Many people know Jim Breuer the comedian.
Breuer has been doing comedy for decades — from his “Goat Boy” and Joe Pesci impersonations on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” to his recent Epix special “Jim Breuer: Comedy Frenzy” — and was named as one of the greatest standup comedians of all time by Comedy Central.
In Breuer’s movie “More Than Me,” Breuer described how he used comedy to cope with different situations including his late father’s declining health. And so while many people know that Breuer can use humor to cope and help others through difficult times, fewer people know that he uses another strategy to understand and manage difficult life situations — a deep sense of spirituality.
For Breuer, this spiritual side is something with which he can connect when he needs to do so. “The faith world to me is like a radio station. It’s there,” he explained. “And if you want to plug in and listen to it, kind of tune into it, it can definitely be helpful. I don’t know if it’s an energy? I don’t know what it is, but it fascinates me.”
“And when I say about the radio station, I mean: ‘Do you want to hear it?’ If you want to hear it, it’s there. Some people say it’s stupid, don’t acknowledge it. That’s OK, whatever journey they’re on. It’s pretty awesome when you tap into it. It’s really awesome.”
Breuer finds that this practice helps him cope with difficult situations. “And I know that the stories I’ve had or the moments that I’ve lived by, where I’ve set aside and I’ve talked to G-d or meditated or begged for guidance. It’s worked 100% of the time,” he said.
“I have bizarre coincidences; I don’t believe they’re coincidences. The bummer talking about it is that people get so turned off. But there’s something. And that’s why I never go, ‘Well I’m this, and I’m that,’ because I hear it from all different types. I just know, whatever it is, I just know the way I say it. I’ll beg, and I’ll say, ‘Please guide me this way. Guide me to help. Just show me what I’m supposed to do. Tell me how I’m supposed to speak. Show me how I’m supposed to act. What can I do to help?’ Always — 100% — I get the answer.”
“And I don’t know what that is. To me, I call it faith, a deep spirituality.”
Breuer’s belief in the power of his faith is consistent with research demonstrating the health benefits of religion and spirituality. In one study of 142 patients, a week prior to heart surgery, results showed that individuals with stronger religious beliefs had fewer subsequent complications and shorter hospital stays. A recently concluded 10-year study of 114 adults found that those who considered religion or spirituality more important to them were significantly less likely to be depressed over time.
For Breuer, his spirituality started with his family. “I could be wrong, but I’m going to say it started at a fairly young age. You know my mom had that. I’d think I’m something, and she’d just belly-laugh in my face and just exploit whatever I was trying to accomplish with my holier-than-thou attitude,” he said. “And you learn through trial and error, and you start realizing you’re not really as in control and as powerful and as almighty as you really think you are as you move along through trials and errors.”
“I think it’s a big growing process. Life just keeps moving.”
What Breuer is describing could be considered humility, which he identifies as an important aspect of his spirituality. Positive psychologists define humility as the ability to view oneself in a non-defensive and open manner. Initial research suggests that people with higher levels of humility have higher levels of self-rated health.
“Humility is one of the key aspects of spirituality, and along with comedy, a key component of healing,” he explained. “We always had comedy and humility. Humility’s really important. If you can’t find that, then you’re really going to have some major issues with yourself and life. I found that at a young age. My whole family’s been that way forever.”
“Vulnerability, humility, relatability — those three are very close and very similar to keep you going. When you’re in conversation with people, and they can relate to you, or you start talking about how vulnerable you are and didn’t expect to be, or you think you’re better than what you think you are, and you’re humbled by it, and you find some humility, it helps you move along. And a lot of people have too much pride and ego to allow that in,” he said.
More, for Breuer, it was a sense of humility that helped facilitate some of his favorite comedic moments in his personal life. “I remember one of the greatest moments in my life was getting a TV show. Couldn’t have been higher -- on the cover of TV Guide, the commercials were out. We were spinning off the Tim Allen show,” he explained.
“It was huge. I was going to make half a million to $1 million a year. I was a 25-, 26-year-old kid. And I flew my best friends out for the premiere of this thing. And I remember that about four days before it was supposed to air, they fired me. They let me go. And I remember coming back to the hotel room,” he said. “I was devastated, in shock. I didn’t understand it. We’d already filmed the show. The commercials were still on the air. I didn’t get what was happening. And I just remember my friends; we were blue collar, didn’t have much growing up. A whole village raised a family, everybody looked after each other.”
“I remember coming to my hotel room and I didn’t know what to do, and they go, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘I got fired.’”
“And it was very awkward. It was the first time they really saw deep pain in me. And I just remember my friend, and he laughed, and he rolled his eyes, and he went ‘Well, I rented a limo for tonight so let’s go out. We’ll stay out all night because you don’t have to get up in the morning because you ain’t got a job!’ and he just belly-laughed.”
“Then we all just started belly-laughing.”
“It was a very humbling moment. I was humiliated. But it was probably the hardest I’ve ever laughed and probably one of the best times I’ve ever felt in my whole life.”
For Breuer, part of the reason that his sense of humility allows him to see the humor in situations is because he is able to put certain life events in perspective. “See, what we do is, we make it like this is the end of the world. To you, this is the end of the world. Nothing could be worse than this. I couldn’t lose this person. They couldn’t have died. I couldn’t have lost this job. Where he made it simple — it’s no different than when you’re 15 years old. Like, ‘Oh, great! What are we doing? What are you complaining about? Now we can go out. We have the whole night ahead of us. Let’s do this,’” he said.
But soon Breuer experienced situations that were truly tragic. Over the course of his life Breuer has dealt with many tragic moments, including the loss of his sister and father, and his wife’s ongoing battle with cancer.
Breuer explained: “I have a deep respect for life in general; just a huge, deep respect for life. And I have definitely grasped onto the fact that every minute, every moment, to be grateful and thankful for. Because we really don’t know what’s two seconds away. We really don’t. It’s so unpredictable. And again I learned that at a young age through death,” he explained.
“You lose someone when you’re young, you realize, ‘Wow, we really are on borrowed time.’ No matter how much we love them or how much we think we’re invincible, that ‘[t]hat could never happen to us,’ it happens. There’s no stopping it.”
For Breuer, his first loss was the loss of a close friend.
“I think the first big one was a friend I had in Florida. The circumstances that led to my personal journey with her was somehow a faith-based, an energy-based thing that was very healing and powerful for me. She was a dear friend of mine, a neighbor; we were best friends,” he recalled.
“We weren’t talking for a couple of weeks, and it was driving me crazy. And I pulled over and asked what I should do. Just go over there and lay it all out there. I remember going over there, and I saw her one night, and that voice that I keep asking the questions to — there she was. I’m going to go over there and start talking to her. And it was one of the greatest conversations we ever had in the time that I knew her. And she was explaining to me how all of these amazing things she was hoping for in life finally happened. And at the end of it — I still cannot describe it to this day — there was a deep soul connection.”
“I can still feel it now when I think about it. It was as close as you can get to being intimate without being intimate. And that was the last time I saw her.”
“And I remember being at the funeral, and it was so sad and so depressing. I’d never seen so many kids crying, parents devastated. And I just thought about her, and I went outside and I literally asked, ‘What do you want? What’s supposed to happen here? What happens? And I just kept hearing ‘Just make everyone laugh!’ I don’t want to see them all like this. Make them laugh.’”
“And that was one of the moments that changed me. And I remember being at the funeral parlor, imitating her, what she’d probably be doing right now. And it was a blind moment — I don’t know how long I went on for. I just remember stopping, and there was just a circle of people around me — a big circle of people around me howling and laughing. And then when I stopped, and I said, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this’ They’re like, ‘No! No! Keep going! Keep going! This is the greatest! This is what it’s supposed to be like.’”
“That was the first moment where I realized —‘Let’s celebrate and keep the spirits high.’ And that was a powerful moment. And I realized how many people I was healing in that moment alone with myself.”
Later on, Breuer felt that his spirituality also helped him cope with his sister’s death. “I still have the texts that I sent to her. She was really down, and she knew she was dying very soon. And she tried not to allow that in. And I knew that no matter what, she was going to be dead soon. There was no way of stopping what she had. She was in complete denial of how much cancer she had; 100 percent denial between her and, I think, some of her family. I knew she knew that. And I knew she knew that I knew it,” he recalled.
“My job then, too — ‘Don’t worry about anything. We’re going to ride this straight out the way we always do.’ Just like coming up to the plate. I’m going to swing really hard at fastballs. Even though you know we’re going to strike out. And you know the season’s over. We’re still going to go up, and we’re still going to swing at those fastballs. I would bust her balls all the way until the end. We’d laugh hard.”
“It’s like ‘Titanic.’ Keep playing that song even when you’re wiped away in the ocean. You go down with that instrument in your hand if that’s what makes you happy.”
Interestingly, Breuer’s spirituality can be understood as consistent with his musical preference — heavy metal. Contrary to stereotypes of “metalheads” as being closed minded and even aggressive towards others, research suggests that people who prefer heavy-metal music display personality styles that are more “open to experience.” Further, far from making people more aggressive, studies suggest that among people who prefer more aggressive music, listening to metal actually appears to help improve mood and cope with anger. More, a recent study shows that not only were people who were heavy metal fans from the ’80s not dusfunctional as adults, but also they appear to be quite happy in adulthood.
In light of this research, it perhaps makes more sense that Breuer is a heavy metal fan; His sense of humility naturally dictates a tendency to accept rather than avoid negative experience. And Breuer appreciates that heavy metal musicians similarly embrace rather than gloss over the more upsetting parts of life.
He described: “For me, you’re connecting on a deeper level — old Metallica, [Judas] Priest and just metal in general — it would make me think. Especially Metallica. It helped me think about what my dad went through in war,” he said. “Metal is truth for me. And also, there is a deeper awareness. Is ‘War Pigs’ evil? Or is it the only genre that has the ’nads to put it right out there in your face?”
“It’s a truth, a raw truth; And sometimes, people don’t want to acknowledge the raw truth. Sometimes, the truth is dark and ugly and hurts," he explained. “And that goes with death and everything else. And that music allows you to acknowledge and be aware of it. Because it’s part of everyday life. It’s a part of life where people want to say, ‘That doesn’t exist. I’ll just stick my head in the sand. I know every circle of life. And all of it exists. And sometimes it’s not pretty. Some of it’s just plain evil."
“That music — it didn’t make me want to be evil. It made me aware of evil. That music would explicitly explain everything and give you warnings and tell you what’s going on. I always thought I had one up on everyone’s thinking patterns because of that music.”
Breuer found his spirituality was so fierce that even when his father challenged Breuer’s spirituality, Breuer stayed very sure of his own spiritual beliefs. “It was interesting, because I remember asking him, like, ‘Dad, what do you think happens to us?’ He says, ‘Nothing. There’s no G-d, there’s no time, you’re gone. People forget about you.’ I couldn’t believe how dead serious he was about that. So, you just die, and you just forget about shit. They pretend that they don’t forget about you, but they do. They forget about you. You’re just gone.’”
“And that was the moment that I said, ‘I don’t know if that will happen to you. Maybe you just don’t remember, or you become something else, or your soul becomes a tree or energy.’ He says, ‘No, that’s stupid. No.’”
“So, although he was completely ‘no,’ I disagreed, and I continued to use spirit and use guidance to make his life better.”
Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.