Comedy and Depression
Many comedians have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Woody Allen, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, and David Letterman have all been diagnosed. Owen Wilson attempted to commit suicide by slitting his wrists. John Belushi and Chris Farley died from mixing heroin and cocaine. Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison were both known by their substance abuse. The list goes on and on. Obviously not all comedians are depressed but I think a link can be established. This link can be extrapolated to artists in general but for this blog post I will focus on comedians. One wouldn’t expect someone who makes jokes for a living to be clinically depressed. There are obviously a multitude of reasons one can fall into melancholia, and many different kinds of comedians, that an exhaustive discussion on the subject would take a whole book. For example it is easy to see how someone specializing in self-deprecating humor could be depressed, but there are many comedians whose depression is not seen in their comedy. Even though the specifics vary from person to person, can any conclusions be drawn about an underlying cause of this link? Is there an object-loss that is common among comedians? Does being a comedian cause depression? Does depression draw people towards comedy, perhaps as a coping mechanism?
Even from the roots of comedy depression can be seen. In Aristotle’s day a common type of comedy depicted a character that cannot do anything right and is generally ugly. In these stories the ending turned happy and the character generally gets what they wanted, but most of the humor came from laughing at those less fortunate than the audience. This style of comedy has remained popular ever since, as can be seen in most Seth Rogan and Jason Segal movies. There is humor in misfortune, and many comedians live that role. Some comedians claim to have started purely because they were bullied in grade school. Patton Oswalt was a victim of bullying, until he started using comedy to make his bullies laugh with him instead of at him. For him comedy was the object that replaced whatever the bullying took from him, or at least preventing them from taking more of it. He says he still carries around “a poison vein of self-loathing.” The connection to Freud’s melancholia can be easily made here. There is an old quote that goes, “Strippers and comedians come from the same background, but comedians are ugly.” Many comedians did not have good childhoods. Richard Pryor was abandoned by his mother, beaten by his grandmother, raised in a brothel, molested as a child, and went on to make some of the best stand up comedy. An unhappy childhood and preexisting depression creates the drive to do comedy in some. I think the fact that humor and laughter are pretty much the opposite of depression attracts the depressed to comedy, and its ability to defend against depression. You can’t feel sad when you’re laughing. Freud says that “Feelings of shame in front of other people… are lacking in the melancholic, or at least they are not prominent in him.” Doing stand-up certainly requires a lack of shame, and provides a way for comedians to self-criticize as Freud discusses. Doing stand-up comedy is akin to showing an entire audience your ego, and judging it in front of them. The comedian frames his own outward appearance in this way. Comedy, like other art, is about exploring the innards of one’s unconscious and ego, and one likely wouldn’t be driven to do it if they weren’t critical of themselves. If one was satisfied with their self then it’s unlikely they would feel the need to explore their ego to the level many comedians do. Freud discusses how many melancholic patients can’t distinguish the lost object that gave rise to the melancholia, and comedy may be a way for people to try to figure that out. Narcissism also plays a role here. Anyone who goes on stage in front of people for a living is has more than the ordinary amount of narcissism. This narcissism I believe is a source of melancholia among many comedians. Freud describes melancholia as a narcissistic disorder, and often times an inflated ego is caused by insecurity. It makes sense that this insecurity could lead to emotional instability and then depression.
The argument can also be made that being a comedian can cause the melancholia in a person. For one, starting out doing stand-up is not easy. You do open mics for a while, don’t get paid, and perform to very few people who do not care to see you. If you do manage to break out of open mics and onto paying gigs, you oftentimes have to drive many miles to perform for more people that are not there to see you. You then get paid, and most of that money goes towards gas to get back home. You might do this for as long as ten years before getting a gig on the late show or starting to headline your own shows. I’m getting a little depressed just writing about it. Sometimes people never break out of opening for other acts, and naturally many give up along the way. The lifestyle is risky and often unrewarding. Those that do break through get to work in show business! I don’t speak from personal experience but it seems to me that show business is one of the slimiest businesses around, full of people trying to take advantage of talent. You don’t make money until you make someone else money. Another cause could be the pressure put on comedians to be funny, even when not on stage. This could cause one to set unrealistic expectations for oneself, and feel worthless when they feel these expectations are not met.
Comedians provide commentary on the world around them. There is another saying that goes “the truth is funny.” Comedians are required to think critically to uncover truth, and frame it in a way that is humorous. My favorite comedians make me realize something that is true, and make me think about it in a way that I’ve never thought about it before. This is usually because they deconstruct the topic in a way I have not or dig deeper into the topic than I have. With such a critical mind, eventually the critical gaze can turn on to oneself. Marc Maron has a joke that goes “in most cases, the difference between disappointment and depression is your level of commitment.” Comedians are committed to finding their own truths and digging as deep as possible, within the world, and themselves. Perhaps this is where a lost object is realized and comedians fall into melancholia. As I stated earlier, doing stand-up involves opening yourself to the judgment of a room full of strangers. This alone would cause me to begin judging my own ego. It would be difficult not to.
I have certainly barely scratched the surface on the correlation between comedy and depression, and can’t really make any conclusion about which comes first; the jokes or the depression. Although it seems if you weren’t depressed before doing comedy, you will be after you start! Unless you’re Jerry Seinfeld.
Feel free to comment so we can discuss more specific topics, this was a broad post
Here’s a related comic - http://i.imgur.com/HBnsU.gif