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Comedians on Comedians: Isaac Witty on Drugs, Redemption, and Conan

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Last year, Isaac Witty's comedy career was in a state of crushing uncertainty, a far cry from his early days as a standup, which included numerous gigs with Mitch Hedberg and a late-night appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. There was also a four-year streak of cocaine-fueled debauchery that nearly tarnished his reputation forever.

"This was last March, and it was winter depression time," he says. "It was that winter that lasted forever, and it was one of those days where I stayed in my pajamas all day long and I ordered a pizza and ate the whole pizza and just laid in bed."

But moments before falling asleep he received an email from a Conan booker about performing on the show -- an opportunity Witty had thought was well out of the realm of possibility.

"It had been months since he last emailed, so I thought he had forgotten about me," Witty recounts. "I opened up the email and he said, 'Hey, I think you can do the show on Wednesday.' It happened that quick. I didn't know I was in line all that time."

Witty, who is originally from Oklahoma, started performing standup in Minneapolis in 1998. But unlike most of his peers, he didn't have to discover comedy. Witty was practically born into it.

His parents made a living as a Christian sketch troupe. Witty spent his formative years accompanying them as they toured the country, often relocating from one state to another within a matter of months.

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"They'd have a sketch about forgiveness. They'd have sketches about how it was okay that everyone was from a different denomination, and we didn't have to be so serious about it," Witty says.

Witty was working full-time as a professional comedian by the early '00s, and eventually made his late-night television debut on The Late Show with David Letterman a few years later. In 2004, he moved to New York City in the midst of the scene's alt-comedy boom. It was a movement that went on to bolster the careers of comedy stars like Aziz Ansari, Eugene Mirman, and Parks and Rec writer and Minnesota native Joe Mande -- all of whom Witty met and spent time with during his stint in NYC.

He'd even established a friendly rapport with the late, great Mitch Hedberg along the way. While Witty downplays his relationship with the now-legendary standup, who happens to be a St. Paul native, he characterizes him as remarkably personable -- sometimes to a fault.

"He always had a lot of hangers-on around him. They weren't groupies, they were just like these loser guys, these lackeys. He would just allow him to hang out in the green room," Witty explains. "But he was always so fun to talk to. Mitch would say stuff like, 'So, what did you guys do today?' We'd say, 'Oh, we went to the mall,' and he'd be like, 'Oh, man, so cliché, so cliché.'"

The last time Witty saw Hedberg was in late March of 2005, a week before he passed away from a reported cocaine/heroin overdose in a New Jersey hotel room.

"Mitch's death was really, really sad. It's not that he was a good friend of mine. He was more of a symbol. He was a mentor to anybody who wanted to do anything outside of the average thing," Witty recounts. "He was the voice of that generation, and he was on his way to becoming something so much more."

But as the comedy world mourned Hedberg, Witty's bout with drugs was just beginning.

"I became a NACA [college circuit] comic, and was making a lot of money. Then I found cocaine and, well, that was fun all the time -- for a while. From 2005 to 2008, I probably did cocaine every weekend," Witty says.

It was a habit that cost Witty thousands of dollars and did lasting damage to his career. So much so that Witty refused to speak about it publicly until a recent live episode of comedian Pete Holmes's reliably confessional You Made It Weird podcast.

"There's just a social stigma to being that guy. I feel like I'm just now coming out of that reputation. It takes years and years and years for that to go away," Witty says. "I felt like talking about it on YMIW provided me with a lot of closure. When I had gone public with it, I felt like it was finally in the past. Before that, if I was ever confronted with it, I would always deny it," Witty says.

Today, Witty's in much higher spirits. He still performs standup regularly, and is also a member of the Minneapolis comedy sketch troupe the Turkeys, which features local veterans like Chris Maddock and Gabe Noah. And while Witty's appearance on Conan didn't exactly skyrocket him to fame, he explains how it provided him with some much-needed reassurance and confidence that he'd been bereft of for years.

"If you've been doing something for 18 years, it stops being magical. I think that's what being a comic is really. A big part of it is like, 'Okay, I'm in this thing for life' and it's not going to be fun all the time. It's going to be a job sometimes," explains Witty. "In comedy there is no pink slip. You don't have to prove yourself to anyone except yourself, and just get out there and keep doing it."

IF YOU GO:

8 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, at the Uptown VFW. Admission is free. Friday and Saturday, June 12-13 at the Comedy Corner Underground