The Tears of a Clown: Comedians and Depression
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.
And then there are comedians who use their humor to aid others who are feeling depressed. One poignant example is the late Bernie Mac who just recently died at the age of fifty. Bernie Mac grew up in a large family on Chicago’s South Side. His grandfather was the deacon of a Baptist Church and it was within this setting that Bernie Mac developed his gift to entertain. One of his first skits was performed at the age of eight where he impersonated his grandparents at the dinner table for the church congregation.
Yet aside from the attention and laughs he received, there was a deeper motivation for Bernie Mac’s humor. In Mac’s book entitled, “I Ain’t Scared of You,” he relives a childhood memory of seeing his mother crying when he was four years old. But when his mother started laughing in the midst of her tears Bernie Mac saw that it was Bill Cosby on TV who was the cause of his mother’s change in demeanor. It was at that young age that he saw the power of comedy and vowed to become a comedian himself. Mac’s purpose was to never see his mother cry again. Bernie Mac defines his life mission in his book by saying: “That’s a true story, man. That’s what made me want to do this, even after my mother passed. That’s what inspires my humor. I don’t want nobody to cry.” It is remarkable that at such an early age this comedian had found the power of humor to change lives. Despite his death, I do think Mac’s vision goes on in the legacy of his comedy which we can still view today.
How do comedians deal with their depression and mood disorders?
In an article in The Sun, actor and comedian, Jim Carrey discusses how he has treated his depression in the past and how his views have changed over time. He did try one of the traditional anti-depressants, Prozac, for awhile. But then felt that the medication simply numbed him.
During his interview he explains:
"I tried dealing with depression by taking Prozac.
"It was good for a little bit for my life. But it didn’t heal me.
"It didn’t get me to the bottom of my anger or my frustration, whatever it was.
"I realised that it is important that we need to feel our feelings. We need to let things out to get to the bottom of things.
“One of the most important things in our society today is that it is OK to let our feelings out.”
Carrey goes on to remind us that we all experience our own share of darkness. I agree. I think it doesn’t matter if you are rich or famous or a hermit, nobody is immune to the challenges of the human condition. And sometimes this means that we may become depressed.
The lives of some comedians remind us of our own frail souls. To laugh at our life seems a better option than crying over it. Yet there has to be a balance between the laughter and the tears. In the depths of my depression these comics have helped me to feel something other than despair. As a silent voyeur I wish I could stop the pain of those who give us laughter. I am reminded of the famous scene in Hamlet where the skull of the former court jester is lifted up in tribute. Alas poor Yorick We knew him well. Or maybe…we really didn’t know him at all.