Comedy as Therapy: How Some Comedians Self-Treat Depression and Social Anxiety with Standup

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It’s a cliché at this point, the idea that comedians are damaged individuals who only perform comedy so that they can score enough laughs to keep their inner demons at bay, but that doesn’t mean it’s false. While there are plenty of well-adjusted, functional people who perform and write comedy, there are just as many who use their mental health issues as fuel and motivation. But can baring one’s soul onstage serve as a substitute for therapy, or is laughter just a temporary salve on permanent psychological wounds?

Rob Delaney, renowned stand-up and Twitter icon, sums it up best in his Vice column: “There is a popular belief, in and out of comedy, that comedians tell jokes and endeavor to make others laugh as a means of treating the pain they feel inside; that depression and drug and alcohol abuse plague the world of comedy. Is this true? For me, the answer happens to be yes.” While not every comedian is motivated by this same thing, depression and social anxiety are things that many of the greatest comedians ever have had (and continue to have) in common.

Some of the most revered comedians of all-time, like Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, have found strength in honestly tackling their demons onstage, but perhaps no modern stand-up has wrung as much material out of his or her own psychological issues as Marc Maron, host of WTF, the Coca-Cola of comedy podcasts.  Maron’s show is a common place for comedians to go to drop their acts and reveal their struggles, and onstage, Maron doesn’t shy away from these matters, divulging into his real-life problems in search of honest, schtick-free laughs. In an interview with The Believer, Maron shared his philosophy, explaining, “The worst thing about living in this world, in general, is that things get overwhelming, and things cause a tremendous amount of despair and anxiety. With two or three lines, a comic can disarm that and just fucking slay it, just slay those fucking dragons and despair and depression.”

Another of this generation’s leading standups, Kevin Hart, saw his stand-up concert film, Laugh at My Pain, break records during its release last year, becoming one of the most successful stand-up movies of all-time. Even though Hart’s act doesn’t get quite as gloomy as Marc Maron’s, he’s still fond of honestly sharing his life in his comedy, and the even the title Laugh at My Pain evokes this long-held tradition of using stand-up as a means to tackle personal issues. Extreme honesty wasn’t always the cornerstone of Hart’s comedy, but here he is explaining how his viewpoint evolved:

“When you look at the greats, you know, from Pryor, Murphy, Cosby, the list can go on and on, they get so personable. And nothing is held back. It’s hey, this is my life, this is who I am. And sometimes you have to address the things that you don’t want to address, because it’s bottled up inside you. And we don’t figure it out until it’s too late, but we use comedy as therapy. This is my therapy. You know. I didn’t talk about my mom passing away. I never talked about my dad being on drugs. I didn’t talk about my relationship status, and me going through a divorce – these are all things I had just held in, and I was very, very reserved about. And it got to a point where I was like, you know what? I’m a comedian! My fans will respect me more when I’m honest. The more honest I am with them, the more of an open book I am, the more they can relate to me and the more they can say, ‘Hey, you know what? Dude, I like this guy. I relate to this guy. He doesn’t care. Nothing’s held back.’ It’s funny but at the same time it’s real. And by me putting my real life out there, I think I got the best of me.”

While Marc Maron’s WTF is the most popular comedy podcast that delves into serious subject matter, Paul Gilmartin, a standup from Maron’s generation, hosts his own show, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, in which Gilmartin focuses in on his guests’ mental health issues and neuroses. The show features a wide range of guests, as the website says, “with comedians, artists, friends, and the occasional doctor.” Gilmartin has hosted a slew of his comedian friends, including Doug Benson, Jen Kirkman, and Maron himself, amongst others, and his show is a welcoming place for them to open up and share their personal stories.

During an appearance on the show, one of Gilmartin’s guests, Mayor of Podcasting Paul F. Tompkins explained the dysfunction that lead himself and many a comedian into the art thusly, saying, “What I share with a lot of people and what a lot of performers share is there was something early on you were not getting enough of – whether it’s love or attention or both or whatever magical combination it is that we think some people are getting that makes them not do what we do.”

For some, the pursuit of comedy is almost akin to drug use, with laughter causing a relief from life’s pain. Rob Delaney has described the effect performing comedy has on him by saying, “I post the jokes on Twitter because making people laugh makes me feel really, really fucking good. I would even go so far as to say, ‘It gets me high.’ And I like getting high. I like it very much.” Delaney’s comment is honest and revealing if not a little bit scary. At least performing comedy isn’t chemically addictive.

Still, scoring big laughs from strangers is only a temporary remedy for mental health woes. Chris Gethard, a New York-based comedian, author, and public TV host, has written and talked about his unusual childhood and struggles with depression. Recently, a suicidal fan wrote Gethard anonymously, and Gethard responded by delving deep into his own similar experiences with a long, heartfelt letter encouraging the fan to seek professional help. “When you say that my show was the last thing you could look forward to - I’m so, so glad the show provided you happiness, but the show at the end of the day is a comedy show and it might make you feel better for one hour a week, but it can not save you. Help can save you.” While comedy can provide comedians and audience members with a temporary solution to pain and suffering, it’s not a substitute for therapy and professional counseling. Remember that, in addition to using stand-up as a coping mechanism, most of your favorite comedians are probably on a ton of pills too.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

This content series is produced in partnership with smartwater. smartwater, good taste travels well. click here to learn more.

Comedy as Therapy: How Some Comedians Self-Treat […]