From depression to anxiety, panic attacks and suicide, mental health is a topic frequently in the spotlight in stand-up comedy, but why do those who bring the laughter to so many, seem to be struggling so much? A new documentary explores the mental health impact of comedy...
When you think of connection between comedy and mental health, we can hedge a bet at who first comes to mind. The late Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, aged 63. His enigmatic public persona meant his death came as a real shock to people, unaware of the emotional struggle he’d been having in private. But this is a struggle so many of us can relate to, and one that a new documentary from Funny Or Die and SoulPancake delves into.
Premiering on World Mental Health Day 2019, ‘Laughing Matters’ is a 30-minute documentary featuring 12 brilliant comedians opening up about their own mental health, and how it affects their performances. With comedians including Sarah Silverman, Rainn Wilson, Rachel Bloom, and Baron Vaughn, it’s a raw and vulnerable discussion about their personal mental health journey and comedy, split into five chapters.
The conversations flow from expressing their own individual experiences, through to the connection between mental health and comedy, and looking to break stigmas. They discuss their own reasons for being drawn to comedy – from Sarah Silverman feeling like she ‘needed to be funny in order to survive’, to Sara Benincasa opening up about comedy being a way to take down people’s defences, and Raine Wilson using ‘comedy to defuse situations’ and self-soothe.
While research has suggested that laughter can help to release the neurotransmitter serotonin (sometimes called the ‘happy hormone’), endorphins, and help us make social connections, a significant number of comedians discuss mental illness in their sets. So is it a case of more comedians being open and honest about their emotional wellbeing, or are comedians more likely to experience mental ill-health?
The idea that insecurity, as discussed in the documentary, can breed a need to draw laughter, might prompt us to re-evaluate how we perceive comedians who seem so confident to stand on stage, so quick-witted, so comfortable in themselves to put themselves out there. These are creative people so in-tune with emotions and trying to make the audience feel a certain way, drawing on some of their darkest moments, it suddenly makes more sense why these same people would feel so deeply.
With so many big names in the funny business experiencing mental illness, it’s a topic that’s drawn much attention over the years, and often prompts the question: are comedians more depressed?
With their electricity, and onstage charisma, for many it’s hard to imagine these people who bring so much joy and laughter to others, feeling anything but that same joy themselves. But what so many comedians in this documentary draw attention to, is the loneliness that can come when you step away from that stage, touring the country – it’s like you’re chasing that same temporary high that came from the performance, and constantly falling flat on your own in a strange hotel room. And then there’s the feeling of guilt – what do I have to be depressed about?
Comedy is a way to translate your darkest thoughts into a form that gives it a little less power...
The latter is certain a feeling so many people in any situation can relate to. When it comes to mental health, we have a habit of falling into a comparison trap and feeling like we don’t have a right to complain, or reach out for help, because someone else has it worse.
At one point, Sarah Silverman says: “Humour is how we all survive. I think a lot of people find humour in the darkest places.” Arguably, that doesn’t just go for professional comedians. Aparna Nancherla goes on to say: “Comedy is a way to translate your darkest thoughts into a form that gives it a little less power.”
Comedian Chris Gethard brings an interesting perspective to this poignant question. He says: “I have this theory that maybe percentage-wise comedians aren’t more depressed than the rest of society, maybe the rest of society just isn’t talking about it professionally.”
What this documentary gets across so well is the fact that what you see from the outside isn’t always the full story. You can’t take everything at face value; just because someone is smiling and laughing doesn’t mean that they’re not struggling. What’s important is that we reach out and keep asking questions, checking in with each other, and ensure that if and when someone is ready to ask for help, they know you’re there to listen.
A strong thread pulling together the various experiences in the documentary, is the idea that comedy isn't a solution to a troubled mind. Chris Gethard specifically addresses this, saying: "If you are thinking about doing comedy as a substitue for therapy, it doesn't work... I tried for a long time."
Throughout the video, Chris is the person who captivated me most, really digging deep into his own story and experiences. His comments are continuously so personal, and yet so relatable, and the most moving moment is in him recalling a conversation with his dad, who asked why he’d never talked to him about the way he was feeling at the lowest points.
Chris explains he didn’t want to let his dad down, and was afraid that he wouldn’t have been able to help him. And his response?
“I wouldn’t have been able to help you. I would not have known how to help you,” Chris recalls. “But I would have run through a wall to find the person who would have been able to help you.”
It’s in this incredibly vulnerable moment Chris opens up about his biggest regret being underestimating his dad, and not giving him the chance to support him.
It’s a moment that’s truly powerful, reminding us all watching just how connected we are, and how we all have a massive part to play in the conversations around mental health – whether we’re the ones doing the talking, or lending a supportive ear.
We might not be able to answer whether comedians are more susceptible to mental ill-health, but this documentary serves an important reminder to keep talking about how we’re feeling, whatever profession we’re in, and to keep asking each other how we can help even when we don’t have all the answers, because together you can try to find someone who might.
World Mental Health Day may be the 10 October, but the conversations we start today should continue every day. Check in with each other, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re struggling. You are not alone.
Watch ‘Laughing Matters’ for free on the SoulPancake YouTube channel.