Friday, December 14th, 2012

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.

Jaime Lutz is a professional writer living in Brooklyn and going to therapy on the Upper West Side. You can follow her on Twitter.

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  • Splitsider


  • http://twitter.com/AlannaMarieS Alanna S

    fantastic article, thank you.

  • patrick

    this is so good. all of it. thanks for writing

  • Clayton

    This is great. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/MoFoley Mo Foley

    Beautiful. I'm about the same place in the process of becoming a comedian as you are, just finished iO in Chicago. Much funnier when I'm in therapy. Besides, I'd rather be happy and sane than a sad famous comedian.

  • Milos

    It's great to read an article about a subject that's been on my mind recently. thanks

  • http://www.facebook.com/denys.a.petrov Denys Petrov

    this is a great personal view-point, but i don't think you can ever really generalize any group of people, comedians or otherwise. everyone is different. some are debilitated by their anxiety and depression, others channel it into funny stuff. some use comedy to escape, others confront their challenges and fears on stage, in front of an audience – similar to group therapy. stand up comedy is different and unique for everyone. we all use it for different reasons/methods/results. and i think that's what makes it pretty special. i'm glad you were able to find a way to deal with your issues, and it might work for others. but at the same time, there will be many where this method will fail and they'll have to find their own solution.

  • ComedyMakes


    Thank you for writing this.

    Comedy is a SERIOUS-BIG-DEAL art-with-a-capital-FUCKING-A and the state of it is… well, as old of an art as it is, it's also still a young art that's underdeveloped. There is a LOT of gold to be mined, and mostly people pick over the same few nuggets/terrain. Way worse than re-interpreted music (read: not exactly original) and fine-art comedy hasn't even begun to spread it's wings, EVEN after the comedy greats of the past. Comedy is so huge. It's so deep. It's so direct. It's so cathartic. It's so humanizing.

    Here, take my wife, please…. Funny has this weird way of skirting along the edges of cultural context and as such it can be used to reinforce the bars of our cages or to cut thru them. One of those things is much more fun than the other.

    I don't agree that comedy comes from sickness, although it may very well come from acknowledgement of sickness (or repression) in society. which is a healthy thing, even if those who perform it have often, traditionally, been martyrs to the art. I think they did that to pave the way, so that we don't have to. And so, it would be pretty stupid to continue an empty tradition that's no longer relevant — unless one is just unoriginal. Which, in comedy, is a bad thing.

  • Dave

    Excellent article Jaime. I was looking for and needed something like this. It hit very close to home and I feel better after having read it. This kind of insight should serve you very well.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnCBaer Ole' Jaybles

    What about the concept of parading out people with mental illness to watch them act crazy? Don Barris and the Ding-Dong Show are notorious for this type of humor, which can be alternately hilarious and nauseating depending on the individual.

  • SB

    Such a great article. I've been thinking about this but never researched on it. Comedians are seriously deranged people for the most part and at some point I began to just accept it. I've become a negative person and have used my actions for jokes and I'm currently going through a breakdown. I've also been hiding behind my fears by turning them into jokes which is not healthy at all. This is giving me great perspective. Thanks very much for writing this article.

  • Liz

    I'm a little bit confused by this article. It starts out with a very, very autobiographical slant – as if you are an obvious example of a comedian living with mental illness – and then near the very end you reveal that you've been taking classes at UCB for maybe… 4 months now? Not that your personal experience doesn't count, it just doesn't seem entirely relevant to the subject. If there is anything to be said for how mental illness affects comedians in general, it is certainly distinct from how mental illness affects people who recently started taking improv classes.

  • sara

    whoever said turning fears/negativity into jokes is unhealthy is misguided. it is the freedom and release you get from expression that cures us.

    • clubmarkgirard

      I agree it's not an attempt to avoid depression, anxiety, hate and all those negative emotions that life often puts upon us. When I think of Bill Hicks, Doug Stanhope, Sam Kinison and others of that vain I don't think of them as mentally ill at all. Quite the opposite they are sane people living in an insane world sharing their dark politically incorrect views couldn't be healthier for them or their audience. I'm sorry this writer has to pop pills just to get a blog written but he shouldn't speak for everyone. Pain and suffering are often when artists do flourish…I'm even tempted to tell Jamie Lutz…you not doing it right…(but I won't hehe). Here's what I say to him grow a pair and just write your damn articles. I've been depressed and anxious and I've had lots of people actually fuck me over in my life and it stops me for a time but eventually I just come back better and stronger. Although one day I expect their attempts to suck the life out of me to succeed until it does fuck everything that makes this life horrible I'm not going down just because the world is crazy…turning that shit around and making it something positive is what comedy is all about.

  • sara

    whoever said turning fears/negativity into jokes is unhealthy is misguided. it is the freedom and release you get from expression that cures us.

  • D Roc

    You raise some good points here. Please don't call UCB "equally expensive" as the cult of Scientology, however. That is beyond ridiculous.

  • http://twitter.com/Fletchathustra Fletcher Wortmann

    I think for a lot of people humor can be a way to get validation and approval from others, which is one of the few things that can (sometimes) compensate for really powerful self-loathing (and for me, writing jokes was one of the few things I could do I felt I had absolute control over, which made it something of a relief from my OCD). Comedy can help you confront your own suffering, and it can be a really immediate, cathartic way to confront others with the reality of mental illness.

    But I agree with Jaimie here. Once you dredge that stuff up, you have to figure out how to challenge it and eventually find a new, healthier, durable way to manage it. Comedy (and creativity in general) can be a part of that, but not all of it. Your self-worth can't be contingent on external appraisal, because eventually you aren't going to get the affirmation you need, and you'll need something else to fall back on.

  • http://www.schmaltalk.com/ Erin > schmaltalk.com

    I loved your take on these issues; I'm in a similar position so I've been obsessing about the mental health/humor connection lately. I appreciated the variety of perspectives that you offered – thanks for sharing.

  • p

    I think, in addition to depressed people thinking that they need this "inspiration," American culture really doesn't glorify happy people. Look at a typical romantic comedy, the main characters are obsessively worried annoying people and the happiest person in the film is usually some kind of comic relief stoner who appears for 3 minutes. And also there's kind of this troubled artist myth, and a lot of well-publicized role models for people who think differently, and wouldn't ever watch that kind of movie, are pretty troubled. I read more interviews with musicians than comedians, and it's been kind of a relief, while getting older and less anxious myself, to realize that some of the weirdest, most underground artists are pretty happy people. They make something unexpected because they have a work ethic but are relaxed enough to break their own rules, not because they're scrambling to get out of a corner.

  • http://www.facebook.com/themikegerber Michael Gerber

    Good article, Jaime. Thanks.

    Of course it's impossible to generalize, but comedians—or any creative people—who give mental illness center stage in their creative process are, whatever the reality, playing a very dangerous game. It is difficult enough to be sane; but these often very sensitive–and I would say, truly precious–people are betting that they won't get worse (that is, too bad to keep creating), and/or that what they receive from staying sick (fame, money, approval) will be worth the suffering.

    If Richard Lewis, for example, can't live more comfortably–if he's tried stuff, and it doesn't work–then being ill-but-funny-and-famous is of course better than the alternative. But if he hasn't tried stuff, just because he thinks he might be less funny…that's (probably) some aspect of mental illness talking. Replace the word "funny" with "thin" or "pretty," and it becomes clear. A professional comedian saying "I can't get therapy because it'll make me less funny" is like a professional model saying, "I can't eat anything because it'll make me fat." Not always wrong, but certainly an area prone to cognitive distortion.

    Similarly, it would be a shame–not for me, but for him–if Marc Maron stopped the process he started with his sobriety for any reason. He's a brilliant guy, and the world needs him to keep seeking what works for him, not getting just enough wisdom to keep him comfortable in the fucked-up little world of standup or comedy or whatever. I love his podcast, but because I love his podcast, I want him to be well and thrive–whatever that turns out to mean for him–not keep dancing like a monkey on a griddle, just because his dancing makes me laugh. Only he knows what works for him, but I hope he keeps moving towards happiness. The happy people I know laugh a lot.

    Perhaps some types of innovation can only be discovered by people who are really outside of the herd–Lenny Bruce; Richard Pryor; Del Close–and mental/emotional distress does put a person there. But at what a price! And once that person's innovations are incorporated into the art, other people going down that road can be pathology, not comedy. John Belushi began taking drugs as a kid (he told a friend of mine) to emulate Jimi Hendrix; Chris Farley certainly idolized Belushi; and now, we're left with three dead artists who produced much less work than they could've, and (certainly in the case of Belushi and Farley) the work they DID do was diminished by their habits. Overcorrecting for show biz's bad old days when Bob Mitchum was busted for a joint, since 1965 or so comedy's tendency is to romanticize mental illness and addiction. We should be aware of that, and try to see it as clearly as possible, good points and bad.

    The only way to really judge something like this is to look at the totality of someone's work–and then also remember that comedy isn't the only thing that counts. It's all well and good for us fans to dismiss the mental illness of a comedy person as necessary, or see it as redeemed by that really funny bit. "I don't care of Lenny Bruce/Pryor/etc was fucked up, he was really funny." Yes, he was really funny, and gave a lot of strangers moments of pleasure. But mentally ill behavior also inflicts a ton of damage, and for that reason alone I always hold out hope that therapy/medication/some kind of amelioration is available to funny people. I've always felt that part of being a fan is holding comedy people as truly beautiful and precious–and so I want them to be well, not suffer needlessly just so I can laugh.