The Comedy Mask

Photo-Illustration: Vulture/Getty Images

Only when we lose members of our comedy community to suicide do I think about the most recognizable symbol of our profession: the icon that means comedy worldwide the way two snakes coiled around a staff means medicine and a striped pole means barber. This is the mask the Greeks called Thalia, with its arched eyebrows and Nixonian nose, mouth frozen in a manic and mirthless grin that surely must have inspired the artists when they created the archetypal disturbed clown, the Joker.

Nowadays, Thalia’s role is symbolic. Paired with her frowning mirror image Melpomene, she hangs on a proscenium arch to mark it as a stage. In the Theater of Dionysus in ancient Athens, however, a mask like Thalia or Melpomene was an essential part of every actor’s costume. The theater sat 17,000, nearly as many as the Barclays Center, more than two millennia before the invention of the jumbotron. Oversize wooden masks made stadium shows possible. There were 44 in all, each representing a stock character instantly recognizable by their broad, emotive expression. No one had to hold their face in a grimace all night. Even from the cheapest seats, audiences in 215 B.C. knew one thing about the actor wearing Thalia: Their character was not sad. But tastes changed, masks eventually fell out of favor, and performers instead forced their faces to match their characters’ emotions. Perhaps this was where we went wrong.

A comedian’s suicide sets in motion a recognizable pattern of events. It’s a now-familiar timeline of horror we live through on an irregular loop, each tragic cycle playing to the end only for another to begin the moment our guard is down. Each iteration begins the same way: A comedian’s name trends on social media, but they have no new special, tour, or announcement. With a sharp pain growing in our stomachs, fellow comedians scurry through the internet, willing it not to be true as the tweets pile up, no longer just from our friends but now from the AP and Los Angeles Times. They tell us that the name that flew through our phones from every direction just moments ago belonged to someone who is gone now. We are not going to hear their new jokes this weekend or ever. We are not going to have a beer with them in the green room and continue the conversation we have kept up in backstage hallways, airport bars, hotel lobbies, and festival-badge lines in strange cities where neither of us knew anyone but each other.

Whatever the deceased comedian meant to their closest friends and family, they were also a cherished member of a very small tribe who can fit all at once into the bar at the Montreal Hyatt, who come from all walks of life, but in one small but defining way have more in common with each other than anyone else on the planet. If this latest comedian to leave our world too early left the world unsung and rewarded beneath their worth, we rage at the fickle whims of the industry and audience they spent their lives trying to please. If they left wealthy and beloved, we despair that the goal they accomplished against such colossal odds was not enough to heal them, even though we know the human heart has never worked that way. Then come the memorials and the gatherings and one-on-one conversations in coat-check lines and driveways: “Were there any signs?” “Were there any hints?” There are vows of vigilance, to get together more often, in other circumstances, in happier times, so that we might not lose any more. We mean it and we try. We DM people and text and reach out. Then there are shows and tours and auditions and flights and airport bars and badge lines and festivals, and their name comes up less, and the urgency fades.

We are surprised, then, when it happens again — a flash of dread as another comedian’s name begins to unexpectedly trend. This is no different than what happens after a suicide in any community, but a crucial difference hampers comedians’ efforts to identify our fellow performers in distress. Despite the seemingly immortal “sad clown” cliché, we are no more prone to self-harm than any other group. Like those first actors to remove their masks at the Theater of Dionysus, however, we are masters of showing people only the emotions we wish them to see, whether they are an audience of 17,000, an intimate gathering of fellow comedians, or one long-time friend.

Thalia is a fitting icon of our profession, but it’s the audience’s faces, not ours, we work to force into a permanent smile. To get people comfortable enough to laugh in front of strangers, we must appear competent and in control. To keep their mouths locked in that same gaping grin for the whole show, we must change our own faces constantly. An average 45-minute stand-up act might require dozens of separate emotions, each as immediately recognizable as the masks of the ancient Greeks. While we may have lost a loved one, put down a pet, or missed a car payment that day, self-doubt and fear — the real kind, not the feigned version we may slap on our faces for a punch line or two — undermine the illusion we must maintain. If the audience senses for one instant we may not be in command of our feelings, they will no longer trust us with theirs. So we learn to hide these emotions away effortlessly and completely — first from our audience and eventually from anyone we don’t wish to let in.

Our comedian friends do their best to recognize when a face has turned into a mask, but knowing how to do the trick themselves doesn’t mean they are immune to its effects. They look and stare and scrutinize at parties, festivals, Friendsgivings, volunteer outings, and writers’ brunches. But too often, all we are willing to let them see are two pointy, angular eyebrows, a sloping, upturned nose, and a too-exuberant, plastered-on grin.

Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson are credited with creating the character.
The Comedy Mask