All his life, David Bublitz only wanted to be one thing.
“I still remember the kindergarten teacher asking what I wanted to be and -- at 5-years-old -- telling her, ‘I’m going to be a comedian,’” Bublitz said.
He had the same answer later in life -- under much different circumstances.
“Everywhere I went along the way -- (I’m) in jail. ‘What do you do?’ Oh, I’m a comedian. ‘Of course, you are.’ I’m in a psych ward. ‘What do you do?’ I’m a comedian. ‘Oh, yes you are!’”
The humor of that answer is not lost on him. Nor is the irony of having a job that requires getting up on stage and making people laugh, while dealing with crippling anxiety and depression. But for the 54-year-old Fort Collins comedian -- who has spent his entire adult life as a working comedian -- recovery meant putting mental illness into the spotlight.
I first met up with David Bublitz for this story at the former Washington’s Bar and Grill in Fort Collins. We talked for two hours at a back table. The conversation ranged from his lifelong battle with anxiety and depression to his several suicide attempts to his biggest supporter, his mom, Doris.
“Mom Bublitz really -- it was the complete opposite of what any parent should be,” Bublitz said. “She wanted me to become a comedian because I wanted to be a comedian since I was 3. She would go with on road trips. She would be the one that would (say), ‘Well, don’t go out and get a real job. You don’t want to do that. Anybody can go do that.’”
In December 2010, his mother’s health had begun to fail and Alzheimer’s set in, he said. To make matters worse, Bublitz had just been told by doctors that he would likely lose most, if not all, of his vision due to glaucoma. For a touring comic, hearing that he eventually would no longer be able to drive himself to gigs was almost unbearable.
Things began to spiral and his yet-to-be-diagnosed bipolar disorder took over.
“A couple days after Christmas was the first time I made an attempt,” he said. “I woke up (in the hospital) and I was angry because it didn’t work. I’m still here.”
For the next five years, Bublitz pinballed between deep depressions that would keep him from leaving the house for months on end, and manic episodes that eventually led to stints in jail and mental health facilities. Twice he was homeless and living on the streets and in shelters. But even then, Bublitz said that giving up comedy was never a real option.
At that time, he was still trying to find his footing, just getting to gigs was a challenge. Bublitz started slow, performing at area open mic nights.
“The first couple of times -- they were a train wreck,” he said.
But for Bublitz, even a bad night on stage is still a pretty good day at work.
“What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen if I go do a show?” he said. “I’m going to go to a bar, and tell jokes for an hour, and maybe they won’t laugh. That’s the worst thing that’ll happen in the course of my day, my work day. The best thing on the other hand, is that adrenaline rush that starts with ‘Good evening and welcome to a night of comedy. Please welcome Dave Bublitz!’ You can’t beat that.”
He also said being upfront about his struggles in his act allowed him to connect with the audience on a different level.
“Whenever I’ve mentioned mental health issues on stage, someone will always come up to me afterward and say, ‘My sister, my brother, I have gone through this,’” Bublitz said.
After spending time working on new material and getting comfortable again on stage, Bublitz decided to go back to some of the places that, at the time, felt dark, and do comedy there. Part of it was an attempt to give back -- like doing a benefit show for the Fort Collins Rescue Mission where the counselors had once bent the curfew rules so that he could go do gigs. But another part is therapeutic.
“It’s not just for the audiences,” he said. “I feel better after a show.”
At some places it made sense, like at Denver’s Comedy Works. At others it was a bit more of a stretch. Bublitz said it felt strange to be doing a Sunday afternoon comedy show at the Fort Collins mental health facility Spirit Crossing, where he had once received counseling.
“I feel like we’re going to walk off the stage and start our therapy session,” Bublitz joked before the show.
But he said it was interesting to see the place from such a different perspective and hoped the people there saw him differently, as well.
“After you’ve gone through something really challenging, you don’t always remember the things that helped, you don’t remember that they helped as much as they did,” he said. “And when I came here -- you know, my whole life I’ve never been accused of being a quiet individual. I was borderline catatonic when I came through here.”
On Valentine’s Day weekend, Bublitz returned to the Rialto Theater in Loveland. For more than a decade, his hometown venue had been a place he’d play at least once a year. He even recorded a comedy special there.
It was the biggest show he’d done since returning to the stage. The pressure was on.
While he said the show felt like a big step towards a real comeback, it was bittersweet. It was the first time he’d played the venue without Mom Bublitz -- who died in 2014 -- sitting in the mezzanine.
To honor her, Bublitz ended the night with her favorite joke. It’s been a staple of his act for many years.
“I asked my mom, ‘Why is Mother’s Day so much more important than Father’s Day?’ She said, ‘Well Dave, anybody could have been your father. I’m your mother.’”
The joke got big laughs, but if it had landed with a thud, Bublitz afterwards said he would have been OK.
“The biggest thing that I’m learning to embrace is not being afraid to fail,” he said. “To take the plunge and see where it takes me.”
That reminded me of something Bublitz had said to me back on that first day in April 2015 when we met at Washington’s.
“If there’s one thing that I’m overwhelmed by, I’m still here after four attempts,” he said. “There’s got to be a reason – somehow or another – for me to still be here. It feels like a little victory every time I get on stage lately. It seems like a little victory every time I get a little bit closer to where I used to be.”