Finding the Funny

More and more stand-up comedians have been making shows in which they talk very openly about their mental health. But what do the audiences get out of this? What do performers get out of it? And what are there risks involved?

“I think that stand up, accidentally, has always been focusing on mental health, but it’s just never kind of realised it. What I mean by that is that I remember going to comedy clubs 15 years ago, and people talking about being single, talking about being broke, talking about their relationships with their mothers, and actually all they were trying to do was reframe the really dark stuff.”

Dave Chawner

Dave Chawner is a British stand-up comedian who is also a mental health campaigner, making numerous appearances on national TV and radio. He began talking about mental health on stage in 2014, in a show called Normally Abnormal, which addressed his struggle with anorexia.

“I think for me it was a passion project and I think how I felt about it was nervous because I wanted to do it justice but ironically, I actually felt more comfortable talking about mental health than I did doing club sets. Because I felt there was, without being snotty about it, more value. I felt it really gave me a lot more meaning and purpose rather than going ‘ha ha ha, isn’t this a silly sign?’ Or ‘someone said this on the bus’. I felt that there was an explanation there, as well as the kind of entertainment value.”

Dave Chawner

For Chawner, as well as being therapeutic, comedy has a unique ability to cross cultural boundaries and connect people.

“One of the reasons I think it’s the cornerstone of mental health is it is one of the very, very, very few art forms that transcends class and it transcends gender. No matter whether you are rich, poor, middle, upper, lower working class, whatever it is, humans can laugh before they can talk and I think you can really use that in order to transcend those cultural boundaries in other ways that other art forms and, to be honest, other outlets don’t really reach.”

Dave Chawner

Chawner is also the creator of Comedy for Coping, a series of workshops that teach people to use humour to connect with others, overcome isolation, and improve their mental health. Across the UK there are similar examples of people teaching stand-up comedy skills to improve people’s mental health.

But telling jokes about your mental health also has its risks. Juliette Burton is a comedian with multiple mental health diagnoses who has talked openly about these on stage since 2012. It’s brought her a great deal of success and acclaim but she admits that it has been a learning process.

“I used to seek external validation from audiences. I now understand why that was. I do not judge my past self for that, but, much like with social media, I was searching for an external validation of a sense of self that hadn’t been properly built within me from childhood upwards. So if you’re going into performing comedy, with unmet childhood needs, then that is not a good way to go. Please don’t. Please do some work on yourself. Take years away to work on yourself before you put yourself out there on stage. Otherwise you can potentially cause yourself even more problems in the future.”

Juliette Burton

Australian comedian Felicity Ward has been talking candidly about living with anxiety and depression for over ten years now. She says it often takes her three or four years to go from writing a joke to actually putting it in a show.

“One thing I would say to anyone who wants to talk about their mental health is make sure that you have dealt with the crux of it before you start to talk about it on stage. So I don’t talk about anything that I haven’t spoken about in therapy, that I haven’t worked through a good chunk of, that I don’t feel like it will upset me to talk about it again. I know lots of people have something traumatic happened to them, and then they start writing material about it straight away. For me, that doesn’t make sense for lots of reasons. One, I don’t know how I’m going to react in the future. I don’t know what else there is to come up about it. Emotionally, I mean. I’m a very big advocate of therapy and support groups and have participated in both for nearly 20 years. And so when I get on stage to talk about it, it means that I’m not going to, to use the buzzword, retrigger myself. But also, I’m a safe person to talk about it, the audience won’t be worried for me. And if they are, I can still hold their insecurity, while I feel secure myself. There’s nothing worse than when you think you’re okay with something, and then an audience responds to it in a way that you don’t expect. And then it rattles your foundation.”

Felicity Ward

At its best, comedy about mental health can be a cathartic experience. One of the most famous recent examples is Nanette by Hannah Gadsby, in which the Australian argued that making self-deprecating jokes about painful and formative experiences of homophobia and sexism had been so damaging for them that they were considering giving up comedy entirely. 

Juliette Burton experienced a similar epiphany in recent years.

“So there is a term that I learned in the last couple of years, in my ongoing journey of therapy, called performative surface level engagement, which is a phrase used when talking about PTSD. The idea is that we can tell a fixed narrative, we can get so comfortable, almost too comfortable with a certain fixed level of telling a story, you know, beginning, middle, end, and we stay sort of hidden by being removed through the repetition of that fixed story. And we can distance ourselves, especially if you’ve lived through traumatic experiences, from really processing and feeling the pain of whatever that experience or experiences might be. I definitely feel that it’s not for everybody to perform and tell stories about their lived experience of mental illness. I also recognise that there was a lot of pain that I didn’t confront, or I had confronted to a safe enough point. And I stayed there. I stayed stuck there. A bit like with society, we get to a certain level of comfort around a certain topic, and suddenly we find ourselves stuck and  we don’t actually address the causes or the systemic issues that mean that people are oppressed or discriminated against. And I feel that for me, now, in the last couple of years, I’ve pushed my window of tolerance a bit wider.”

Juliette Burton

One conspicuous difference between the stand-up comedy world and the world of autobiographical theatre, which we’ve previously explored, is the lack of regulation and formal support networks. Comedians cannot normally apply to public arts funders for the cost of therapists, or wellbeing practitioners. And even other comedians will not necessarily be sympathetic if they don’t consider the material to be original or strong enough. All the comedians I spoke to have observed a backlash, in recent years, against performers sharing mental health experiences on stage.

“I don’t think it was ever spoken about but I think it’s certainly created a lot of cynicism, a lot of anger. A lot of that still exists, people going, ‘oh, is it a dead dad show? You’re trying to win an award aren’t you? You don’t really care about that.’ You know, there’s people that I still get on with very well, but still write in their bios ‘this isn’t a show that’s gonna make you cry so that I try and win an award.'”

Dave Chawner

“I have found, in the last few years, there’s a kind of fatigue of ‘trauma farming’. It’s like the industry couldn’t get enough of farming for trauma. Many people were creating not something new that’s pushing the conversation forward, but just staying in this one space, which is horrific when it comes to talking about trauma, or any painful experience.”

Juliette Burton

Comedy audiences may not be sympathetic either. For Felicity Ward, this is another reason to take lots of time to process whatever it is you’re experiencing before sharing it in public.

“A bad gig is a bad gig, you know what I mean? Whatever you’re talking about. And that’s the thing about being ready to talk about it. I’ll feel bad if no one laughs because I’m a comedian. But if I’ve already got professional help for what I’m about to talk about, then the vulnerability will be that I haven’t written a joke that’s funny enough. There’s the risk that you’re not ready to hear people laugh at your trauma. That they laugh in a nasty way, that you say something that isn’t the joke, and that’s what people laugh at. Yeah, you need to be ready. Like with anything, laughs might come from a number of different places. I’m actually not talking about anyone else, but me. Anyone can do whatever they like, it’s stand up, you can do it however you want. But for me, I don’t want people to be laughing at something that is traumatic if I haven’t already looked at it very clearly and I’m ready for people to laugh at it.”

Felicity Ward

The final word goes to Juliette Burton, now a veteran of mental health themed stand-up, who describes herself as a mental health activist as much as a comedian.

“If you want fame and fortune there’s many other things that I’m sure are more likely to give you fame and fortune. But the industry is fickle and fame and fortune does not ever come at the cost of sharing something that you’re not ready to or that won’t do you any good or the audience any good or society any good. If you really want to push the conversation forward, make sure you have the right support around you. Make sure you have collaborators who are going to help bring out the fun in you and the playfulness, because comedy is light in the darkness but even I need to find new and playful ways to tell different stories and to reach new levels of not just depth of experience, but actually lightness, the heights of comedy, to balance it out. If you’re going to go really dark, make sure you go really playful at the same time.”

Juliette Burton