THE BLOG
06/14/2010 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Do You Have to Be Depressed to Be Funny?

The joke goes something like this: A man goes to a psychiatrist and tells him that he's severely depressed. He tells the shrink that he finds life to be unfair and cruel and he can't understand how other people seemingly go through life worry-free. He tells the doctor he feels lonely in this threatening world; that he's full of anxieties and is afraid it will only get more agonizing as he ages.

The shrink tells the man he thinks he can help. He goes on to say that he's heard about a great stand-up comic in town who calls himself the "Laughmaster." The psychiatrist tells the man he should go down to the comedy club and see the show and that, in fact, the "Laughmaster" trivializes the very worries that the man is talking about. The shrink tells the man that a good laugh will help him with his depression. The man bursts into tears and says, "But, doctor....I am the Laughmaster."

Those who understand the psyche of the comic know that many are neurotic, depressed, cynical types who find it difficult to function in the mainstream. Many of us have been abject failures in previous careers. (I was a systems engineer and was fired from five different positions in six years.) We often have narcissistic or even solipsistic personalities; demanding approval from total strangers on a nightly basis in the form of concerted laughter.

The idea that a comic is not always funny or happy can be a foreign thought to those not intimate with comedians. When my wife told one of her teaching colleagues that I was a stand up comic, her colleague was intrigued and said with no hint of irony, "Your husband's a comedian? He must be so much fun to live with!" My saintly wife's response was appropriately sardonic, "Oh, yeah, he's a real riot."

So what comes first, the comic or the depression? Circular cause and consequence only expresses the futility in trying to understand why comedians -- whose job it is to see the humor in things and be funny -- can be depressed. Clinical depression remains very much a mystery to researchers and even the most learned professionals readily admit they know very little about the causes of what Winston Churchill called, "The Black Dog." (The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon is the best book I've read on the subject.)

Statistically, those working in the arts have a high rate of depression and my own anecdotal evidence tells me that the stand-up comic's propensity for depression seems to be higher than that of the regular population. (I personally know half a dozen comics who have committed suicide in the last several years.)

The profession itself may be a contributing factor. "Standup Comedian" is unlike any job in the so-called "real" world and very much unique in the performance arts. It's one of the only art forms that offers full, uncensored autonomy and allows for unfettered thought to be voiced in public. Often described as the most frightening thing a human being can do (public speaking) the comic is voluntarily subjected to the looming threat of public humiliation.

Intuitive comedians see the world through their very own looking glass. We have an innate ability for spotting the absurdities, the injustices, and the futilities of the world and crafting them into humor; making them palpable and funny for those who are either reluctant to recognize the world for what it really is or simply don't have the kind of vision to see those frailties.

Death, war, religion, politics, poverty, slavery, divorce, disease and even depression are the fodder comics feed on, digesting the acrid and depressing truisms of the human condition and then serve it back up as palpable, if not innocuous entertainment.

Good comics are iconoclasts (some are misanthropes) who are compelled to challenge the power structure (both in their profession and in civilian life) and to liken the sacred to the profane. They are sensitive individuals who can easily read between the lines and have an irreverence for lauded institutions (I.E. organized religions) and find the world of politics anathema to them. We are eternally frustrated by the "civilians" who don't see the world the way we do. (We refuse to take the soma!)

The constant surveillance of an unjust world and the ninnies who run it foment the production of that unwanted but somehow unavoidable black bile and can wear thin a psyche that is already fraught with insecurity.

Comedians and depression go together like light and darkness and those vicissitudes (that are part of the creative process) can't be avoided.

Thankfully, drugs and an understanding spouse keep my cynicism from blossoming into full-blown nihilism. I suppose my wife could have married an accountant, but what fun would that be?

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