The Uneasy Relationship Between Mental Illness and Comedy
I had to take a Xanax to write this article. My anxiety makes it hard to start; my depression and self-doubt make it hard to come to any conclusion. And so, in classic neurotic fashion, I begin with skepticism:
“Are you SERIOUS?” Marc Maron asked me, presumably rhetorically, upon hearing my reason for calling him. I don’t think he was trying to be mean. It seemed like genuine disbelief.
I told him that I was. That I believed — in the face of countless evidence to the contrary — that mental illness was an obstacle to good comedy and not a tool for its deployment. That there exists a culture now where 20-something guys use comedy as their only means of therapy, and that this is corrosive. I don’t mention myself — just vague young comedians.
“I’ve seen a lot of miserable guys do pretty amazing stand-up,” Maron said. He’s probably invited them all on his podcast at this point.
That mentally unwell people are drawn to comedy hardly seems controversial. Why wouldn’t a narcissist want to have a spotlight on him in front of a crowd of strangers? Plenty of vulnerable people are drawn to, say, Scientology; why wouldn’t some of them instead be drawn to the equally expensive cult that is the Upright Citizens Brigade?
I agree with, I assume, every other Splitsider reader: slightly crazy people make comedy more interesting and weird and dangerous. But something about the coziness between instability and comedy seems increasingly off to me. I tell Maron that I am worried about young comedians using humor in the place of actually confronting their problems. That it’s acting as an avoidance tactic.
Maron is not a therapist, hasn’t been to therapy in years, and doesn’t take any medication for his well-documented history with anxiety and depression. It is not too surprising that he disagrees. “I know very few comedians who haven’t wrestled with this stuff and often it’s the wrestling that’s funniest.”
I tell Maron, essentially, that this seems easier said than done. I don’t tell him that I can barely write an article right now, let alone a joke. But I do ask him how, when creating ANYTHING is hard, how can you make that creation funny?
It’s a question I’ve asked many comedians over the past few weeks. On behalf of troubled young comedians everywhere. And yes, on behalf of myself.
* * *
Eddie Pepitone — comedy legend, Brooklyn native, “bitter Buddha” — frequently gets letters from people who’ve seen him perform, thanking him for getting them through a tough time.
Recently, I was one of those people — it’s how I asked him for an interview. I had seen him in October, at The Bell House in Park Slope, delivering a set that was so righteously angry, so open to all Pepitone’s flaws and fuck-ups, that walking out of the theater I experienced the odd peace of someone who’s just finished sobbing.
Pepitone is so cathartic because his set feels contradictory. He’s still dealing with his human flaws and anxieties, but he’s also a survivor. Among his past crises was a nervous breakdown at the age of 35. Pepitone began experiencing episodes of anxiety and claustrophobia so intense that he couldn’t even enter a subway car. He was dependent on pot to calm him down.
Somehow, during this time, he managed to perform. But it wasn’t easy.
“It would take me two or three days to recover from that panic,” he said. “I would go on stage, I still was performing, but I was kind of a mess. It’s even kind of hazy… I can’t remember how I even pulled that off.”
He got sober, went to therapy, went on anti-anxiety medications (he’s off them now, but still carries a Klonopin prescription with him, just in case). And now, he said, anxiety is a major part of his act, but only because he’s had some perspective on his issues. “I feel that my comedy has gotten better now that I’m clearheaded,” he said.
“You don’t have any distance, it’s depressing,” he added. “You think you’re going to die and your life is a horror show and you can’t be funny when it’s that bad. You have to have perspective where you’ve gone through it — where you get through it. When you go oh, OK, I’m all right. I can be a funny person, I can see that I’m fucked up, I have all this stuff in my life BUT — I’m okay. You get to the point in your life where you go, wait, I’m NOT a piece of shit. I’m not a piece of shit because I feel these things.”
* * *
If you go regularly to open mic nights and indie improv shows, you will notice certain archetypes of struggling comedians: the panicky over-talkers, the undeservedly confident, the oblivious raging misogynist. But most prominent of all, to my eye, is the guy who is doing this because he is sad.
This guy imagines himself (and it is usually a “himself”) a darkly funny truth-teller. And indeed, he is being honest about his feelings. But he hasn’t yet grasped what’s funny about his situation. He’s just an asshole, standing on stage, making people uncomfortable with explicit details about his sex addiction.
Marc Maron, however, doesn’t think this guy is struggling because of his mental health issues — he’s struggling because he’s a new comedian. He hasn’t yet learned how to be funny.
“If you’re watching two or three year comics struggling on stage, that’s just the nature of the beast,” he said.
“Watching amateur comedy, or amateur ANYTHING, is painful,” he added. “Any artistic or expressionistic mode is difficult to watch, because it’s vulnerable.”
These young comics “are either going to fall into self-indulgent or sad traps” with difficult material, he said; more experienced comedians will know how to handle them, not because they’ve gotten treatment, but because they’re simply funnier.
“In terms of making those issues funny,” he added, “It’s up to the comedian.”
Maron said that getting sober helped his comedy. “I got less angry, more accepting of myself, definitely helped my comedy.” On the other hand, he argued: Richard Lewis has done fine by his “complete fucking insanity.”
His point (though he doesn’t come out and say it so bluntly) is that it’s a bit condescending for me to assume someone NEEDS help to be funny. That some people can function creatively in the middle of misery.
I admit: he’s not wrong. And still… I worry about those young comedians. I’ve spoken to enough of them to know some of them are avoiding treatment. I worry that they are romanticizing their mental illness; that they see it as the source of their power. I can’t really shake this worry.
* * *
People are afraid of losing their edge if they treat their mental illness,” said Paul Gilmartin, comedian and host of The Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast. “It’s so ridiculous.”
It’s an issue he confronts all the time: Gilmartin’s podcast is for and about creative professionals, often comedians, dealing with mental health crises.
There are obvious parallels to WTF. Maron and Gilmartin even have similar pasts, as both of their careers were nearly stymied by addiction and depression. There is, however, one big philosophical difference: Gilmartin came out of that experience to wholeheartedly advocate treatment.
It’s not just about feeling better, Gilmartin said — getting treatment makes comedians funnier.
“The breadth of how you can express yourself is limited when your mental illness is untreated,” he said. Joy, he said, can be as funny as frustration. And when artists feel a fuller range of emotions, they are “able to add those to the palate of how you can express yourself.”
“You can change your coping mechanism and still be funny. The funny just comes from a different place,” he said. “Funny isn’t keeping people at distance, it’s celebrating how crazy life is.”
* * *
Still, it must be acknowledged: comedians who go through dark times are also the funniest. As an example, look at every single person who has ever been successful in comedy ever.
But for genuinely good comedians, those dark times are usually in the past tense. Damaged comedians who haven’t dealt with their issues are like premises without punchlines: all tension, no relief. No surprise. No funny.
Even when funny is possible, for those talented enough to break through their unexamined problems, those issues can still sabotage actual success. For instance — a short parable:
Anthony Atamanuik is a wonderful, deranged, dark performer and teacher at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. He is a comedy hero of mine. He also, incidentally, went through a period in his early 20s where he regularly smoked meth, fucked prostitutes and made other bad decisions that also often involved meth and prostitutes. He lived to tell the tale, recounting it in a one-man show in 2008 called “Pissing My Pants on Vine.”
When Atamanuik’s show started getting attention, he was approached to turn it into a book proposal, possibly even a television pilot. He panicked about how his baggage would be branded for mass consumption. And he started drinking again, letting those opportunities fall by the wayside.
“I peeled the Band-Aid off too early,” he admits. “Now I could tell the show I did in 2008, no problem.” At the time, though, all those issues were still too vulnerable to him.
More than perhaps anyone else at UCB right now, Atamanuik is known for a pitch-black sense of humor. The team he’s on, Death by Roo Roo, interviews audience members about their abusive families before making an improv show out of it (one typical example: a story about an uncle buying a hooker for a 13-year-old kid).
“The more taboo the thing you’re dealing with, the more relaxed and matter-of-fact you have to be about it,” he said.
Darkness can be funny, he believes, as long as there’s also a beat of relief — a moment where the performer steps back to add comment, or perspective. Darkness is funniest when it’s acknowledged, something that comes naturally when you are outside that horror.
“When you watch [a tragedy], you get sort of a dark sense of relief that it’s not you; a sense of fear that it COULD be you; and between those things is a trickster or a Loki-like delight in the two,” he said. It’s that area he delights in now, because it’s a place where he’s comfortable.
* * *
I started taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade in August. I got obsessed with it immediately. By the end of September, I had a nervous breakdown that destroyed a long-term relationship and threw my sense of self into question. After that: I became even more obsessed.
I’m one of those comedy nerds who goes to improv shows multiple times a week, has more than one practice group, and thinks of Will Hines as a celebrity. But I struggle to be funny. It’s hard not to feel distracted in class and at shows by emotions that are suddenly, startlingly out of my control.
Occasionally, though, improv gives me small revelations. There’s a class exercise at UCB called “SUCK MY DICK!” — all caps definitely warranted here — that was invented by the brilliant improviser/teacher Shannon O’Neill.
Here’s how it works: students stand in a circle, with one person in the middle. That person reveals something true and shitty that has been on their mind lately. And then everyone yells out “SUCK MY DICK!” in support. The class keeps doing it until all the complaints run out.
I did this exercise for the first time recently. Here were some typical pronouncements:
“I can’t tell if I’m going to get promoted at my job or fired!” (“SUCK MY DICK!”)
“My fuckbuddy has confusing boundaries!” (“SUCK MY DICK!”)
“My divorced parents are arguing through me!” (“SUCK MY DICK!”)
It’s an unusual warm-up, and the purpose of it might seem a bit confusing. Is the point to leave your baggage at home? Or to use it in service of laughs?
Here’s what occurred to me then: it’s both. You deal with your shit and THEN you use it in scenes. You go to therapy, and THEN you add your alcoholic mother to a stand-up bit. You give yourself enough anger and distance from the problem so you can tell it to fuck itself, and mean it.
After that exercise, I found myself feeling happy, in control of my issues for the first time in a while. In class that day, I found myself making more adventurous decisions, less crippled by the idea of failure. I listened and took cues from my scene partners in the way someone stuck in a narcissistic breed of depression is simply unable to. And yes, I even got some laughs.
I am not a good comedian yet — though I am trying really hard! I am also not a totally mentally healthy person — though I am also trying! And yet, though my education is all ongoing, I’m starting to have confidence that I am right about this one thing.
There are plenty of reasons to recover from addiction, anxiety, depression, and trauma. You will be a better person and more attractive and also probably smarter and richer. But comedians are perverse people who often don’t care about any of those things.
So maybe this will convince them, and maybe this will convince me: get better — so you can get funny.