I’m a believer that anything can be funny. There’s nothing that you can’t make a joke about. But here’s the thing – the tougher the subject, the smarter and funnier the joke-teller has to be. If you’re doing comedy about a tough subject, then the process of finding the comedy in it should be even tougher. Charlie Chaplin made a whole film attacking Hitler, in 1940, when the US was still at peace with Germany, and just two years after Hitler had been Time magazines man of the year. And the film he made was funny, and moving, and important. But not everyone is Chaplin.
Often, of course, it’s the lazy hacks looking for a cheap laugh gained through easy shock who are the loudest defenders of their right to say what they like, once in front of a microphone. Those that go to the well of controversy simply because its the closest and shallowest, all too often show that they just don’t have enough rope to lower their bucket into anywhere else.
But we’re talking about mental health here, so the question is: can comedy help, or hinder? Is it a force for positive or negative change?
And of course, it’s an impossible question to answer. As I’ve already mentioned, it depends on the comedian, on the intention. But the potential is there, and as mental health becomes less stigmatised and people slowly grow more comfortable being open about it, it gets talked about more, and the more people talk about something, the more people understand it, and that can’t help but be absorbed into culture and reflected back.
Comedy is a great medium for exploring ideas, and for getting personal. With every laugh you get from an audience trust builds, both ways. Just as satire and political comedy are all about shared ideals, personal comedy that involves things like mental health can be about shared experiences, shared feelings, even if they are feelings of sadness, panic or confusion. Sometimes just hearing that someone else feels them too can be something huge.
To see a character in a movie, or a TV show, or a stand up, or – in my case – a variety performer, who isn’t afraid to show the side of themselves that suffers from – in my case – depression, anxiety, OCD, but who also isn’t defined by it, is still fairly new, and all the more important for that. I think we’re still just starting to move away from one-note oddball “crazy” characters. It’s just another facet of who I am, and without all the interlocking parts, I’m someone else, perhaps someone who wouldn’t have become a comedy performer.
Comedy can break taboos, or it can re-enforce them, just as a hammer can build or smash, depending on who’s holding it. But the difference is, people come to comedy for building, not smashing. They come for happiness. And when it works, it’s something special. To see someone on a screen or a stage that truly reflects your struggles, talks about them with wit or bravery, well, that’s how you inspire others to do the same. To not judge themselves by one facet, but to embrace it as one small part of the whole. That’s when art and performance and culture can create feelings of community, connection and belonging. Like Timothy Leary said “Find the others”.
As someone who has talked about my own mental health both in print and on stage, it’s just as powerful for me, being able to make people laugh with my own stories about it, as, hopefully, it is for someone sitting in the audience hearing me. A perfect kind of mindfulness, keeping in a long moment by making people laugh. They forget their troubles and I forget mine.