Why the World of Standup Is Both the Best and Worst Place to Battle Mental Illness

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The initial scenes of the pilot episode of I’m Dying Up Here – Showtime’s new dramedy set in early 1970s Los Angeles about the toils of emerging stars in the local standup comedy scene – are a con job. The audience is hijacked by cameras in love with a beautiful, brooding-but-brilliant comic, Clay Appuzzo, on the precipice of his big break. The highest honor for a comic in his day, Clay kills on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and “gets the couch” when he’s asked to sit alongside the guest panel, doubling-up his exposure. Then, after watching himself on TV arrive at the summit of the metaphoric comedy mountain, he commits suicide, walking headfirst into a bus.

Intimate flashbacks of him brought to viewers by his ex-girlfriend, comedian Cassie Feder, reveal a dark side of Clay, and the introduction of his parents – two emotionally detached East-Coast Italians he joked about in his act – indicates he never had a chance to explore whatever ailed him, no matter how pragmatic he considered his thoughts. In one flashback, after recounting for Cassie the story of Edmund Hillary and his inaugural climb of Mount Everest, Clay points out that Hillary and his team only stayed at the peak for 15 minutes, celebrating with soup on the way back down. “It’s all about the climb,” Clay stresses. “I sure hope the soup was good,” Cassie retorts.

I’m Dying Up Here is out to prove Clay right. After Clay’s death, Cassie settles for a relationship with underground standup Bill Hobbs, and the audience settles into a tale not about a polished performer always delivering top-notch material under the hot lights of stardom, but one of comedians ceaselessly clawing at the mountainside, working through new material, and wrestling with demons of their own.

“Comedy started to transition in the ’70s,” David Flebotte, co-creator of I’m Dying Up Here, observes, adding that it became an art form “more of self-examination and storytelling.” He cites the stylistic shifts of George Carlin and Richard Pryor as historical evidence. It was Carlin who rocked the establishment boat in 1972 with his critique of “the seven dirty words,” propelling him to a new level of notoriety. A year later, Pryor broke out with the release of the Wattstax concert documentary, which saw him give firsthand observational riffs on race relations in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois. “Comedy became much more cathartic and, for me, more compelling,” Flebotte adds.

Tossing characters that appear to be dealing with mental illness issues – like those that Clay must have had – into an artists’ community undergoing its own transformation is a volatile recipe for conflict. But perhaps the most intriguing part of this show’s premise is that its tortured characters, like real-life standups, take on the tall order of being their most vulnerable, formulating fresh jokes that are bound to fail, at least for a little while, in front of large groups of paying customers.

Though the struggle is real, it’s not impossible to overcome.

Paul Gilmartin, who began performing standup in 1987 – and like the I’m Dying Up Here character Bill Hobbs has a family history of depression – says he was always able to work out new material onstage, no matter the depths of his despair, because of “the anticipation of validation, pure and simple.”

Gilmartin, who is also in alcoholism recovery, got sober in 2003, which helped the treatments he’d been undergoing for depression become much more effective. “My whole outlook on life had changed,” Gilmartin says. He became “less cynical, less selfish, more willing to take chances because [he] had less fear of failure.”

“In many ways, anything creative I’ve done my whole life has been an alchemy of turning something shitty into something that can make me feel better,” Gilmartin says, citing his podcast, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, as one example. On it, he talks with “artists, friends, and the occasional doctor,” as its website explains, and it’s “geared towards anyone interested in or affected by depression, addiction and other mental challenges which are so prevalent in the creative arts.”

“Everyone’s life is going to suck sometimes,” Laurie Kilmartin, a writer on Conan and a 2012 guest on Gilmartin’s podcast, says through laughter. “I love straight observational comedy about everyday stuff, [but] I really love it when someone can unearth an emotion and really flip it on its side and give me a new way to look at it.”

Though she’s never been diagnosed with any mental illness, a recently grieving Kilmartin, who’s also been a comic since 1987, generated a swath of material dedicated to the death of her father, a process that she calls “tricky,” especially early on because she could become emotional onstage. “It took a while before it felt like just another topic I was addressing,” she says. But during a performance a few weeks ago, in the middle of some of her “dead dad jokes,” servers were dropping checks off at customers’ tables, and Kilmartin joked, “I never dreamed I’d be saying ‘my dad died’ while someone was figuring out what to tip their waitress and I’d be okay with it.”

To help alleviate the worries of new material missing its mark with an audience – personally sensitive material in particular – Kilmartin provides a strategy: “It helps if you have other funny material you can pivot to; like if you’re doing a 15-minute set, you can decide to take three minutes at minute five to just do the whole [new bit]. Then you have seven minutes to clean up and make people forget you bombed in the middle.”

New York-based comic Jon Fisch, who struggles with OCD, takes a similar approach when presenting fresh, personal jokes, or any other material: “I’ve traditionally been one of those people who will have my new joke ready to go on a given night, and if the audience and I are at a place where I think I can try the new joke, I’ll do it.” He says sometimes he’ll have a number of new jokes he wants to try, but he accepts that he might not get to all of them during a set. He also employs Facebook and Twitter as a digital version of open-mic stage time. “If the idea gets traction there,” in the form of likes or retweets, Fisch says, “I bring the material to the stage.”

Fisch, who’s been a comic for 18 years and just launched a new podcast called Spiraling Up where he talks about digging out of life’s struggles and ruts, began treating his OCD more than a decade ago. He says today he “has the tools” to combat urges to keep both of his sneakers always feeling equally tight – which is but one way his OCD may strike.

It took a while for him to accept that he even had a problem because his OCD was never crippling, but he admits it’s had a noticeable impact on his career, both positively and negatively. Fisch’s OCD makes decisions challenging for him – even fairly simple ones like buying a backpack. “My dad would always say to me when I was ruminating, ‘Why can’t you obsess about your career?’” Fisch recounts. “And it doesn’t work like that. You don’t pick. Your brain picks.” He laments time wasted and energy exhausted over choices he could have made with greater ease, with each one chipping away at moments he could have spent working. Still, his OCD helps him “economize words” while he writes jokes, which is a major key to a comedian’s success. He’s also never missed a performance, telling himself, no matter his disposition, “You’ve made a commitment to do this, so go do it. That’s your job. And it’s good for you.”

Comedian Baron Vaughn, a regular on the Netflix series Grace & Frankie and a one-time guest on The Hilarious World of Depression podcast, says he too had trouble recognizing his mental illness issues because such a topic has been taboo in minority communities. “Until the last couple of years, black people at large didn’t really discuss mental health and depression and anxiety,” Vaughn asserts, “which are part of being black in America. If you live with a certain amount of dread for your own personal safety every day, that is anxiety.”

Vaughn has never been diagnosed with anxiety or depression but has experienced symptoms, such as periods where he’s had an “inability to participate in life,” as he puts it. He blames depression for slowing his mind down until he hits a pause button, and anxiety for speeding his brain up so much that he can’t control his thoughts. But he says, “I manage myself.” Vaughn goes to a therapist and says he subscribes to the theories behind cognitive behavioral therapy, which have been helpful.

Vaughn also uses jokes “as a means of growth.” He says, “When I have these negative thoughts and feelings, I like to dig into them because I like to get under them and see what’s in there. Sometimes the audience can connect to that and sometimes they don’t.” He says, without judgment, there are comedians who are “mathematicians [that are] just trying to get a joke out there.” Then there are others like him who can be very intense onstage in their disclosing of thoughts. “Sometimes I think people feel like they’re getting slapped around by me,” he says.

In regards to doing new material, Vaughn says the comedian will probably never completely get over the nervousness that comes with those moments, so it’s best to just accept it, no matter how strong. “Shit sets,” as he calls those spots where he bombs, are all part of the process, something he might need to have had in order to rethink his material. Or, as veteran comedian Judy Elder tells Cassie Feder in episode 3 of I’m Dying Up Here, “Skinned knees… It’s all part of the game.”

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