's back is to the camera. They were thinking about keeping his identity anonymous. But by filing the legal actions, Spleen identified himself in the public record.
"I feel about him differently than I would have if I just left it alone," he says. "At the hearing, he looked like a stressed-out man dealing with something embarrassing. I saw a lot in that face that reminded me why I did this, because he put all that shit on me as a kid, and I didn't have a choice in it."
After the judge sided with Andrist, he was free to seek legal fees from Spleen. A lower court decided the comedian was entitled to $100. He appealed that decision, and last month, a West Palm Beach appeals court ruled Andrist was entitled to more. Andrist and Stanhope's attorney told the Daily Business Review they will seek up to $50,000.
Andrist pulled the video from the web because he's decided to expand the project. Along with Paul Provenza, the director behind the 2005 gross-out comedy doc The Aristocrats, he's turning the material into a documentary. The recent ruling should clear the way for the project.
Andrist has also been working the situation into his standup. "I did a couple of shows recently where I did about 30 minutes on the topic," he says. "I'm not sure it was a laugh-fest."