Dave Chawner is a stand-up comedian, author, presenter and mental health campaigner. 

His first Edinburgh Fringe show, Normally Abnormal, used humour to explore his experience of anorexia; the show was given an award by the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity in the Houses of Parliament in 2014. Since then, much of his comedy work has focused on mental health, and he has been a media ambassador for Mind, the Mental Health Foundation and Beat, as well as patron for Midlands-based eating disorder charity First Steps.

We interviewed Dave in December 2023 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

You first made a comedy show about anorexia and mental health back in 2014. At the time, were you aware of other people doing anything like that? 

Good question. At the time I think the most prevalent was Ruby Wax, and around that year she had caused a bit of a stir around specifically stand-up comedians doing stuff about mental health. Felicity Ward had toured briefly. But I wasn’t hugely aware of, like, there wasn’t a burgeoning group of people that seem to have previously been talking about mental health, in my experience.

So how did you feel about doing it? 

I think, for me, it was a passion project. And actually, I think how I felt about doing it was nervous, because I wanted to do it justice. And I think there was an entire process that I went through in order to hone it and improve it and get it into some sort of shape. 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.

Did it feel like a risk?

I certainly wouldn’t call it a risk, I would say at the time it felt like something different. It almost kind of uncharted in that, with stand up, you know, you do your five minutes and then you get the ten minutes and then you do 15 and 20. And there wasn’t really a roadmap for how you use that, there wasn’t a roadmap for where you go with that. And that was why I was sort of running blind, I think.

Was it a positive experience, that first year?

I want to be honest about it. I think the first year, I did a half an hour bit of it. So there was me and another comedian that did a show called Over It – Death, Anorexia and Other Funny Things. And then that half an hour got made into an hour. I was really passionate about it. I worked on it. However, it did cause me to relapse. I got a lot of negative attention from a person who will remain nameless, but a female critic pulled me aside and said, I don’t really think you’re anorexic. I think you’re a white middle class male who has so much unchecked privilege you need to create something in order to feel special. It felt very vicious, and that’s what I’ve been told by other people. So there was that, which was a sort of really embarrassing thing to happen, but there were also people who were telling me about their daughters, their sisters, their mothers and friends that, you know, had died when they got to their lowest weight. And when you heard all these stories of people dying, or having their lives ruined, that compounded with what that female arts reporter would said made me think, well, maybe she’s right, maybe I need to do this better. So it did lead to a huge relapse, and I ended up in the care of the Maudsley Hospital for two and a half years, and I was diagnosed as severely clinically anorexic.

So initially it was incredibly unhelpful. And I remember people saying, are you sure you really want to talk about this? Because as soon as you talk about this, you will feel like a fraud, you will get a lot of pushback, you will get a lot of anger, a lot of hate. But as I engaged in treatment, as I was lucky enough to go through treatment, I think it was also a saviour as well, because I think it helped give me not only an outlet, it gave me a real excuse to think about my mental health in a way, in a very privileged way, that a lot of other people who have got an office job, etc don’t have time to, to sort of sit and philosophise, etc. And it also gave me a sort of sense of purpose. So immediately it was quite difficult but then I think, longer term, the benefits far outweighed that.

When we first met, in 2018, you were doing a show called Mental, which was very much mental health, and you had started combining comedy and mental health activism. Can you talk about how you got to that point? Because by that point you’d also become a mental health activist.

The idea behind Mental was, I’d started to do a show called Normally Abnormal, which was actually just about mental illness, and it wasn’t very good, it certainly wasn’t very well structured, it was quite sort of amateur, but there were bits in it that I really liked. And my raison d’etre with Mental was to actually talk about mental health and what I wanted to do, and didn’t fully achieve in that show, was try to get people to realise that one in four people have mental illness but four in four people have mental health. And if we all talk about it when it’s good, it’s a lot easier to talk about it if it becomes less good. 

And I wanted to do almost a kind of clubby, laddy sort of set that people could see and just enjoy for comedy, so I wanted the benefit to be like, oh, it’s funny but then if it chimes with people there’s another layer to it as well. And it didn’t fully get there, it didn’t really hit the mark. But it was something that I kind of continued to work on since and it’s now entirely different, but to answer your question, the purpose was to talk about actual mental health rather than mental illness because some of the hate that I got for the show about the mental illness was ‘actually all you’re doing is just wanking on about how difficult it is being me, how I’m such a victim, and that was never my intent, or purpose. And I always wanted to steer away from that. So it was a real break with this idea that, oh, aren’t I such a terrible little victim? I wanted to really get away from that because that’s what a lot of people thought I was doing. And if they thought that, then I wanted to kind of address that and say no, that’s not my purpose at all.

Given your experience, what did you make of the huge increase in the number of comedians doing shows about their mental health?

I mean, to be honest I think it’s amazing but I also have a concern with it. The problem I have with the mental health space is that it just got so negative. If the government announced extra funding, people would always say, oh, it’s not enough. If the government announced extra resources they’d always say, oh, it doesn’t go far enough. If there were people that were ill, they’d always focus on people who were more ill. And I think the truth of the matter is, we’ve never been better at mental health in the history of humanity. And I think that is incredible. 

I love that stand-up comedians are focusing on that, I love that there are people of different backgrounds, different types of comedy, and I think it genuinely benefits everyone. So I feel kind of semi-unreservedly positive about it. My only worry at the moment, and I am seeing this so much on the circuit at the moment, is that it’s really caused a backlash, you know, there’s always this kind of culture, then comes a counterculture. And there’s been a real backlash against mental health. I’ve seen so many sets about like, you know, ‘yes, I know, you talk about your mental health, but can you just keep it shtum now?’ Or ‘we all have that’, whatever it is. And my concern is that this is coming to the fore, so I do worry that there is going to be a counterculture of ‘we’ve all wanked on about this enough, can we just man up? Can we just get on with it?’ But I think apart from that, it’s an incredibly positive thing. I also think it should be where comedy is focusing, personally, that’s just a personal thought.

Could you talk a bit more about that? It’s a really interesting observation

One of the things I’ve always said is that I think comedy has a unique ability to reach people, because the most important thing about stand up… you know, different people do different things but I think it’s generally kind of understood, and accepted, that the most important thing about stand up is connection. Because you can be the funniest person in the room but if people ain’t listening, it doesn’t matter. So that connection with other people is really, really key. And that doesn’t mean that people have to like you. But it does mean that people have to be listening to you. 

And with that platform there come certain responsibilities. And I think that stand up, accidentally, has always been focusing on mental health, but it’s just never kind of realised it. And what I mean by that is 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 and get people to laugh about it so that they couldn’t be embarrassed or humiliated about it. And I think comedy has that ability to reframe, that ability to give purpose. It gives meaning, but it also gives identity as well.

I think that’s why, you know, back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were so many overtly camp comedians, people like Scott Capurro who would have been attacked in the street. It wasn’t about fitting in, it was about standing out and celebrating difference. And I think that everything that stand-up does is important. But I think one of the main reasons that comedy focused on mental health, and 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.

Can you talk about your comedy course, Comedy for Coping, which is designed to support people with mental health issues? How did that come about?

The true and pragmatic answer is that it came about with COVID, which meant I had time to think about that. But it’s been an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. And the reason I wanted to set it up is I fundamentally believe that the only thing that you need in order to do stand-up is wanting to do that. And I think there were so many people who, you know, would come up after gigs and say, this happens, I find this funny, etc. But I also think at a time when mental health was being talked about in very siloed ways, mental health was something you would talk about on The One Show for four minutes, and then you would move on to something that actually mattered. Or you would chat about someone who, you know, had severe mental illness ‘ isn’t that bad, right? Let’s talk about normal people now’. And it really annoyed me that people talked about mental health in a way that (implied) it didn’t affect all of us, it affected a couple and they were only the extreme examples. 

I started writing the Mental show when I was going through therapy. And I think that comedy is low cost but potentially high impact. I think it builds your confidence to get up, it builds your confidence and belief in yourself, it builds your communication skills, because one of the things that really annoyed me about services is that everyone always said ‘just talk’. And we still do this ‘just talk about your mental health’. And I don’t think that suicide is the biggest killer of blokes under the age of 50 because they don’t think to open their gobs, I think a lot of blokes want to but do not have the methods, the means, the ways to do that. 

So it’s trying to use kinaesthetic tools in order to give people those connection tools, those communication tools, but also, it’s building professional skills, as well as personal skills to get people back into work. And I’ve been incredibly fortunate and lucky with how it’s been uptaken. And our first peer review paper has been published. We won a grant from the British Academy and it went very well to do some qualitative analysis. And that went so well that they gave us some follow on funding and asked us to be part of their summer show. 

And so working with different academics, we did a systematic review. And then that went on to this paper that’s just been published. But that’s all the sort of back end stuff a bit. In a short answer, the purpose of the comedy course is to use stand up to make sense of mental health, to build people’s communication, to build their confidence, but also, absolutely critically, to build that connection with other people. Because everyone always talks about loneliness. And the key thing about comedy is connection. So actually getting a group together so they can connect with each other. And then ultimately working to connect with an audience so that they can focus on connecting with other people to put in place things to stop or help prevent people getting into old routines.

The course is described as ‘teaching stand-up comedy to people with experience of mental health issues, but are you also encouraging them to talk about those mental health issues? 

Obviously we can’t mandate but a good example of what we use was when we were doing one of the courses, we had a research assistant that sat in, and we had a psychologist that sat in as well. And these are people that are just in the community. And it’s also something I’m really passionate about as well, people that perhaps have diagnosed or undiagnosed things as well. Because I think there can be a real sort of one upmanship, a bit of a pissing contest of ‘I’m more ill than you’. So actually, we want it to just have people that were, you know, undiagnosed. 

And one of the things that really blew me away was in the second and third week – it was all done via Zoom – I just started something that I thought was stupid. I said, ok, you seem like a real laugh, you seem really cool. I’m going to try something, you might hate it. But I’m going to say, in the past week, since we’ve left, I want you to describe this week as if it has been a type of weather, and I want you to explain what type of weather it’s been and why. 

And that thing, that was meant to last five minutes, ended up taking about 25-30 minutes. And then the next week, people said, ‘oh, we’re going to do the weather thing.’ And I was like, You know what, it went so well last week, I’m going to ask you, if it was a colour, what kind of colour would it be and why? And we started doing this, but then trying to inject humour in it. So saying, if it was a type of music, I want you to tell me what band it would be, and why, and people were using really funny stories, funny analogies, and the humour became almost incidental and accidental, because it kind of flourished from that idea. So yeah, we are trying to use comedy in order to talk about mental health not only in the real day to day but when we’re sort of building those sets, trying to teach them skills about the difference between joking about something, so punching down, and joking around a topic, so looking at a topic, breaking it open and countering common misconceptions, etc. And trying to educate while entertaining.

What advice would you give to somebody who’s a comedian who’s thinking about talking about something traumatic or something mental health related on stage and is not sure whether to do it or not?

I think the first thing is, I’ve noticed this a lot, there’s a lot of trauma talk. I’d say first and foremost, make sure you are ready to talk about it. I’ve seen it time and time again, people are still perhaps a little bit too close to it. I would also say prepare yourself for some of the reaction, because both can be very overwhelming, whether it is negative, whether it is hateful, but sometimes that’s easier to kind of bat off than if it is positive. 

I was talking to Paul Sinha last year because he’s talking about his Parkinson’s at the moment. And we were chatting about this, and he was sort of saying, you know, the stories that you hear, so I definitely say prepare yourself, think about what people are going to say. And I would, ironically, say one of the things that I did so badly, initially, was I chased the laughs at the expense of the truth. I think I tried to do loads of little gags and silly jokes. And that need to find the laughter is understandable. And of course, in comedy, you need it. But you can make it almost like cracker jokes, like dad jokes, like, you know, ‘Hey, here’s a gag, you won’t like that because you’re bulimic, ha ha’. Whereas actually, trying to be more authentic, trying to be more personal about it, is better. So I think there is that thing of like, are you doing this because you want to? Or are you doing this because you want to be known? You want to have a shtick, you want to be something different? And be prepared. So I think motivation, and trying to work out the reception, is always something that’s quite difficult.

One thing I’ve been wondering is whether there was an expectation at a certain point for comedians to do mental health shows. There was a point when two Edinburgh Comedy Award winners in a row, Richard Gadd and Hannah Gadsby, were talking about quite dark stuff.

Perhaps it did. I don’t think it was ever spoken about. 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? 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’. I personally ever felt an expectation. I think I was always very aware I was never going to be shortlisted for any awards. I think now more than ever, I’ve certainly noticed this year that the balance has been completely redressed, the amount of people going ‘oh my god, someone won the Edinburgh Comedy Award who is actually funny, who doesn’t just talk about being gay and then cry for half an hour. They’re actually funny.’ And there is a bit of vitriol and anger of like, ‘Oh, thank god funny’s back.’

If comedians are always trying to react against something, what’s the future for comedy about mental health? 

I think comedy around mental health now will become more about different diagnoses. I mean, a great example of this is Dan Tiernan who talks extensively about his dyspraxia. I would say there’s going to be a lot more comedy about autism. And there’s going to be a lot more comedy about things like BPD (borderline personality disorder). I think OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) will also be another one that will come out. I think we’ve already seen a huge rise in people talking about ADHD (Attention Deficity Hyperactivity Disorder). And there’s already a lot of sniffiness about… I mean I love him, and he’s a good mate of mine, but Phil Ellis, who is a phenomenal comedian, there was a bit in it that was brilliant. It was like, ‘well done for finding the only show at the Fringe where I don’t talk about having ADHD’. And he does this brilliant bit, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, you have ADHD, but you can write a f***ing hour long show about it can’t you?’ And he’s brilliant. I think there’s a bit of a reaction against that. So I think we’re already seeing ADHD, I think there’s going to be a lot of stuff about autism and personality disorders. And then I think after that there will a bit a reaction to political climates. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more angry kind of political comedy. And I worry, I’m not going to lie, I worry that mental health will become a political football.

What do you mean by that?

I think there was a time when you would use humour in order to talk about how the NHS was underfunded, and I think there are people who are in the healthcare profession that know so much more about it. I think it would be interesting to know more from doctors, for example the incredible Benji Waterstones, who is a psychiatrist and does brilliant stuff about mental health, but I worry that it’s going to become… What I mean about being a political football, it’s almost a next step on from the ‘woke’ thing. I worry that the next step is that like, yeah, there’s going to be some new term.