Make Us Laugh: The Link Between Comedy and Depression

Dudefluencer: Comedy and Depression

Update (June 17, 2020): This post has been refreshed to reflect current research and to include additional information.

“Being funny isn’t the same as being happy,” writes The Simpsons writer Dana Gould, reflecting on the life of his close friend Robin Williams and how he struggled with comedy and depression.

Gould’s right. In 2011, Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada hired an in-house psychologist, Ildiko Tabori, to help out comedians struggling with mental illness. In an interview with The LA Times, Tabori said, “[Masada] felt the comedians needed some support from a professional. He’s not trained to recognize someone who’s going to go kill themselves, and I am.”

Recently, comedians Chris Gethard, Bo Burnham, and Gary Gulman have discussed mental illness in their stand-up specials as a way to explore loneliness, anxiety, and their stories of asking for help. Comedy is predicated on the taboo, and the stigma attached to mental illness still strikes a chord with some audience members.

Gulman recalls a heckler from a performance of his latest special The Great Depresh: “The show was sold out well in advance, so this man had to have had some idea what he was going to see and that it was called The Great Depresh, but about 70 minutes into a 90-minute show, I could feel something off, so I said, ‘Is everything okay?'” Gulman said. And he said, “‘What is this? Therapy?’And I told him I was clear in the title that this was about depression, and it’s not all depression-related, and the rest of the audience seemed to be enjoying it. And he said, ‘You suck.’ And he walked out. The crowd was really nice about it, though. It’s the only time in my 25-year career that I received a standing ovation 2/3 of the way through a show.”

The heckler’s discomfort about the topic of mental illness isn’t a unique response. Over six million American men suffer from some form of mental illness each year. Depression is recognized more often in women, but that doesn’t mean that men don’t suffer from depression as often as the opposite sex.

For example, a recent meta-analysis of studies about men and depression found that the lower number of documented men with depression is likely a by-product of “men’s tendencies to deny illness, self-monitor and self-treat symptoms, and avoid professional health care providers and services as a means to enact and preserve their masculinity.”

But in a world where talking about men’s mental illness is discouraged, men in stand-up comedy are fighting back against depression stigma by telling their truths the only way they know-how: through laughter.

Why does comedy make depression approachable for men?

“Like, making out is just sloppy. It’s like watching a dog eat spaghetti.”

Mike Birbiglia

I watched Mike Birbiglia clap to the audience after a long evening back at The National Theater in Washington D.C. Birbiglia has been an idol of mine since I first heard him perform on NPR alongside Ira Glass. Birbiglia addressed the audience before the curtains closed: “I just want to say one last thing about jokes, which is that I think jokes, at their best, have the ability to make us all feel closer to one another.”

That’s part of the truth in comedy: nothing brings people closer together than laughter. And the science agrees.

Dr. Casper Addyman researched laughter in its earliest form: babies. The results revealed that laughter is one of the earliest ways of expressing a connection. An article from the BBC explains: “babies are laughing with other people, and at what they do. The mere physical sensation of something being ticklish isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to see something disappear or appear suddenly. It’s only funny when an adult makes these things happen for the baby. This shows that way before babies walk, or talk, they – and their laughter – are social.” 

Of course, adults form connections through humor too. For example, Laura E. Kurtz and Sara B. Algoe investigated the role of shared laughter in society. They found, “For people who are laughing together, shared laughter signals that they see the world in the same way, and it momentarily boosts their sense of connection. Perceived similarity ends up being an important part of the story of relationships.” Using the intermingling of comedy and depression as a backdrop, Kurtz and Algoe suggest finding opportunities to laugh together to boost relationship closeness.

Stand-up comedy is a social interaction that can bring a room of people together in laughter. Good comedy can be the externalization of our inner thoughts. Laughing with others opens the door to articulating ideas and impulses that we might not otherwise feel comfortable sharing.

For men, comedy about depression allows us to explore tough topics. We can talk about fatherhood and vulnerability. Anxiety and loneliness.

“You do see more comedians talking about their very personal experiences with these topics now,” notes JoAnn Grigioni, a stand-up talent executive and producer. “It’s something that society, in general, is more open to. It’s something that has become relatable. Whether or not you suffer from anxiety or depression, you know people who do.”

And it is the opportunity to build connections through humor and honesty that has inspired comedians like Gethard to share the most delicate parts of their life to audiences full of strangers every night. “I was connecting with these kids in a way that is cutting deeper than just a joke here and there,” Gethard remembers. “They’re not responding to me because I’m the funniest. They’re responding to the honesty.”

Like millions of other men who struggle with mental illness, I respond to their honesty too.

Comedy and depression (and anxiety).

The first time I watched Bo Burnham’s What on Netflix, I became enamored with his talent for revealing introspection disguised as obnoxious frat boy humor. For example, “Left Brain, Right Brain” is a musical bit centered around splitting the neurological functions of the left and right sides of the brain. The left side is painted in a cold white spotlight as Burnham’s voice remains rigid and stiff, symbolizing the analytical nature of this side of him. As for the right side, a deeper red spotlight shines on Burnham while a poppier organ hums in the background. The two sides of the brain collide with one another during the performance, with Burnham reenacting both sides in a musical number.

But the song shines at the end with a blowup between the combative left and right sides of the brain.

Right Side of the Brain: I worked hard to give him everything he cared about
You were worried ’bout the things he was scared about
I’m calm and collected when you act wild
I am the adult; you are the child.

Left Side of the Brain: You think you’re the right one every time
You think you know everything, but you don’t know anything at all
Half of his problems were supposed to be mine
But you wanted everything
I hope that you’re happy, ’cause he’s sure not.

At this point in the show, Burnham reveals the complicated nature of his life, and in turn, speaks to a larger truth. While both sides of the brain battled for control, the end result was unhappiness.

A recent Behavioral Neurology article states, “The information processing of the left hemisphere is characterized by sequence, analysis, and logic; the information processed by the right hemisphere is parallel, holistic, and intuitive.” But other researchers disagree with the notion that humans can be distinguished by their left and right sides of the brain, instead opting to recognize that we use the entire brain to function.

Despite these scientific arguments, Burnham begins a transformation at this moment that continues back and forth throughout What. The external facade of confidence and cockiness starts to crack and almost becomes fully unglued in the finale of the show, “You Think You Know Me.”

Using an impressive array of pre-recorded beats, auto-tuned voices, and guitars, Burnham delivers What‘s climax that grapples with personal vulnerability.

An interview with Burnham reveals that the comedian feels like the piece ultimately falls short of its intention. He says, “The finale to my last show, What, was like [“Can’t Handle This”], but I was pretending that the problem I had was other people’s perception of me when the problem really was more personal than that.”

To be vulnerable is to reject the traditional male value of being emotionally closed off. That value stems from how boys are raised, according to researchers Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider, authors of Why Does Patriarchy Persist? They write, “Patriarchy harms both men and women by forcing men to act as if they don’t have or need relationships and women to act as if they don’t have or need a self.”

According to studies by Judy Chu and Niobe Way, young boys’ friendships drift apart as they grow older, leading to further physical and emotional isolation. The emotional vulnerability displayed by young men dissipates as masculine societal norms take shape. Way writes,

Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be ‘activity-oriented,” emotionally illiterate,’ and interested only in independence, these stories seem shocking. The lone cowboy, the cultural icon of masculinity in the West, suggests that what boys want and need most are opportunities for competition and autonomy. Yet over 85% of the hundreds of boys we have interviewed throughout adolescence for the past 20 years suggest that their closest friendships – especially those during early and middle adolescence – share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys from different walks of life greatly valued their male friendships and saw them as critical components to their emotional wellbeing, not because their friends were worthy opponents in the competition for manhood, but because they were able to share their thoughts and feelings – their deepest secrets – with these friends.

Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection by Niobe Way

By the time Burnham released his last special, Make Happy, he had no choice as the anxiety attacks hinted at during “Left Brain Right Brain” and “You Think You Know Me” grew more frequent.

“It was the roughest time in my life that last tour – the roughest. It felt like every night onstage, there was just a fucking ax hanging over my head, and at any point, this thing’s going to fucking drop. And, like, I’m going to faint on stage, and someone’s going to video it and post it everywhere,” Burnham told Time Magazine.

One in five men will develop an anxiety disorder during their lifetime, but many men don’t register the issue as anxiety itself. The Wall Street Journal reported, “When people think of anxiety, they may picture the excessive worry and avoidance of frightening situations that often plague those who suffer. These afflict men, too. But there’s a growing recognition among psychologists that men are more likely to complain of headaches, difficulty sleeping, and muscle aches and pains.” In other words, men are more likely to address the physical problems associated with anxiety over emotional symptoms.

Photo courtest of KC Bailey/Netflix

In a conversation with Teen Vogue‘s Lauren Duca, Burnham detailed what his anxiety looked like. “The problem with anxiety, and I think it can bleed into other mental problems as well, it disproportionately tends to select people that want to be a little closed off and singular. And the feeling of anxiety itself, I describe it as, it’s like riding a bull, and the bull is your nervous system. And you’re just trying to hold on, and being in the world is so hard because everyone else is an equestrian to you, and you’re the only one who has to struggle with this thing.” Burnham pauses.

“And that just isn’t true. I think the part some anxious people, myself included, don’t want to admit is that you don’t actually want to believe that your experience is shared. You actually want to be alone in this experience of anxiety, because it means you’re special. But you have to let that go. Because that is dark, it’s really dark,” said Burnham.

I never knew I had anxiety. I frequently woke up with an upset stomach. My fingers would be jittery as if I had just drunk a couple of cups of coffee. I was nervous. All of the time.

After months in therapy, my therapist handed me a sheet of paper with “Distorted Thinking Types” faded on the top. Distorted thinking, also known as cognitive distortions, are common biased perspectives that distort one’s perception of reality. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.

Ever think you know exactly what someone is thinking without them saying a word? Ever overgeneralize and think, “Nothing ever good happens on Tuesdays?” Ever think that if you’re not perfect, you’re a failure? Those are all examples of common cognitive distortions. No one is completely free of them. And because these biases reinforce negative thought patterns, cognitive distortions can lead to increased levels of anxiety and stress.

My distortion of choice is called catastrophizing: taking an event, you are concerned about and blowing it out of proportion to the point of becoming fearful. At the time, I was so scared of telling people that I was depressed that I refused to acknowledge the scope of my mental illness. Depression makes people uncomfortable. I thought that if I told people that I was depressed, or that I was seeing a therapist, or that I needed antidepressants, they would no longer love or even like me.

I imagined in my head that the moment I filled my prescription of Wellbutrin and Xanax at Walgreens, a giant red sign would start to float over my head warning everyone that I was damaged goods.

I blame Saved by the Bell and the show’s terrible execution of combining comedy and depression.

Jessie Spano, played by Elizabeth Berkley, panics. She screams out The Pointer Sister’s biggest chorus, “I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so excited,” while Jessie’s friend Zach, played by Mark-Paul Gosselar, holds her arms tightly. This moment was Saved by the Bell‘s attempt at an anti-drug PSA: Jessie was addicted to caffeine pills and, in her manic state, broke down. This scene is what six-year-old me thought was crazy. Jessie’s brain pills made her nuts.

In eleventh grade, our English class watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The movie featured small empty cups filled with a kaleidoscope of unmarked pills as apathetic man after apathetic man collected their medicine and downed them with a glass of water each. I, like so many others, was conditioned to believe that mental illness equaled hospitalization and punishment.

There weren’t enough examples of men in media handling depression and anxiety in a way that made me feel safe enough to share with the world.

Until we look at the recent trend of comedy and depression.

The last bit of Burnham’s Make Happy, entitled “Can’t Handle This,” is a Kanye West-inspired trek exploration of vulnerability and anxiety.

“So I thought, What if I spoke my truth? and the initial instance was like, ‘Okay, well, my truth is burritos and Pringles and something.’ Like a lot of my stuff, I try to see if you can satirize the thing and give you the true heart of the thing as well. I am making fun of what he is doing by going, ‘Oh yeah, it’s burritos,’ and what if this big thing was expressed with these banal, pedantic sort of grievances but then the second half turns into, ‘Well, actually, what am I worried about and what am I scared of?’ And that’s in a lot of the things I do,” Burnham told Vulture.

The lights dim, and Burnham’s silhouette lingers in the frame as his auto-tuned voice asks the New York City crowd, “Can I say my shit? I’ve got lots of shit to say.” His opening lines discuss how Pringles got the size of their cans wrong, eliciting laughter from the audience.

Then he breaks for a moment, and adds his next verse: “I don’t go to the gym/Because I’m self-conscious about my body/ But I’m self-conscious about my body cause I don’t go to the gym/ Irony can be painful.” It’s brief and doesn’t seem to quite fit with the narrative of the song, especially considering the next bit revolves around burritos and Chipotle.

As the camera zooms out, four lights on stage drop down into columns, and the beats of the backing track grow heavier. The chorus comes in powerfully as the lights all collide into a now kneeling Burnham at the front of the stage. He continues to sing as a wind machine blows through his shaggy hair. The lights cut. The crowd cheers. They don’t know what’s coming next.

A spotlight highlights Burnham’s face. “I can sit here and pretend my biggest problems are Pringles cans and burritos/ The truth is, my biggest problem’s you.” The camera pans over a shadowed audience as Burnham continues to release what has been building since the middle of What

I don’t think that I can handle this right now
Look at them, they’re just staring at me
Like, “come and watch the
Skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health
And laugh as he attempts
To give you what he cannot give himself.”

That’s the point: the vulnerability held back in “You Think You Know Me” breaks through as all of the lights converge into a gold backlit silhouette of Burnham. Over seven minutes, Burnham tears apart the traditional schemas of masculinity to reveal his truth: I am struggling right now, and I am trying to make you happy while I cannot make myself happy.

My truth was that I was struggling too. My psychiatrist prescribed me 150 mg of Wellbutrin every morning and .5 mg of Xanax for when I was feeling anxious. I left the prescription unfilled at the pharmacy for two years because I told myself that I could handle life without medication.

I tried what everyone said to try to get my mind in order. I worked out harder. I spent more time with friends. I found The One: Rachel.

And still… my depression worsened.

I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. Showering became a “sometimes” event. Ordering out six times a week became typical.

I told myself that it would be selfish to take care of myself, Rachel and my friends and my students and my family all needed me. I was in the midst of burnout in my career. I felt lost and aimless. Unmotivated.

Rachel said, “I think you might want to take your mental health more seriously.” Sleep more. Eat better. Go outside. “No,” she said, “I mean ‘more seriously’ as in getting more professional help.”

I made a new appointment with my psychiatrist. I filled my prescription. 

Almost 10% (8.6%) of American men ages 12 and up take antidepressants daily. I read online about the studies that show that taking antidepressants for extended periods makes your brain chemistry worse.

I don’t care. I still need that shit today.

My male friends and I don’t talk about the medications we take. They understand the importance of mental health awareness, or at least I like to think they do. Between hashtags and status updates, they’ll then use phrases like “I’m so depressed today” and joke about how they’re “triggered,” actions that show me there is still learning to do and conditioning to unravel. Friends know what it’s like to be sad, or be situationally depressed, but they don’t necessarily understand the challenges of lethargy, perpetual feelings of loneliness, or thoughts of self-harm. Or how sometimes, no matter how you’re taking care of yourself, those thoughts and emotions come back.

But for a few moments on stage, Burnham spoke to me. He told me it was okay to feel depressed, anxious, and lonely because the laughs took away the sting of the truth.

Asking for help with depression through humor.

Stephen Colbert scooched his trademark glasses down his nose and jokingly asks his guest, comedian Chris Gethard, “And why are you so depressed?” Gethard’s pale complexion and grey suit almost blend into the background. He chuckles. “A lot of things, Stephen.”

Discussing his off-Broadway show Career Suicide, Gethard follows up, “I think people are still scared to talk about this stuff, and I want to laugh about it and see if that helps a little bit.”

Photo courtesy of HBO

For the taping of Career Suicide, Gethard stands alone on stage with a brick wall backdrop behind him. Within a few feet of him sits his audience, sitting on couches and recliners as if they are at a dinner party. Gethard’s uses his soft-spoken voice as an instrument, raising and lowering the volume depending on the importance of what he is trying to tell us.

The entire special deals with Gethard’s mental illness, his relationships with his parents, and conversations with his therapist. 

For the longest time, I put comedy and depression into two separate boxes, one did not belong with the other. Then I watched Career Suicide.

Gethard tells the crowd – and me, while watching his HBO special on my couch with Rachel – about his suicidal thoughts. He shares the story of the night he finally told his mom the truth about how he was feeling: “I get home. It’s about 2:30 in the morning. And I walk into my parent’s bedroom. And my mom’s asleep in bed. My mom is this 5-foot nothin’, arthritic little Irish-Catholic lady. And my dad had a job in Puerto Rico for like a year or so. Random, he just lived on the island of Puerto Rico at that time. And that means my mom’s alone in this bed. It’s way too big for just her. It looks like she’s drowning in all of those blankets. And I reach out to wake up my mother, and before I touch her, I pause.” 

For a brief second, the entire room is silent. There’s no shuffling, no laughter. Gethard lets the quiet seep into the theatre. His voice lowers. “Because I realize that this is the last moment in my mom’s life where she gets to think that she has a normal kid.”

A tear trails off my face. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t there with Gethard at that moment, but in a way, I was. I remember the difficulty of confronting my truth with mental illness with my own family when I was 28 years old.

When I sat down at my family’s kitchen table, with a plate of Eggo waffles and the smell of strawberry jam wafting towards me, I had been on Wellbutrin 150 mg for six months. It took the typical three months for it to kick in, and at that point, I felt better. Feelings of depression still came and went, but for the first time, I felt like I was in control of my mental health. I was taking active measures to be happy.

I looked over to my left, staring at the grey hairs my mom had accumulated since I’d moved away a few years prior. I glanced to my right, watching my dad struggle to sit down because of newfound back pain.

“Mom, Dad, I’ve been seeing a therapist for the last two years.”

I waited for the silence to end, some sort of recognition that my parents still loved me. Will they still accept me as their son? Do my parents believe it is their fault I am depressed? Are they going to try and move into my apartment in Virginia because they are scared of leaving me alone?

Mom’s eyes bubbled. “Are you okay? Why are you going?”

I’ve been depressed. I’ve been struggling a lot lately. I’ve been lonely. I’ve been sad. I’ve been crying. I needed help.

Dad got up from the table and hugged me tightly, “I’m proud of you, dude.”

Mom will occasionally ask how I’m feeling or how my medication is working.

I tell her I’m doing better. I tell her I don’t know.

While writing his special, The Great Depresh, Greg Gulman worried his jokes about depression might not hit. “Even when I was in the hospital, I remember thinking, Oh, this is really, really funny, but I can’t tell anybody about this, because I was convinced that if my manager or agents found out I was so sick, they wouldn’t want to work with me,” Gulman says.

Photo courtesy of HBO

I understood Gulman’s fears. Now, on 300 mg of Wellbutrin, and the support of my parents and fiance, I started to write about depression for my MA in creative writing. My early work in the program struggled with substance because I still wasn’t comfortable writing about my mental health.

To be frank, my writing sucked. I had to admit to myself that my depression was real, worth writing about, and possibly a unifying experience for those who’d read about it. I learned to throw away the shame I had attached to myself (who am I kidding – I’m still learning how to do that completely). I started to explore mental illness, and in a broader sense, masculinity. I realized that there aren’t a lot of websites for men to write or read that explore male mental illness in a way that relieves the pressure and societal constructs that exist.

And while I realized there weren’t outlets available online, stand-up comedy was a source where men were authentically talking about mental illness and anxiety. Without Career Suicide, a lot of the content on this website wouldn’t exist. Gethard bobs and weaves through difficult conversations about anxiety, depression, and relationships throughout Career Suicide in a way that can’t help but make all viewers reflective, and introspective to their own mental health.

When a joke is more than a joke.

In an interview with Believer Magazine, comedian Marc Maron says, “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.”

Intertwining comedy and depression. That’s what Gulman does in The Great Depresh, Burnham does in Make Happy, and Gethard does in Career Suicide. The difficulty for men in talking about mental health is that men have been wired from an early age to avoid talking about it. Yet these three comedians take the edge off of what are some of their most intimate, vulnerable, and painful moments. As Maron said, they are slaying “those fucking dragons.”

After coming across a letter from an anonymous suicidal fan, Gethard wrote back “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.”

No one deserves to suffer. Share this article with someone you love, and To find a therapist near you, please visit the Psychology Today Therapist Network.

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If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer:

Why You Should Join a Men’s Support Group
The Importance of Male Friendship
Everything You Need to Know About Positive Masculinity