The documentary Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration of Psychedelics, featuring stand-up comedian Shane Mauss delving into the fascinating world of psychedelic drugs, debuted at the Dances With Films festival last June but wasn’t released to the general public until just last month. I was waiting with eager anticipation to watch this film from the moment I first heard about it, and now that I’ve watched it a few times since its release, I figured I’d share my thoughts on it.
Unless you’re already familiar with him, you might be asking yourself, “Who is Shane Mauss?” Well, as I mentioned earlier, Shane is a stand-up comedian with a wacky sense of humor. He’s also the host of the comedy science podcast Here We Are and a fellow psychonaut. After spending the last few years exploring psychedelics in a lot of his work, Shane was inspired to make a documentary about the topic in order to show the world that these drugs aren’t necessarily as scary as someone who is psychedelically-naïve might expect.
Psychonautics starts off mighty strong—and fast. The film opens up with a shot of Shane painted from head to toe in glow-in-the-dark body paint made from the MAOI Peganum harmala (also known as Syrian rue), right as he’s about to smoke DMT on camera. He looks at the camera in a slightly creepy way, ignites his lighter, and then leans in to take a hit.
Before he has a chance to inhale the DMT vapor, the film cuts to a stand-up comedy routine where Shane is telling the crowd that he was just let out of a psych ward two weeks earlier because he overdid it with psychedelic drugs. So much for trying to show the world the psychedelics are completely harmless!
A proper introduction follows these two opening scenes, and Shane shares a few stories about his upbringing in Wisconsin, his relationship to drugs, and his career as a comedian, Next, some of his fellow comics talk about him for a little while. Then the movie starts to talk about some of the scientific research concerning psychedelics before launching into the first section of the film: psilocybin mushrooms.
During the mushrooms portion, Shane accompanies Eric Osborne (the founder of a legal psilocybin retreat center in Jamaica at MycoMeditations) as they go hunting for mushrooms in an undisclosed location somewhere in Kentucky and talk shop about everything related to psilocybin mushrooms. This is a pretty laid back part of the movie and it’s chock-full of humor and silliness, just like the rest of the film.
After the mushrooms section, the film goes over a few other classic psychedelics: MDMA, LSD, ketamine, DMT, and ayahuasca. As Shane progresses through the various drugs, things start to get more and more intense until he reaches the mental breakdown that was foreshadowed in the beginning of the film.
So what were my overall impressions of the film? Well, first off I should mention that I’m a pretty big fan of Shane’s work. I saw his psychedelic-themed comedy routine called A Good Trip a few years ago when he came to Raleigh, NC and laughed my ass off for two hours straight. That’s where I found out his podcast Here We Are, which blends together the odd bedfellows comedy and science, two things that I definitely enjoy. After going home, I started listening to his podcast, and have kept up with it ever since.
Psychonautics is engaging and well-polished. The narrative arc is tight and easy to follow, it keeps the viewer’s attention the whole way through, and it supplies a fairly thorough overview of everything related to psychedelics, including the relevant scientific research, the history of the drug war, and the harms of prohibition. If you’re a hardcore psychonaut like me, a lot of the material might be familiar, but reviewing what you have learned over and over again is a tried and true method that can help you really internalize the information, so it’s still well worth a watch. And if you’re brand-new to psychedelics or want to introduce someone else to them in a lighthearted (and somehow serious) way, this is a solid option for those purposes too. Mixing science with humor can make new information a bit easier for some people to swallow, after all.
A bunch of well-known leaders in the psychedelic movement are featured in the film, including Rick Doblin, Dennis McKenna, James Fadiman, David Nichols, Emanuel Sferios, and some of the world’s top psychedelic researchers and comedians. No psychedelic documentary would be complete without a few super trippy visual representations of psychedelic experiences that can be had with the different drugs discussed in the film, and fortunately Psychonautics doesn’t disappoint. Each psychedelic drug has a unique visualization style that is similar to what you could expect from taking said drug, which certainly helps keep things interesting.
Shane is currently on a stand-up tour across America (dates can be found on his website, linked above) so he might come somewhere near you soon, and you should go see him if you get the opportunity. But if that’s not an option, then you can at least watch Psychonautics to get a feel for what he’s all about.
Bottom line: if you’re into psychedelics and have a sense of humor, you should definitely check out this documentary.