As the stigma around mental illness lessens, more and more comedies have begun to tackle the subject. We take a look at how humour can be a powerful way to express the inexpressible darkness of depression.
Why are funny people so sad? Sounds like the setup to a joke, but it’s a serious question. Some studies have shown a link between stand-up comedy and depression, with one study suggesting comedians are more likely to have “psychotic traits” associated with schizophrenia and manic depression. There have certainly been a number of high-profile comedians who have struggled with mental illness or succumbed to it. Even putting those cases aside, many comedians find humour in really dark or serious material, pushing the boundary of what’s funny. Is it that naturally funny people are somehow more susceptible to mental illness? Or is there something about dark subject matter that lends itself to comedy?
I can’t speak to the accuracy of those studies and I’m definitely not suggesting that mental illness is a prerequisite to being funny or being an artist. But I can speak to my own experience. I was anxious and depressed for a long time, including most of high school. But if you took a look through my yearbook, you’d see that almost everyone, friend and acquaintance alike, echoed the same thing: I was really funny. That was, apparently, the lasting impression I left on people during one of the darkest periods of my life. So how do we reconcile laughter with loneliness and self-loathing?
There’s a theory of humour which states that humour comes from incongruity. That is, things are funny when they upend our expectations. And what could be more incongruous than a sad clown? A funny person who’s really broken inside?
Maybe it’s that unexpectedness that has led more and more comedies to depict mental illness. One of the best representations of depression I’ve ever seen, in fact, comes from a sitcom. You’re the Worst is about Jimmy and Gretchen, two self-destructive and, by all standards, awful people who fall in love and attempt to navigate a relationship. In its second season, though, You’re the Worst did something few comedies have tried, let alone in such a nuanced way. Gretchen, we find out, is clinically depressed. Rather than shy away from it, the show explored the reality of depression and of loving someone who can’t be “fixed,” and it did so in a way that was real and heartfelt without sacrificing its humour. That’s an extremely delicate balancing act.
You’re the Worst isn’t the only show to walk that tightrope in recent years. Bojack Horseman, an animated comedy series about a once-celebrated but now-disgraced TV star (who is also horse-man), gets similarly real about mental illness. As does the brilliant musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which mines its protagonist’s mental illness as as source of comedy without ever reducing her to a punchline because of it. Even a blog like Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, published as a book in 2013, used humour and crude MS paint drawings to explore depression. Maybe that’s not enough to qualify as a trend, but I think there’s something potent about the combination of humour and darkness. There’s power in laughing at the things that haunt us.
So why is comedy such an apt vehicle through which to express sadness? I don’t really have an answer. But art is often about connecting with the experiences of others in ways that are transcendent and ineffable. Maybe encountering this particular experience through comedy can help us understand it better or just lessen the burden. Maybe it’s simply about finding light in something unbearably dark.