When Comedy Becomes Therapy

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See Richard Gadd: Monkey See Monkey Do at the Banshee Cinema, 6th – 28th August, 9.45pm

‘Laughter is the best medicine’ is a phrase we often hear but we don’t really look that deep into it. Laughter, can actually save lives. In 2014, a study by the British Journal of Psychiatry found that those working in comedy may have “high levels of psychotic personality traits”.

We all know Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and David Walliams – big comedians who also happen to suffer from mental illness and are very public about it. It is a rather interesting concept that comedians, who are deeply unhappy individuals, some who also suffer with crippling social anxiety, can stand in front of thousands of people aiming to entertain and make them laugh, just to keep themselves from self-destructing.

What do we tend to do for distraction when we are feeling sad? Well, everyone is different. Some listen to music, get some fresh air or exercise. But others tend to stick a funny film or a TV show on to reverse that sadness, even if it’s only for that moment; to take away the sadness temporarily and just for that moment, it can let you forget about whatever is making you sad. Laughing, even for a short amount of time, can do wonders to your mental health.

A lot of ‘normal’ functioning people perform comedy because they simply enjoy it and are good at it but those with mental health issues can use comedy as a coping mechanism that distracts them from their inner-demons.

Paul McMullan, Naomi Petersen and Richard Gadd are stand-up comedians performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They all suffer with mental illness and their shows face these issues head on.
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See Paul McMullan: Alocopop at the Pleasance Bunker 3rd – 28th August, 9.15pm

After developing an alcohol-addiction, Paul had lost everything; his house, his job, and with two children to support, he realised he had to sort himself out.

He says comedy gives him some normality. “Prior to starting comedy, the only time I left the house was to go to work or attend meeting of Alcoholics. I realised I didn’t need alcohol to function. I learnt I could be around people drinking without me wanting to join in.”

“It also allows me to talk about my alcoholism and not to be ashamed of it,” he adds.

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See Naomi Petersen: I Am Telling You I’m Not Going at the Pleasance Cellar 3rd – 29th August, 3.30pm 

Naomi, who suffers from anxiety also says comedy has had a positive effect on her mental health. “I’ve actually found it to be pretty life changing. In the last year or so I’ve been in a much better place anxiety-wise, and I know comedy has played a huge part in that.”

“I feel it’s mainly about rediscovering a sense of play”, she adds. ” I’ve found writing and performing comedy to be a very joyous, uplifting experience. As adults, I think society actively discourages us from playing, from being silly and re-connecting with our inner child but I think it’s so important. Comedy is really all about finding and following the fun, so if you’re fully focused on that it’s so much harder to let those overwhelmingly negative thoughts creep in,” she says.

However, some comedians believe that comedy can also hinder their mental health.

“If anything it probably makes them slightly worse. The overwhelming apocalyptic feeling I have on a day to day basis is never so strong than just before I go on stage,” says Richard Gadd who suffers with insomnia, anxiety and depression.

“But the feeling of it going well – especially when you are exploring themes of mental illness and personal upheaval – gives you validation that it is okay to feel that way and that other people laughing feel the same way too, or at least understand. It’s catharsis in the purest form. Although my honest answer is it both helps and hinders my mental state,” he adds.

But when does making a joke about mental health go too far?

“I think you have to remember that it’s comedy, so if the audience don’t laugh you are doing something wrong. Make people feel uncomfortable if you want, but make sure the laughter is there to relieve the tension”, says Paul.

“Badly researched jokes that are based on stereotypes offend me. I think you have to be qualified to talk about certain subject matters. I have no idea what is like to suffer with bipolar disorder, so I won’t do jokes about it, but I know what it is like to be an alcoholic,” he adds.

Naomi says it is all about intention. “As soon as joking becomes deliberately mean, then it’s gone too far; as long as people are responsible and careful then I don’t think you’re in danger of accidentally going too far either.”

She says for her, it is all about care. “We have to care about our characters, about the people we’re exploring, about what we’re doing.”

Richard says comedy is about testing your emotions and the way you react to sensitive topics. He explains why comedy is important to form individual opinions. “It’s supposed to make you question things. It is a way of sharing and changing opinion. If you take away boundary pushing, what do you get? It’s just talking. Comedy becomes offensive when it’s just offensive for offensives sake – when it’s only there to cause offense.”

“It becomes discussion and that’s important. Testing people with opinion and subverting convention is essential,” he adds.

Richard makes a good point about comedy opening up debate and discussion. It can be a huge exposure to mental health awareness. Using comedy to break down the stigma is an incredible way to encourage people to talk about it in a comfortable way. As a sufferer myself, I will only get offended by jokes that are told by people who have no experience of whatever they are joking about. You don’t know what it is like to experience a mental health problem unless you have been through it personally – and for me, that is important. You need to know what you are talking about.

Paul, Naomi and Richard have found some sense of comfort using comedy to open up about their mental health. It has not only given them a platform to help themselves but it has also encouraged others to not be afraid to talk about it.

Paul says he has had a number of people come up to him admitting they have similar issues. “If one person who sees my show gets help because of their drinking problem, well then I’ve done alright really.”

Naomi tells me that by bringing mental health out into the open and laughing at it, then it’s no longer a taboo subject. “Those suffering will feel less alone and others are able to understand it better,” she says.

Richard explains that the impact of a recognised comedian appearing on television, talking about their depression and how they got through it, could do a widespread good to people suffering from mental illness around the country. “I’m amazed it’s not more commonplace by now. It’s getting better though – and I have every faith.”

Paul, Naomi and Richard will be performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For tickets to their shows, please visit: http://www.edfringe.com

3 thoughts on “When Comedy Becomes Therapy

  1. depressionistheenemy says:

    I really found this article fascinating. Despite humour being a simple and effective way to dispel episodes of depression (even if only briefly) I don’t find that it is talked a lot about on here. In fact, I am pretty sure this is the first article I have seen on the subject!

    • Brianna says:

      I agree with you, I haven’t seen a post like this on comedy and it’s pretty interesting. For me, I was able to think of comedy in another way–therapy. And I agree with the comedians apart of the post: it is rude to joke about an illness you’ve never experienced.

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