The notion of the depressed comedian is not a new one. In fact, we as a society are so hungry for poetic juxtaposition that a comic who hasn’t suffered heartbreaking mental turmoil comes as a disappointment.
The Sad Clown is a much-loved trope – we can’t get enough of the image of a sunny countenance masking internal agonies.
However, as much as it may be de rigeur to crack jokes while suffering inside, a comedian who jokes about suffering inside is quite a different matter, and a rather delicate one for any performer who wants to try to negotiate it.
Not that they don’t try. Plenty of comics have attempted to mine their mental illness for laughs, with varying degrees of success.
The best of them, like Felicity Ward or Corey White, manage to generate laughs while also bringing home something of the reality. The worst of them tend to be less comedy acts than personal catharsis designed to bum everyone out. And it’s hard to blame them for going down that road, because as soon as it seems like you’re making light of the subject, there will be a segment of the audience who finds that deeply hurtful.
It’s the same problem comedy has with all “touchy” issues: any member of your audience might have had traumatic experiences with the subject of your joke. You can’t know whether they have, or how they’ll react if they have. For every person who laughs in recognition at the situations you’re poking fun at, there’s another – or several – who are furious that you’re mocking their pain.
Reactions to what I will, insensitively, dub “mental comedy”, range along a spectrum, from “anything goes” at one end, to “how dare you use the word ‘crazy’, you are literally killing vulnerable people” at the other.
I believe that, as in most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle…though if I’m honest, it’s a lot closer to “anything goes”.
This isn’t just on the principle of free speech. I do hold quite strongly to the idea that we should be able to joke about pretty much anything and let the audience’s reaction be the final arbiter – but in the case of jokes about mental illness it all strikes a little closer to home.
I believe that letting rip on the subject is not just something that we should allow, but a practice that can be positively beneficial.
Now, before I go any further, let me say, as a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I do not enjoy being made fun of. Getting taunted for my illness, having people laugh at me for struggling to function: that’s not an enjoyable experience.
But then, being made fun of rarely is, is it? Apart from the very strange individuals who have reached a plateau of fame where the only way to jolt their jaded senses is to organise a celebrity roast, I don’t think anyone likes to be the target of mockery.
But there’s mocking me, and there’s mocking the illness. There’s laughing at me, and there’s laughing at the absurdities of my situation. There are worlds of difference between these concepts, even if at times those worlds can look like fine lines. The point is this, though: it can be hell living with mental illness, and in my experience laughter doesn’t make that hell worse, it eases it.
In fact if I couldn’t laugh at my madness, I’d go mad.
There are those who would say that even that last line is a step too far and that by laughing at mental illness we’re further stigmatising it. According to the theory that stigma is the greatest enemy for the mentally ill (a theory I personally tend to reject in favour of the theory that being mentally ill is the greatest enemy), anything that makes people feel their illness is funny, or silly, or ridiculous, should be frowned upon, lest it oppress further those who are already downtrodden.
We shouldn’t simply dismiss this out of hand. When you’ve been through something traumatic, it can be upsetting to be reminded of it. It can be doubly upsetting when the reminder comes in the form of a joke - it’s easy to feel you’re being attacked when you hear the source of your pain used for humour.
The impression can often be that the joker is exploiting your vulnerabilities. If someone hears a joke and feels hurt by it, it’s nobody’s place to tell them their hurt isn’t real.
But—without wishing in any way to upset those people who really do feel marginalised by jokes about panic attacks - that’s not the way I think about it, and I believe there’s more positive than negative in jokes about mental illness.
You can’t control anyone’s response to comedy, but if we moved away from the idea that jokes are a form of attack, I reckon my view might gain a bit of traction.
To me, mental illness is one of the most human phenomena there can be—it’s common, it’s widespread, and it’s one of the drawbacks of having the complex, fascinating brains that make our species what it is. And if there’s anything worth laughing at, it’s being human.
Because being human is funny. We are ludicrous creatures: brilliant and stupid and loveable and infuriating and clever and illogical and magnificent and pathetic.
Our bodies and our minds and our emotions are all weird, laughable things. We cry at movies that we know are completely fictional. We build solid houses to protect ourselves from the elements, then deliberately expose ourselves to the elements for recreation.
We walk around in bodies that wobble and jiggle and have bits dangling off them and constantly break down at a moment’s notice, and we think it’s all perfectly normal.
The fact that our brains go haywire – telling us things that aren’t true, making us frightened of nothing, forcing us to obsess over the unimportant – is so typical of us.
And it’s damn funny.
And it’s good that it’s funny. So often throughout my life I’ve been sunk in depression or in the throes of a vicious anxiety attack, and I’ve turned to my ability to make fun of my own state of mind to make the spell easier to endure. To remind myself of how ridiculous it all is, to make myself—and maybe others—laugh.
To try to find a chink in the brutal armour of madness that the illness covers my mind.
So yes. You can make crazy funny. You can poke fun at the absurdities of insanity. You can bring us all together in a collective laugh about the wayward ways of our own minds.
I’d prefer it if you did.
I don’t want to feel attacked, but I do want to feel that I’m not so fragile, not so weak, not so bizarre and exotic, that I can’t be subject to the conclusion that comedians came to eons ago: the human race is absolutely nuts, and the more nuts it gets, the more we should laugh our heads off at it.