Depression and Comedy

There has long been an association between depression and comedians, perhaps the most spectacular being Spike Milligan, one fo the UK’s most brilliant, who was for most of his later life unemplopyable due to his unreliability. This is an article by Jessica Barrett in the i newspaper:

“I’m paraphrasing but Friends actor Matthew Perry told me during filming, ‘comedians don’t have a franchise on misery and loneliness, says Kevin Pollak, the director of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy. “But they do have a pretty good corner on the market.”

It’s true that there’s a potent correlation between wanting to make others laugh and a struggle with depression – but do you have to be miserable to be funny? “In America the No 1 fear, above death, is speaking in public. So I wanted to exploore what kind fo brain it takes to do stand-up. Is it masochism mixed with narcissism?” says Pollack (who’s been a stand-up comedian for more than 40 yers, as well as starring in films like The Usual Suspects and The Whole Nine Yards). “and the high that comes from being on stage: endorphins are being released. If you are clinically depressed why would you get on stage? Just to feel good for an hour?”

The documentry – which premiered at Sundance last week – started as a project purely about comedians with clinical depresseion. But Polack saw an opportunity for something broader. “I was basically interested in capturing who neds to stand in front of a room full of strangers and elicit laughs when it’s the most difficult emotion to elicit,” he says.

“The first hour of the film is an exploratin into who these people are. I want the audience to know what it is to firstly see funny, then decide, ‘I want to be funny’, then go through the hellish fire that is the profession. You suffer the most rejection in the whole industry.”

Polak delves into the standup’s desperate need for acceptance, which often starts in childhood. “Children suffer from what I call ‘hey look at me’ disease – they want attention,” he says.

Hollywood’s current king of comedy, Judd Apatow … admits to putting rocks u his nose and pretending to be a slot machine for attention. “People would pull my arm and rocks would fall out” he tells Pollack in the film.

Pollak, wih producer Backy Newham, had long begun the process of interviewing comedians for the documentary when it ws reported last August that Robin Williams… had committed suicide… His battle with depression was someghing he had been speaking about with Pollak, an old friend from the San Francisco comedy circuit, before he died.

“He had been on and off meds his whole life. I could sense in him as we spoke at length on the phone that this was a subject that he wanted to talk abut; the brain of the comedian and the ego and the sensitivity of that performer.

“Talking at length to me about it – and it’s startling that it’s a subject that for the most part has gone undiscusssed in the public forum – he seemed excited for this opportunity for fans to peel back the curtain and find out just what the hell is under there.”

After Williams died many were flbbergasted that someone who had devoted his entire life to laughter could have secretly been unhappy enough to end his own life. But it’s hertbreakingly common: Tony Hancock committed suicide in 1968; Spike Milligan co-wrote a book cvalled Depression and How to Survive it; sndf bipolar and depression sufferer Stephen Fry has spoken regularly on the subject and how close he came to permanent oblivion” during some of his worst days. Kenneth Williams once said: “I certaily wouldn’t call myself a happy human being. All the comedians I’ve ever known have been deeply depressive people, manic depressive. They keep it at bay with this facade.”

Pollak, 57, agrees that it’s a survival technique: “Comedians don’t just want attention; they want laughter and a moment of glory. I think it’s something about salvation. It’s not just an occupation; it’s the greatest form of group therapy that’s ever been. I think this documentary, getting comedians to open up and talk abut it all – it almost seemed like they had been waiting for someone to ask.”

There are more than 60 comedians in teh 90 minute documentary which benefited from $50,000 Kickstarter campaign (though Pollack admits the campaign was more about raising awareness of he project in Hollywood than raising money – they already had $30,000 to begin with).

There’s Larry David who has made a career out of being miserable; he confirms to Pollak that the rumours that in his early days of standup he used to walk out onstage, take one look at the audicne and sya “no” before walking off are very much true.

Alan Partridge creator Steve Coogan tells Pollak that a comic’s skill comes from “making your pain relatable”, while Clerks direcotr Kevin Smith shares the story of a comedian friend who was “Days from teh end” folowing a severe bout of depression. Smith says inteh film that he eventually pursuaded the friend to share a podcast on teh subject. Says Pollak: “The very feelings that had im on the edge, once shared with strangers, were the exact feelings that saved his life.”

Though there are some really heartfelt moments in the film, and despite the subject matter, Pollak had no choice but to edit the dcumetnary as a comedy. “The truth is comedians can’t help but be funny, even whn maksking pain. It’s one thing to suffer from depression or misery, but it’s another thing to articulate it so it’s absolutely hilarious.”

I am intrigued by this film, and it sounds like a lot of fun as well as adding a lot of fresh ideas to the field of mental health, but there are a number of oddities here. NO mention of any women. Standup has long been a male dominated field, but so is pop music, maybe to do with the sweat and sawdust enviroment which is itself mostly a male world. Or are women better at finding family and/or friends to talk things through?

There is also a lot of Jewish comics, and Irish, both traditionally an underclass, both with a heavily oral culture, so talking would come more naturally to them than to other groups who are more likely to write down their problems, or perhaps exercise themselves into exhaustion to blot out their problems. Standup is also, by the nature ofthe business, largely an urban art form, often in run down areas, so both comics and theri audiences may be less likely to get out and go for a bracing walk in the country, to sort out their problems.

Whilst posting this I have been talking to a guy involved in standup who suggests that having problems has become incredibly fashionable, hence there seem to be so many depressed stand ups, and apparently one of the reasons Stephen Fry did not talk about it for a long time was that he didn’t want to be seen as jumping on the bandwagon of mental illness.

Another point, I thought Robin Williams killed himself when he was diagosed with – was it dementia? In which case, his suicide becomes not caused by depression, but by a passion for living a idependent life.

But there are also notions that I can recognise from history- Depression can be an incredibly painful, isolating experience, something that seems to have been part of the cult of the saints. A depressed person, not wishing to burden friends and family wiht problems, could meditate or discuss problems with an appropriate saint, or even a priest.

And the actual process of comedy is similar to the early scientists I have written about elsewhere, that tested their work in private, then put on shows and encouraged others to try them at home, just as audiences take the jokes away with them to share. There is something here that is about exploring ideas, and in so doing, learning abut how our minds work, what makes us smile, what doesn’t.

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