For anyone who has suffered with depression, you’ll know it can be an oddly comforting creature. Those dark times offer glimpses into the human psyche most people don’t know about or don’t want to see. A parallel could be a drug experience that alters people’s mood to unlock other areas of their personality, offering them new insights into themselves and humankind. Art—especially comedy—thrives in describing these distorted edges of the human condition that are not readily apparent to everyone.
That’s not to say that a person in the midst of suicidal depression is going to write a great How I Met Your Mother episode. Rather, it’s the pulling out of depressive period, with a more healthy understanding of the emotions that caused the issues, which can generate artistic creativity. Great art isn’t about extremes but a thoughtful diagnosis of those extremes.
Comedy Explained in 26 Words
The basic tenant of a joke is that everything appears normal and then, suddenly, there’s an unexpected result. A person is walking. They fall down. lulz.
From the unforeseen, comedy thrives. A person spins a tale and there’s some universality in the setup (airline food is bad) that provides a common ground between the comedian and the audience to share an emotional connection. Then the comedian states an unexpected punchline and—hopefully —laughter ensues.
In order to understand how to make people laugh without just cursing or smashing fruit with a sledgehammer, the comedian must understand how society as a whole views certain subjects. The common sets of beliefs the audience members brings in their heads to a show are what the comedian will use as his or her fodder. Since Americans are more students of European history than Asian history, “He was like a Nazi!” is a more common punchline than “He was like a Mongol!” Comedians must become students of relationships, amateur psychologists poking holes at life’s incongruity.
It’s finding these inconsistencies that are unique and have some air of universality to them, and then spinning the proper punchline to go along with it, that is the crux of any good comedian. While more goes into each joke than just that, there’s repetition in the process of crafting the perfect bit. It’s often rewritten or retold in front of peers or small audiences until the writer feels he’s flushed it out so he knows how the audience is going to react to each section of the bit.
Take my life–please
There are many topics comedians all enjoy tackling: race, politics, sex, gender, everyday nuisances. But there’s one thread that goes through every comedian’s set: self-deprecation.
Every comedian who is regarded as great at the moment; Louis CK, Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, and Jim Gaffigan, all deal with their shortcomings on stage. This isn’t to say that all jokes are personal memoirs of failures. In fact, the majority of any comedian’s punchlines aren’t self-effacing.
So then why are jokes where comedians are exposing their own fears, doubts, darkness, and faults funnier than those where they talk about their triumphs? Because being happy and positive is not funny. If Louis CK just said, “I love my daughter” instead of “My daughter is a douchebag,” would anyone find that funny? No.
There’s an odd correlation there. You go to a comedy show to laugh but, inherently, nothing being said is positive. One of the goals any comedian would state is that their act is some noble pursuit of examining the absurd truths of life and mocking them. The alternative–examining life but championing those truths–sounds like a shitty company retreat.
Self-reflection is a positive quality. A lot of average people don’t spend too much time taking stock of their situation. But for a comedian, it’s how they make money. It’s a constant look at their own faults, cobbling together material from those failures, repeating it onstage again and again, and having people laugh about it. Self-reflection turns into self-aggrandizing, self-doubt, self-whatever.
For people who suffer from depression, there are many emotions locked up under that general term. However, it’s the solemness that is often most quietly deafening. Depression is not a shared experience, it’s not like having a cold, something everyone has had. Even when talking with another person who has gone through it, one may think, “Yeah, but my depression was worse.”
What does this have to do with stand-up? They are mentally and physically alone on stage. It takes criticism to an unhealthy point, to the point where depression becomes an ingrained quality in the comedian. If you work out every day for 60 minutes, your body is going to change. If you spend 60 minutes a day thinking, “What’s wrong with me and how can I make fun of it?” and then going on stage and repeating that information in front of an audience, it’s going to take a toll on your psyche. While there is undoubtedly a connection to the audience that surges them to continue performing, there’s the inevitable comedown period. After the show, after the after-party, back in the hotel or apartment, lying in bed, questioning, “Is everything I said true?”
That seems like a haughty picture from an outsider, the sad clown alone in bed with his deep, arty thoughts. But if your career depends on your nibbling the thread of your own identity and continually discussing it in front of strangers who only response is noise, doesn’t it make sense that an overall question becomes, “Why is everything fucked up? And why do I keep wanting to joke about it?”
If you look at other people whose work revolves around comedy, like comedy writers or improv performers, the concept of depression is less prevalent, but it’s still there. There’s a built in support system, a band of similar people to offers solace in case the self-awareness becomes too much. Since their coworkers are going through the same mental process of trying to fathom/mock humanity, they aren’t as alone as stand-ups. If on stage at UCB, one performer goes too far with a self-deprecating joke, another performer will most likely balance it out with something worse, making the initial performer not feel as unguarded as they may have.
The Chicken vs The Egg i.e. Crying vs Masturbating While Crying
Going back to the initial question: Does comedy attract depressive types or does the routine of comedy create them? While the answer, “It’s a little of both” is consistently a horrible answer to any question, it seemingly works in this case. Depression is not a state of sadness without analysis, it’s a steady emotional gauging of, “How badly do I feel and why do I feel like this?” The second question is the beginning to any idea for a comedian’s joke.
When a simple situation arises that causes a person to feel an emotion; annoyed, frustrated, awkward, pensive, horny, etc, that’s when a person’s mood can go in different directions. Objectively, it can be simple, “I picked the wrong line at the grocery store and now I’m just going to have to be frustrated. It will pass.” Others will spin it into a massive episode, “I never pick the right lane. I wish I was dead.” For a comic, it could be, “I picked the wrong lane. Why do I want to gouge my own eyes out? Is this how angry my parents got when they had to wait for an extra 52 seconds back in the ‘70s? Why is this woman waiting for all of her groceries to be checked and then pulling out her credit card? Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet?” Hilarious stuff.
Since comedic writing takes roots in the person’s understanding of self and an awareness of how they are trying to fit into society, a depressive person’s need for introspection coalesces nicely with a comedian’s need as well. Both are striving for the same thing, conceptualization of the pain or angst or other emotions, both are trying to figure out how to end up feeling positive. One of them just ends up making fun of it for money.
The money aspect of comedy, specifically the actual routine of it, seems mildly unhealthy. While calling a ten-minute set at the Laugh Factory a “therapy session” is a slight to actual therapy sessions, there is a similar sense of catharsis. A constant theme any comic brings up is that rush of being on stage, of opening up about a particular incident and finding a kinship with the audience over that subject. Imagine doing that every day, being paid to bring up intimate moments about yourself…
While the above is an extreme example, it’s an amazing story that intertwines the fear of death, an adult’s view of his relationship to his parents, and a dissemination of religious rituals–all while never feeling as morbid as it sounds. Now, imagine repeating that bit, or anything dealing with your personality in a critical light, over and over again to a room full of strangers who might be mildly intoxicated.
A comedian needs to convince the audience of his or her authenticity. Telling a story without trying to convey the emotions of the actual story won’t work because people, generally, are perceptive enough to determine when they are being told lies. To convey this honesty to the audience, the performer needs to tap into the emotional state that generated the story. They don’t need to exactly mimic it (if they had a panic attack while eating Frosted-Mini-Wheats they don’t do a play-by-play, but they need to portray a semblance of their feelings during the event). How healthy can it be to constantly discuss and remember a mother’s passing or a breakfast cereal?
In the end, if you ever see a comedian, give them a hug. They will love it, even if they are calling you a Mongol.