The stretch of New York State highway Route 9 that cuts through Dutchess County – roughly 90 minutes north of Manhattan – is about as anywhere, U.S.A. as it gets. Wide lanes accommodate thousands of commuter cars mostly coming to or from one of the umpteen strip malls and hotel chains lighting the way, a sort of road to nowhere for those in need of sundries and sleep. It’s a journeyman’s artery Jake “The Snake” Roberts, knows well. Over the years, he’s wrestled in civic centers and auditoriums in this and hundreds of hubs like it more times than he could recall, even if his memory were fully in tact. But he’ll be the first to admit that’s not the case.
Seated inside the lobby of Hampton Inn & Suites, Roberts is recognizable less by his apt “Never Give Up” T-shirt than the python tattoo coiling around his hand and signature bushy stache atop his upper lip. Joined by friend, touring partner and sometimes roommate Alex “KOOLAID” Ansel, the 61-year-old opens up about the obstacles inherent in launching his 2016 standup comedy/spoken word tour (“I call it road stories,” Roberts clarifies), which began in August and tonight makes a stop at Poughkeepsie’s Laugh It Up venue.
“Up until I started doing this, I’ve been having a lot of problems with speech, completing sentences,” he concedes, his voice characteristically strained but thoughts lucid. “My brain just wasn’t clicking right.” Alluding to a pair of recent cancer scares (he is, by his own account, currently cancer-free) and what he refers to as a “couple spots on my brain” as a likely result of repeated concussions, he continues, “I know I’ve taken way too many head shots. I probably averaged three concussions a year, but I wrestled for 37 years. That’s not a good number.” As a result, upon setting off for this club tour, Roberts was “concerned if I was going to able to [perform], but it’s been right the opposite. I’ve dialed it in. All the stories are coming back to me. I’m enjoying it because I’m remembering these things that were hilariously funny now and then. It’s a breath of fresh air to remember I’m not as bad as I thought I was.”
That will come as a relief for his fans, who’ve bore witness to the recovering addict’s significant struggles over the last two decades, beginning with an infamous appearance in 1999’s Beyond the Mat documentary (a film Roberts frequently discredits) and continuing up through 2015’s redemptive The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, which captured his efforts to regain sobriety and quality of life with the help of fellow retired grappler Diamond Dallas Page and his namesake DDP Yoga program. He notes that the highlight of this standup experiment – aside from providing income and keeping him productive and in positive spirits – has been “meeting the people that have watched [Resurrection] and been inspired by that movie,” adding, “I tell people, ‘If you’ve got a problem, let’s talk about it after the show.’ It helps me keep my stuff right.”
Roberts’ half-hour sets don’t beat around the bush about his missionary bent. Before, after or amid anecdotes about being duped into stuffing his crotch with a cartoonishly phallic gym towel or how late, legendary manager Mr. Fuji would terrorize sleeping superstars, he will preach the gospel of sobriety. How intently and for how long might depend on the feel of the room. If anyone knows how to improvise from beat to beat and audience to audience, it’s a man who was once widely hailed as the finest promo artist in his industry. Clean or high, Roberts cites an underlying work ethic that’s ensured he delivers on what ticket buyers demand.
“In the old days, if I went out and partied for a couple nights or hadn’t slept for a couple days, as soon as I got to the ring, I kicked it in,” he recalls, acknowledging that he’d only hit second gear after some initial grousing. Years later, and despite all the damage done, he proudly reports that, when it comes to being a consummate entertainer, he’s “just like I was back then. If I don’t feel on, I do more time till I get it right. I won’t give up. I know how to change gears, how to flip around and go a different direction. I’m a magic-mike guy. I get the microphone in my hand and it turns into nitro. I can weave a story like no one else.”
The parallels lesson off stage, for reasons that are evident sitting across from him, a vantage point that begs scrutiny of his many scars and blade marks, surface traces of the massive infrastructural injury he’s absorbed since starting out in Southern territories circa the mid-1970s. He even implores me to run my index finger across a petrified tendon running length-wise down his left hand, explaining how a combination of arthritic pain and neurological misfires cause further tensing in his fingers. Holding court with a microphone for 30 minutes has been the easier adjustment, it turns out. Enduring the grind of going from city to city and state to state with little time off has truly tested Roberts’ resolve.
“Getting up in the morning is no big deal,” he says. “But it’s not the same, the grind. It’s rough. I have to keep my mind wrapped around the fact that I’m not 30 years old, that it’s gonna tire me out, weigh on me more. It’s just taking care of yourself.” Given that his body doesn’t withstand the rigors of the gym so well, that mostly means getting a good night’s rest, keeping up with DDP Yoga and maintaining sobriety. Not that Roberts doesn’t cling to certain vices. He still smokes cigarettes, though he’s trying to quit, takes the occasional pill “to get my dick hard” and is unabashedly pro marijuana. In fact, the possibility of opening up a pot store is on his list of potential post-standup moves.
“Brother, I see nothing wrong with marijuana,” he says pointedly. “The other drugs, yes, I got problems with ’em. But I never got in a fight smoking pot. I would much rather – for health and everything else – have someone smoke a joint than drink. Any time you abuse anything, it’s wrong.”
He’s also hopeful for more movie roles, a la his appearance in 2016 indie comedy The Bet, has a book in the works and would even consider opening a rehab center in his name. Just don’t expect he and his tempestuous in-ring persona to become synonymous again any time soon. “Jake’s over there,” he says, motioning with his hands as if literally compartmentalizing his drug-fueled alter ego. “I can’t deal with Jake. He’s too much. I’ve become much more mellow and I’m not as quick to ignite as I used to be. I don’t hurt people like I used to hurt people.”
Next stops notwithstanding, the journey from rock bottom to Resurrection and, now, comedy-circuit conqueror, has finally given this once tightly coiled Snake some measure of peace and purpose. “I’m happy outside the ring, which is something I’ve never been,” he says. “I want more time with my grandchildren. I want more for my kids. I think I’ve got a lot to offer. I feel like I’m worth something. I’m not just an old, phony wrestler.”