Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world, where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says the treatment is simple. The great clown Terrifini is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up. Man bursts into tears: "But doctor . . . I am Terrifini."
When I think of some of the greatest comedians in the world I also tend to think of mood disorders including depression and Bipolar Disorder. It seems that if you peer behind the laughter and smiles you are most likely going to find someone who has faced many challenges in their life. Comedy is one way for a person to cope with these challenges. Not every comedian is depressed but there does seem to be more mood disorders associated with this population than not.
I am not alone in my theory. In a fascinating interview with Dr. Amy Alpine who is both a psychotherapist and a comedian, she postulates that both depression and Bipolar Disorder are common among comedians. Doctor Alpine reports that some comedians who have Bipolar Disorder do not wish to be treated because they don't want their manic episodes to go away. You could see the fuel behind the fire of comedians such as Jonathon Winters, Ben Stiller, and Robin Williams who all reportedly have this disorder.
The frenetic energy we have come to associate with many comedians is but one side of the coin. What may surprise fans is to discover when their favorite comic falls into a deep depression. It seems incongruous with the person we see on stage. John Belushi and Chris Farley are just two examples of comedians who died from falling too deep into the well. Coincidentally both comedians died from doing speedballs, a combined injection of heroin and cocaine. And in 2007 actor and funny man Owen Wilson attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. Thankfully he survived. Fans were astonished because Wilson's actions did not match the lighthearted public persona we thought we knew.
It does appear that depression can wear many masks.
In many ways, though, comedy is used for survival. One of the greatest examples of this is one of my favorite comedians, the late Richard Pryor. Pryor was born the son of a prostitute who abandoned him at the age of ten. After his mother left him he went to live in his grandmother's brothel. He was also sexually molested at the age of six by a teenage neighbor and then later by a neighborhood priest. Richard Pryor distracted himself from the horrors of his life by watching movies. He wanted to be in entertainment and found his niche in comedy where his life provided much material for his routines.
Pryor's personal demons continued to follow him despite his success and in the early 80's we almost lost him due to a fiery explosion caused by the ignition of ether being used in conjunction with cocaine. He survived only to be diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in later years. In 2005 Pryor died of a heart attack at the age of 65. I could be wrong about this but I feel that Richard Pryor survived as long as he did because of his comedy. I feel it gave him purpose to keep going against all the seemingly insurmountable challenges in his life.