Season 3 of “First Day Back” tells the story of Jason Weems’s return to comedy after a life-threatening asthma attack.
In May, 2017, while performing a standup set during a comedy night at the Bardot Café, in Philadelphia, the comedian Jason Weems had an asthma attack. It was a bad one. A few minutes after he left the stage, he lost consciousness. “I knew he had kids,” a bystander says in the podcast “First Day Back.” “I was like, Am I watching somebody’s dad die?” Weems was effectively dead for several minutes—no pulse, no breathing—but, incredibly, he survived. Now he’s navigating his return to comedy. In each season of “First Day Back,” Tally Abecassis, the podcast’s creator, producer, and host, chronicles the story of a person returning from a life-changing event. The first season was about Abecassis herself, a Montreal-based documentary filmmaker, returning to work after a long maternity leave; the second was about Lucie, a woman from rural Ontario who returns to home life after prison and the tragic killing that put her there. This season is about Weems, a comedian from Baltimore “who lives and died for comedy,” Abecassis says. Can he go back to it?
Abecassis reported Weems’s story for a year—getting to know his community of loved ones and supporters, observing his comeback. The first episode, out last week, tells the story of the night of the asthma attack, skillfully conjuring the surreal terror of a pleasantly unremarkable night turning into a life-or-death crisis. Abecassis sketches a few details about Weems, enough to introduce him and make him vivid, but doesn’t delve fully into his life story—she saves that for Episode 2. (The series, which she produced independently at first, is now made in collaboration with E. W. Scripps and Stitcher, with Marc Georges producing.) Here, we learn that Jason and his wife, Dionne, who live in Baltimore, are working parents with different schedules—daytime, in corporate marketing, and nighttime, in comedy. That night, Jason had picked up the kids from school, fed them dinner, and got them into their pajamas. “Their life is like a relay race, and Jason is passing the parenting baton to Dionne now,” Abecassis says. Weems drove two hours to Philadelphia and made it to the show at the Bardot Café, “a bar with a distinctly boudoir feel”—red velvet, damask wallpaper—just in time to headline. We hear the sounds of the club: the host, the applause. Several people who were there that night offer their memories.
Lauren Fox, a physician’s assistant and a regular at the comedy night, was in the audience. “He was about two minutes into his skit, and people were into it, and he started this coughing spell,” she says. Weems tried his inhaler, tried to make a joke, apologized, and left the stage. Fox found Weems outside, slumped, sweaty, and scared. She gave him water. Weems kept struggling to breathe—and then he seemed to be having a heart attack. Fox screamed for a defibrillator, for 911. “And he was dead,” she says. “He literally had no pulse.” Fox “went into overdrive,” she said, and did CPR—“three and a half minutes of compressions, just straight.” The other comics turned to social media, looking for Weems’s family; the search quickly went viral and a friend in Baltimore was found, who drove to Weems’s house and woke up Dionne. Meanwhile, the E.M.T.s arrived. And so on.
Exciting, upsetting details like this—as horror mounts, you’re also noting each thrilling note of preparedness and helpful happenstance—accrete straightforwardly, without Abecassis overcooking the drama. Tonally and narratively, Abecassis is a steady, trustworthy presence; the scoring and mixing, by David Herman, is subtle and effective, with sparing music, some under narration, which mirrors our emotions rather than seeking to heighten them. After a while, Weems himself returns to the storytelling; he’d disappeared from the narration when he was unconscious in the story. He talks about the surreality of the hospital. “I remember waking up in the middle of the night very foggy, not knowing where I was,” he says. “I didn’t know what was real anymore. Like, am I dead right now?”
Protagonists not knowing what’s real anymore is a thread throughout “First Day Back.” What is one’s real life, and what should it be? What was it before, and how much of it can be returned to? How much should be returned to? The answers differ dramatically from season to season; the stories are starkly different in tone and circumstance. In the first, Abecassis loves being a present and involved mother, and also wants to carve out alone time, to work; beyond that, she discovers that the filmmaking landscape has changed. Like many people who devote significant time to at-home parenting, she can’t “go back” to the exact career she had. (As you may have deduced, the changing podcast landscape provided a way forward.) Season 2, which Abecassis reported and narrates with gentle compassion, is often unbearably sad. Lucie shot and killed her beloved common-law husband, Gerry, with one of their hunting rifles, when they were home alone, drinking heavily, as they often did. Lucie was blackout drunk and doesn’t remember what happened. Now she can’t talk to his family; finding work is hard; she can’t bear to be around guns; she doesn’t drink; she’s devastated about Gerry. There is no going back—her new life is about sanity and survival. Another question the series raises: How much does a life-changing act define a person’s new life, even become its focus? (This is something I’ve wondered about for Earlonne Woods, of the amazing “Ear Hustle,” too.)
For Weems, the year after the event is starkly focussed on it, starkly defined by it. Abecassis says, “The stage is where he’s always felt the most alive—but now it’s a place of real trauma.” Can he not only overcome that but be funny about it? He tries to turn the asthma-attack experience into comedy. “I feel like 50 Cent when he dropped his first album,” Weems says, to a receptive standup crowd. “Like, 50 got shot nine times, I got an asthma attack. Pretty much the same thing in the streets.” As the season progresses, he will strive to build an ambitious set that includes his death material, a performance that can help take him to the next level. A person managing and reinterpreting day-to-day life in the wake of trauma isn’t a guaranteed zinger of a story; it’s a story with quieter plot points but potentially rich rewards. If Weems manages to alchemize his experience, those rewards will include entertainment for listeners and success for him.
In some ways, Weems’s struggles, before and after that night, have mirrored Abecassis’s: how to balance happy, stable domesticity with the unique demands of a creative life. How that plays out is yet to be seen, but we’re rooting for him. Weems is an appealing subject, lively and sparky and thoughtful, unafraid to consider the big questions. In the second episode, he talks about life and death in a way that brings Bruegel to mind. “We were sitting at a red light, and there was a guy walking across the crosswalk,” he says. “And I was saying, like, ‘If I didn’t come back, that guy would probably still be walking across this crosswalk.’ The world keeps happening. I’m just not in it.” This is the theme at the heart of “First Day Back”: the preciousness of everyday life, the hard work it takes to maintain and hold on to it, and the aching to get it back once it’s gone.