The number one fear of all comedians is dying on stage. I know, from my infrequent forays into stand-up. It’s a fear that grips you in both the darkness of the night, in the broad light of day. It focuses the forging of your next (hopefully) funny joke. It makes you see the world around you through the lens of wit and wise-crack. It blurs the lines of your own internal laughter and what your friends and audiences find genuinely amusing. But you go on. Everything has comedic potential. Even in areas of life that don’t set themselves up for being picked off as new material, you wrestle something abstract out of them – even if no one ever knows or will ever care. It’s a way of making sense of the world, of coping – of surviving, even.
The late comedian, Mitch Hedberg, said: “I sit in a hotel room and when I think of something funny, I write it down. If the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of wasn’t funny.” Even if you can make a joke out of anything, you can still feel crushingly lonely.
Comedy producer and performer, John Lloyd, observes: “Stable people think the world’s fine as it is. They don’t see any particular need to change it. Creative people don’t feel like that. People who want to change the world tend to suffer a lot for it.”
Comedians can often be prone to depression, bipolar and mania – that was the finding of a study by Professor Gordon Claridge from the University of Oxford (published January 2014). As we mourn the loss of the great Robin Williams, we recognise that though laughter may be ‘the best medicine’, those who administer such remedy are not always immune to its polar opposites. Stephen Fry, Jack Dee, John Cleese and Ruby Wax are just a few big names to have had big problems with their mental health. And yet we consume them just the same – their humorous observations, honed hilarity and propensity to push the boundaries. On the spot-lit stage or silver screen they may be heroes of the night, but behind the curtain, backstage, or back at the hotel, it’s not so easy to get a buzz from a barrage of belly laughs. That’s why a network of support from friends and family – even professionals – can be vital in helping comedians or anyone who relies on the affirming responses of the masses to survive and thrive.
Pastors and evangelists fall into a similar set of circumstances. Internalising and ruminating at why their efforts appear successful one evening but not the next can be unhealthy and equally acute. Jesus often took time out to be on his own and pray (Luke 5:16), but he also spent much of his time living in community, first with his family, then with his disciples. He got the balance right.
Among the three proper gigs I did as a stand-up I was a resounding success in one and pretty much died in the other two. That was four years ago, and I’ve not gigged since – even though I always say I will again… ‘one day’. I’ve struggled with depression and the like, but found God’s strength, hope and healing through supportive, gentle friends, and CBT. I do like writing comedy, but when the gags come thick and fast (often as I’m trying to get to sleep), I wake up in the morning and half of them just don’t seem funny anymore. Still, I do want to ‘change the world’. If part of my contribution to that is encouraging those suffering with mental health problems to get help, and help that heals and leads to resilience, then ‘ladies and gentlemen, I’m here all night’.
This is an emotive topic. If you need to talk about anything, Samaritans are there to listen.