It’s Okay To Feel Sad Sometimes
It’s no secret performers are crazy. From the Evel Knievel types risking their lives for the thrill and entertainment of their audience to the comedians trying for their big break in some small time coffee shop, the stigma follows that any person who would lay themselves out on stage in front of others is a bit off their rocker. Although creativity is closely associated with madness, there’s no reason to be afraid of such high energy folks. All performers really want is a big ol’ hug, to make up for all the times they were never hugged as children. That remedy may seem hilariously ineffective, but there is a bit of truth there. In reality, a number of performers, specifically comedians, are the way they are because of trauma or neglect, leading to developments of a spectrum of mental illnesses and related symptoms. Every one of us has gone through a personal trauma since birth, but for the few who make it out alive and unscathed, there are more who suffered endless abuse or neglect, creating a mound of insecurities to sort through that many hide behind as we age. A need for validation and acceptance is born and suddenly we crave to be noticed. Comedians have bested all of us in paying the greatest attention to that craving by willing themselves to bare all out onstage for the rest of us to enjoy. However, what many don’t realize is that there is a greater cost to being successful as a creative.
For many years, there has been a stereotype floating around that is most simply named the “Depressed Comedian.” Along with the title comes a picture of a weary, run down, alcohol-soaked, and/or drugged up performer stemmed from the fact that a large majority of the comedic community suffers from depression and related mental illnesses. As harsh as the imagery seems, comedians are indeed certifiably disturbed, as found by Oxford University. Using the Oxford–Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences, a survey simply referred to as O-LIFE, the study was searching for any correlation between creative people and bipolar and schizophrenic symptoms. The survey measures subject’s personal experience with Unusual Experiences (belief in the supernatural and magic powers), Cognitive Disorganization (Distractibility), Introvertive Anhedonia (reduces social and physical pleasure), and Impulsive Non-conformity (tendency toward impulsive, anti-social behavior and lack of mood related self-control). In all four areas, comedians were found to have a reading for both psychotic traits, having tested slightly higher in all areas than their close cousin, the actor (who only scored above average in Unusual Experience, Cognitive Disorganization, and Impulsiveness), and higher still than those in a non-creative field. Being labeled “crazy” generally doesn’t have a great connotation, yet there is still a deeper, darker force at work when dealing with instability. There’s plenty of working comedians who have come forward about the struggles their colleges and they themselves have faced. Wanye Brady, for instance, who stared on Whose Line Is It Anyway? offered his own outlook on his battle with depression:
It starts this cycle where you tell yourself these lies … and those lies become true to you … So, you stick to your own truth you’ve set up. ‘If I am this bad, then why should any of this matter?’ I feel at that point, you end up wanting to stop the pain.
There is a painful truth to be recognized, that the stereotype is in a way true as evidenced by the long line of beautifully talented performers who took their own lives since the beginning of comedy, being traced as far back as 1916 when Charley Case, an African-American vaudeville performer, allegedly suffered a nervous breakdown and died while “cleaning his revolver” as reports would later read (McGraw & Warner, 2014).
There are too many cases all too similar to Charley’s where things take a turn for the worst, but there is hope in the work of comedy itself. Humor is a reliable form of self-defense, as explained by researchers at Washington State University. They forward their findings by stating that we all react to negative life events differently, but humor has always been a relatively comfortable way to address painful situations directly without making us or others uncomfortable.
However, there is a very delicate balance to what will be considered funny. Let’s think in extremes. For instance, the reaction to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. According to Peter McGraw & Caleb Warren’s Benign Violation Theory of Comedy, this tragedy would only be funny once a significant amount of time had passed. Gilbert Gotfried made an ill-timed joke about a flight of his taking a stop at the Empire State Building that left us with a bad taste in our mouths. The Onion, a comedy website, had published an article a few weeks later entitled “God Angrily Clarifies the ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule,” that received a plethora of fan mail about readers who found catharsis in the parody. By the Benign Theory, The Onion’s post was funny because it diffused a painful and tragic situation, making it seem harmless, even in the given circumstances. When something that disarming is made harmless and laughable, the audience is able to let go of some of the stress related to the event.
The same coping mechanism is used by those who create comedy as well as the audience. Comedians have to special power and skill to bring their own issues and broken paths to to forefront, spinning them in a way that becomes harmless and far away, thus making it funny. When the performer expresses their thoughts, opinions, and troubles to an audience, the issue is a little less sad, and the laugh lifts a weight from their shoulders. By making us laugh and showing we like what we hear, a comedian is validated. In that moment of collective catharsis, we get the acceptance we all seek, even if it is only temporary. In the words of the late Robin William, “Every time you get depressed, comedy will be there to drag your ass out of it,” (1996).
With all the heavy, soul crushing talk of mental illness, it is important to point out that there’s a bright side! In fact, there are many who believe that mental instability is key for a great comedy routine. As mentioned previously, comedians test higher than pretty much everyone for psychotic traits, specifically found in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.“Psychotic,” can raise a few red flags in everyday conversation, so let’s break it down. Psychosis, by medical definition, is a disorder characterized by emotions that are so impaired there is a loss of contact with reality. There are a number of ways psychosis is developed, including disease, alcohol, and illegal drugs, most anything that damages the brain over time. Bipolar disorder is most simply broken down to violent mood swings as well as “high” and “low” moods, while schizophrenia concise mostly of audio and visual hallucinations, as well as split personality. These are a lot of scary things that don’t seem good in any way at all, but there is a silver lining hiding somewhere. Thankful, comedians don’t necessarily have these disorders and only share cognitive style, but in any case, these traits promote creative thinking, and help in creating routines filled with original, interesting, and thought-provoking material. Along with that, the bipolar cognitive style that would cause violent mood swings involves sudden shifts in processing information, which is an important aspect of comedy more commonly known as comedic timing, while the cognitive disorganization in schizotypal traits connects and associates odd and unusual things, going along with the “outside the box” mentality.
Regardless of the amount of research put into mental illness, there are still those that believe this serious health risk does not exist. One such person would be Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist ironically enough. The basis of his view is that illness can only affect the body, therefore there is no such thing as mental illness. He believes, “the term mental illness is a metaphor,”; the mind is sick in the same way a car or computer is “sick,” and that the diagnoses made are basically fancy names for behavior that annoys or offends others. These claims are a bit outrageous, in all honestly. For one thing, a fever does not have a physical presence, much like psychological symptoms in mental illness. Both are indicative of a bigger problem within the body, but unlike a physical injury, cannot be put in a cast or stitched up. That doesn’t make a fever any less real, so why is mental illness considered fake under the same circumstances? Szasz’s claims are altogether absurd and offensive, as mental illness has been detrimental to countless lives. Treating mental illness like a child’s tantrum or a computer virus oversimplifies a very complicated cognitive problem, invalidating and undermining all of us who suffer from mental illnesses today.
Mental illness is a serious issue in today’s society that has only recently gained public awareness. A plague in the comedian community, depression and other disorders are a daily struggle for those that work so hard to make others smile. Comedy truly demands a strong relationship between performer and audience, and while comedians are crazy, technically speaking, it makes their work all the better. Being a bit crazy means they see the world from a different perspective, so they are able to pick out details many others would generally overlook, causing us to miss out on interesting commentary on our world today. Coping through comedy is a difficult task, as it takes a trained eye and skilled performer to make a great routine, but by showing our love for our favorite comedians, we can help keep them and the community thriving for decades to come.
Osterndorf, Chris. “On Wayne Brady and Why so Many Stand-up Comics Face Depression.” The Daily Dot. 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
Ando, V., G. Claridge, and K. Clark. “Psychotic Traits in Comedians.” The British Journal of Psychiatry (2014): 341-45. ProfSearch. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.
Youngs, Ian. “Robin Williams and the Link between Comedy and Depression.” BBC News. 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
McGraw, Peter, and Joel Warner. “Is the Stereotype of the Depressed Comedian True?” Slate. The Humor Code. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
“Comedians Have ‘high Levels of Psychotic Traits’.” BBC News. N.p., 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
Mcgraw, A. P., and C. Warren. “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny.” Psychological Science (2010): 1141-149. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.