Covid mental health challenge #7. Laugh your way to mental fitness.


I’ve always had a special place in my heart for comedians. They poke fun at our world and show it’s glaring absurdities, inviting us to laugh at the very things that drive us crazy. And in many cases, it turns out the best comedians are struggling with mental afflictions themselves, mining the darkness of their lives for jokes to uplift others.

Robin Williams, one of the best of them, suffered from addiction disorder most of his adult life, turning from one drug to another and going through three marriages. He ended up committing suicide from the affects of a terrible dementia that was tearing his brain apart. Yet still he found inspiration to be one of the funniest men alive, going out of his way to lift others up when he could. “Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma,” Williams said, and his many funny and moving films did just that.

What is it about laughter and humor that is such a miraculous balm for the sores of everyday frustration? Why do so many comedians have darkness in their lives that give life to their humor? Perhaps those that need it most find a way to transform the hurt into a redemptive laugh- seeing the absurdity of our worries for what they really are.

The idea of laughter as therapy was famously detailed by author Norman Cousins in his book Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins claims he cured himself from a devastating illness by watching reruns of the tv show Candid Camera and old Marx Brothers movies. Unable to take pain medication, Cousins discovered that continuous laughing, (the genuine belly kind of laughter), gave him hope and relief from pain. He not only recovered from his illness and left the hospital, but he went on to write about laughter therapy, living another 25 years to age 75.

Physiologically, laughter strengthens your immune system, releases endorphins that give your entire body a feeling of well-being, burns calories, protects the heart, and decreases stress hormones like cortisol. Mentally, laughter brings you closer to others, boosts your mood, diffuses anger and conflict, shifts your perspective, and helps you forget your troubles for just a little while.

For those who’ve never seen Candid Camera or the Marx Brothers, I encourage you to get right out and find them. They are oustanding. (Duck Soup is my favorite) I also have a lengthy blog of my own on the funniest comedies of all time that make me laugh and it can be accessed here. My current favorite belly laugh/guilty pleasure is Green Acres (guaranteed 2 or 3 belly laughs per show). We live in an amazing era of availability when it comes to current and classic comedy, and there’s no reason not to treat yourself to a good laugh.

As for the question of why comedians need to see darkness in order to mine the laughs from it, I think that in order to see the true absurdities of life, you have to fall down in order not to get caught up in the mirage that everything’s okay. Only once you suffer can you see that the system that we pretend to all believe in is full of holes. George Carlin and Richard Pryor were two of the best at pointing out how flawed our lives were and poking fun at it and themselves. Self-deprecating, neurotic comedian Woody Allen made a career out of mining his neurosis for comedy. There’s a term called sad clown paradox that includes psychological studies that show that comedians suffer more than average early in life, and they turn to comedy to relieve that distress and tension.

In any good comedic team there is the straight man, who represents the normal world, and the stooge, who goofs around while the straight man just stands there and looks confused. That contrast is what made the comedy so funny, and the more you can confuse the straight man, and the system he represents, the funnier it gets.

In the past two decades, as mental health stigma has changed and comics have become more open about their diagnoses, we’ve seen an explosion of comedy specifically tailored to mental health issues. Here is a monologue from comedian Chris Gethard from his HBO special Career Suicide:

“I couldn’t figure out why it was making me feel so elated, and then I-I realized that for the first time since the age of eleven, I’m not worried about anything. And I swear to you, I could see it in my head what this must have looked like from above. Like I could see a flash of the bird’s-eye view, and I realize, zoom out just a little bit, and you won’t even be able to make out my car against the asphalt of the road. And zoom out a little bit more than that, and those train tracks, you’d be like, is that another road or a river? What’s… What’s going on there? And zoom out just a little bit more, and all of it blends together. None of it makes any sense. And it occurs to me… that I’m… small… and I… do not matter… and that is beautiful. And what I mean by that is, I was living this life where every day, I mean, every single day, usually before I even left the house, I’d find some reason to be angry… or sad… or scared. And ask the other depressed people in your life, you do that enough days in a row, you just become convinced that that’s who you are, that’s how you’re wired, that… that’s how you have to live, because that’s your option. And… I realized out there on that highway in New Mexico, that another option is maybe someday I die old and happy. I honestly didn’t know… that I had that option.”

Here is a passage from Sarah Silverman’s book, The Bedwetter, Courage, Redemption, and Pee:

“At some point, I figured that it would be more effective and far funnier to embrace the ugliest, most terrifying things in the world–the Holocaust, racism, rape, et cetera. But for the sake of comedy, and the comedian’s personal sanity, this requires a certain emotional distance. It’s akin to being a shrink or a social worker. you might think that the most sensitive, empathetic person would make the best social worker, but that person would end up being soup on the floor. It really takes someone strong–someone, dare I say, with a big fat wall up–to work in a pool of heartbreak all day and not want to fucking kill yourself. But adopting a persona at once ignorant and arrogant allowed me to say what I didn’t mean, even preach the opposite of what I believed. For me, it was a funny way to be sincere. And like the jokes in a roast, the hope is that the genuine sentiment–maybe even a goodness underneath the joke (however brutal) transcends.”

Here is a section from SNL comedian Pete Davidson’s standup special Alive From New York:

“Anyway, uh, we’ll do some 9/11 jokes, and then we’ll get the fuck out of here. How does that sound? Cool. Yeah. Only time I’ll allow cheering for 9/11. My, uh, my– my dad, he– he died on 9/11. And I was told I had to explain that before I do these jokes, ’cause some people don’t know, to which I retorted, uh, that, uh, I don’t think I should say that ’cause it will just stop the show and make things awkward. I won. I was right. When your dad dies, and he works for, like, the state or the government or whatever… I don’t know. He was a fireman. Whatever that is, um… You, uh… Sometimes your family gets, like, a little bit of money. Not a lot of money. A little bit. So… Um, we got a little bit of money, and I remember my mom, you know, to make me and my sister feel better, uh, she wan-wanted to get us a pool with the money, right? Uh, she figured she’d get us a pool, and then, you know, like, people would want to be our friends, and they would come over and swim in it. You know, which is dark. Um… swim in the death pool.”

What’s the takeaway here? How did we get from the Marx Brothers to Pete Davidson in 100 years? The Marx Brothers made movies during a dark period, the Depression, where their movies gave audiences a much-needed reprieve from the economic upheavals of the day. Comedians today operate in a complicated and dark time as well. We are worried about racial tensions, climate change, pandemics, economic troubles, and the very existence of truth and facts. Stress levels, depression, and mental illness are more out in the open than ever. Comedians today perform an invaluable service of helping us laugh at our problems while facing them at the very same time. Hiding from problems is never good, but a funny joke is one way to make them more palatable.

That said, dark humor is an acquired taste. For many of us, escapist humor is more what we need in the age of Covid, and for that you have romantic comedies, animated movies, and the Naked Gun trilogy. An escape into laughter is a healthy and necessary adjustment to the stresses of everyday life. As long as the escape means you are still able to deal with reality on its own terms and not hide from it.

For some, dark humor can be therapeutic as well, allowing them to watch how a comedian deals with a lot of the same issues they deal with. To each his or her own. Just remember to not take yourself too seriously, and try and see the absurdity in life and laugh at it and yourself. Your mental health depends on it.

Post Date: October 21, 2020


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