It’s almost a cliche to say that many funny people battle pain, sadness and depression just like the rest of us — maybe even more so. But it’s also true. And so, we asked three comics how they deal with it, and what it’s like to make people laugh about your pain.
“A true comedian is the kind of guy that would set off a hand grenade inside a room that he was in, just to see what would happen — but he wouldn’t leave the room”
Tony Calabrese: What happens is, you feel a need to always be on. Sometimes it burns you out — I don’t know how to explain it. I was a banker for 30 years, but even when I was young, I was a class clown. I was the guy making everybody laugh going back to elementary school. I was the one at the party always making people laugh. There’s this constant pressure no matter where you are that if people find out you’re a standup comic, you’re supposed to always be funny. There’s a constant pressure to entertain. The only time it isn’t there is when you’re with other comedians, and then we’re all just busting each other’s eggs. That’s pretty standard if you hang around us — we’re all making each other miserable, picking on each other. That’s what we do.
Now, the relationship between comedy and depression is different for everyone. I know people who need the laughter to make them feel better — they need the energy. There is a rush like no other when you make people laugh when you’re onstage. It’s a high. It’s like a drug. I know guys who, if they’re not onstage, they’re miserable. As soon as they’re onstage, they’re better. I think there’s a correlation between people with addictive personalities and those of us who do standup, because in comedy, there’s a lot of drugs and a lot of alcohol — and it wouldn’t surprise me to find comedians who are gambling addicts. There’s this constant need for some kind of high or rush or adrenaline jolt. Every comic I know has that need for something all the time.
Are we thrill seekers? To some extent, but you’re not going to see many of us jumping out of airplanes. We’re attention seekers. We crave attention, but at the same time, we don’t want it. I don’t know how to explain it: We want to do it when we’re in control of it and we own it, but away from that, just leave us the hell alone. A lot of us flip a switch when we get onstage, then you turn it off, and now you have to shake hands and talk to people. There are some comedians that love the audience, and there are others that hate them — but they all want to entertain.
If you hang around comics you will see a billion different kinds of personalities. I think a true comedian is the kind of guy that would set off a hand grenade inside a room that he was in, just to see what would happen — but he wouldn’t leave the room. You want to create that chaos so that the audience has no idea what will happen, but they’re there to laugh, and you need that fix.
I don’t think most comics do this strictly for the money, although you get to a point where you do do it for the money. But then you look at somebody like Robin Williams and you scratch your head. It doesn’t really surprise you, because you see a lot of it as a comic, but that guy had everything. I’ve known several people over the years that have died, who were really depressed. But for every one of them, comedy kept them going. Knowing that you can get a little bit of that rush at that moment when you’re at your worst kind of soothes the pain. You can be really down and do a show, and it’s like taking a pill: For that moment, you feel better because you’re not thinking of all the other crap. Or you’re able to throw it onstage and make fun of it. Sometimes the audience is laughing at it and they don’t even realize that this is painful, but they’re laughing at your pain, which for some reason feels good. But people don’t realize that it’s real. The audience is laughing at it, but they don’t know that you’re seriously having an issue. They’re just there for the jokes. Then they get to leave and not deal with your issues.
How else do I deal with depression? I kick kittens. No, I’m fortunate enough to have family, and I have grandkids now, so that helps. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I do food. I’m a big guy, so I eat. I’ve definitely used food to help with depression. You have to remember that in our business, we’re vampires: We come out at night, when we’re done it’s late, and what are you gonna do between midnight and four in the morning? There’s no way I’m going to sleep, I’ve never been able to after a show, you’re too pumped up. Everybody else wants to go to sleep but you’re wide awake in Las Vegas or L.A. at two in the morning, what are you gonna do to unwind? There’s nothing out there besides bars, fast-food joints, drug dealers on the corner or hookers. It’s not a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s definitely therapeutic to have an audience laugh about something difficult in my life”
Mark Christopher Lawrence: We’re in a business of very high highs and very low lows. This year has been particularly slow for me on the acting side, so that just sort of weighs on you and drives you into a funk. Pilot season came and went — I had one audition, and I wasn’t even right for it, so it was really a bummer. To be honest with you, the comedy helped, kept me motivated, but at the end of the day, you find yourself in a hole of emotional distress based on the fact that you’re not working.
Maybe the people that are doing comedy are driven to it by depression, I don’t know. I started doing it in high school as a dare, so clearly that wasn’t why I got into it, but for people that are in comedy who are depressed, maybe it was a way to release stress. And surely it is: Because when you’re on stage, there’s nothing like it when it’s going well. And when it’s going bad, there’s nothing like that, either!
I look at comedy like this: When I’m onstage, I’m not thinking about anything else. I think the audience has the same experience. So for that 45 minutes to an hour that I’m doing comedy, we’re all invested, and the outside doesn’t world doesn’t exist. And at the end of the show you’re shaking hands with people and thanking them for coming out, they’re thanking you for the show, and it’s all happy, happy, happy. Then boom: Reality sets in, and you gotta find another gig.
Comedy is the ultimate opportunity to create. Making people laugh is a very difficult task, and so, it’s a big rush to do that, to see that these people are laughing about stuff I’ve made up, and stuff that’s in my life. That’s the thing that keeps you going: Can I do it again?
It’s definitely therapeutic to have an audience laugh about something difficult in my life. When we can laugh at ourselves, then we’re in good shape, especially in today’s climate. Part of dealing with depression is, number one, I pray. Number two, I try to figure out exactly what I’m depressed about. The other day, the feeling just came up on me all of a sudden. Eventually I realized this is all about me not working as an actor this year — so far. But here’s the flip side: I have two movies coming up! Sometimes we don’t get what we want in life, but we get what we need.
I also think being able to have somebody to talk to helps, because I always know that I have a core group of friends that aren’t in the industry who care for me and have my well-being at heart, whom I can talk to if I’m having a problem. Sometimes we forget that we have people in our lives who only care about us. They don’t want anything from us, they just want to see us happy. I look at people like Robin Williams, and he didn’t reach out to anybody — I’m sure there was somebody he could talk to. That’s why I’d encourage comics to identify those people in their lives so that they know if they’re having an issue, they can call this person and they’re gonna dig them out of this hole and help them see it for what it is: A temporary thing.
“I have some stuff about suicide in my set: Like, I can’t do it myself because I’m too much of a coward”
Dave Callans: Depression is something I’ve struggled with on and off for pretty much all my life. I was in my early 20s when I realized what it was, and it’s kind of always there to different degrees. Sometimes I’m a lot better and it doesn’t really bother me, and sometimes I get buried under it and I don’t want to do anything. I’ve done counseling on and off for a long time — that’s an important thing to do even if you don’t have depression or anxiety. I’ve tried meds, and although they did help, I didn’t care for the side effects so I stopped. I’ve just gotten used to managing it myself. It doesn’t always work but I feel like I have a pretty good handle on it.
The way that comedy fits into it is interesting, because you get that rush when you have a good set, but the converse of that is that depression makes me dread going up there in the first place. There’s all sorts of different factors, like, “I don’t feel like it; I’m not in the right mood; the crowd is shitty; it’s not gonna go well.” If I can force myself to go onstage, that all melts away, and I do usually have a pretty good set and I feel pretty good afterward. But even though I know that’s likely going to be the end result, it can still be hard to talk myself into going up there. That’s a big component of depression: Talking myself out of doing a lot of things that would be good for me.
Accountability helps me get onstage. If I can talk to some friends and get them to go out to the club, that helps me. Other comic friends, they’ll bolster me a bit, if they’re counting on me going with them. At the club, I dread talking to people and socially interacting and waiting around. Oddly, though, when I get onstage, there’s no social anxiety in doing that. There’s still the performance anxiety, but there’s no social anxiety, because it’s one-sided. I have the microphone and I’m talking to them — they’re not saying anything back. The social anxiety comes from being asked personal questions, even from friends.
My comedy is relationship stuff, observational stuff, everyday stuff, but I always tend to be a little dark. I do have some bits about depression specifically, and I have some stuff about suicide: Like, I can’t do it myself because I’m too much of a coward. I’m afraid of death. But if I was gonna do it, I would at least try to make it fun. I might put on a knit cap full of confetti and glitter and then put a gun in my mouth and boom — it looks like a parade just came through!
I don’t know if it’s therapeutic for the audience to laugh at this side of me. I don’t know if I analyze it that deeply — them appreciating what I’m saying. It’s really just about entertaining them: Can I make them laugh about the things I want to make them laugh about?