Spirited Suspension

Invisible Theatre explores one man's near-death experience and his exploration of spirituality.

When Scott Carter last performed in Tucson, he was gasping for breath. This time, he's grasping for God.

It makes perfect linguistic sense, at least, for Carter to follow up his comic monolog about his nearly fatal asthma attack with a comic monolog about a spiritual quest. After all, the word "spirit" is derived from the Latin word for "breath."

Invisible Theatre, which Carter helped get off the ground in the early 1970s, presented Carter's autobiographical one-man show Heavy Breathing in the fall of 2002 (see "Waiting to Exhale," Oct. 10, 2002). Now the company is bringing him back with Suspension Bridge, which pretty much takes up where the earlier show left off.

"When I got out of the hospital after that near-death asthma experience in 1986, I had this epiphany about the universe that has changed my life," Carter says. "I went from being a typical cynical comic to being someone who had a strong sense of God. I had a strong sense of God, but nothing more than that. If you said, 'Do you believe in Christianity, or Judaism, or are you a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Muslim,' I had no sense of a spiritual definition other than that I believed in a deity. But I had a sense that I'd better figure it out."

Carter stresses that he's not evangelizing; Suspension Bridge isn't going to be the equivalent of the Billy Graham Crusade on Comedy Central. (Carter, by the way, helped create the Comedy Central channel.) "My religious credo has become more specific over time," he says, "but the show doesn't get that far."

Instead, the show is about the many odd turns his spiritual quest took. "We all grow up knowing we're going to die someday, but that's just very conceptual until we have a near-death experience or see people around us die. An emergency will prompt you to take steps you would not take otherwise. Think about the way the country changed after Sept. 11, when we all started asking ourselves, what are the values guiding our lives every day? Now, of course, we're back to watching The Osbournes or The Simple Life, which could not be farther from the nobler parts of where we were after Sept. 11.

"But after my near-death experience, I started thinking, if I believe there's a god, what does this god require of me? Do I have to go to temple on Saturday or church on Sunday? Do I have to bow to Mecca five times a day? Do I have to eat certain things at certain times? So I made this agreement with the universe that if anybody wants to talk to me about religion, I'll talk. I'll try anything. And when you open yourself up that much, especially in a city like New York, a lot of things will happen to you."

Those experiences, many of them rather strange, form the basis of Suspension Bridge.

"The other components driving this show are at the same time I was trying to get more spiritual, my career took off, so I was making more money and getting professionally established, but that's the opposite of becoming spiritual. And I also began to see the spiritual and the physical as one; I would see an asthma relapse as a sign of a curse from God, and I would see good health as a blessing. So the show is also about those tugs and contradictions."

Now, although the vast majority of Americans may profess to have some sort of spiritual beliefs--at least when pollsters ask them if they do--mainstream culture tends to brand people who are heavily into spiritual matters as, well, wacko. At one extreme, you have the sensitive New Agers, and at the other you have fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Muslims, all of whom get a hard time in American pop culture. Yet Carter maintains that undertaking a spiritual quest never made him feel uncool.

"No, because in New York I was in the artist class, where a broad range of thought is tolerated," he says. "And besides, the original feelings that prompted me to this were so strong that any misgivings about being cool or not were not entertained. In Suspension Bridge, I talk about all my reservations in the first act, and delineate my own prejudices against a lot of this."

You can expect Carter's observations to be pointed and at least a little satirical; after all, this is the man who produced the first 1,100 episodes of the nightly Politically Incorrect, and this season, he's produced 20 episodes of the weekly Real Time With Bill Maher for HBO.

"It's a lot better to do a show once a week than every day," Carter says, audibly relieved that his Politically Incorrect days are long past. "When you're doing four or five days a week, you have no life. And you only get onto the show what your first thought was. If you're just doing it once a week, you can use your second or third reconsidered thought."

Carter has considered and reconsidered a lot of thoughts regarding another show he's had in development with HBO for two years. Tentatively called Thicker Than Water, the comedy is set in Tucson. Part of it may even be shot here, although Carter isn't making any promises.

"It's about my memories of what life is like when you're out of school but life hasn't started yet, the time when you can no longer measure world in semesters, but you don't yet have kids, mortgages or permanent relationships," he says. "It's about a large family of people in their 20s with different reasons for not taking the plunge into maturity."

And although Carter shows himself taking the plunge into matters of the spirit in Suspension Bridge, he insists that this monolog is simple comedy, not a stealth form of street-corner preaching.

"I have no urge to make someone else duplicate my outlook," he says. "This show is predominantly funny. That's the way most things reveal themselves to me. The greatest truths are the ones that make me laugh, because an insight comes with a thunderbolt of humor attached to it."