Robin Williams and the curse of the clown

LENNY ANN LOW
Last updated 14:43 12/08/2014

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There is a common belief that comedians are funny to escape their sadness; that often, behind the jokes, pratfalls and silly voices, there hides a depressed, tortured clown, squeezing laughs from audiences in an attempt to evade crippling melancholia.

This stereotype, which may have its roots in commedia dell'arte's tear-faced Pierrot, is not, of course, true of every comic. And not every comic who identifies as having some form of mental illness is a tortured artist.

But ask a comedian if mental illness can play a role in their work and the answer is ''yes''. Or ''yes'' put in a much funnier way.

Comedian Robin Williams found dead.

Rhys Nicholson, a Sydney-based comedian who is outspoken about his depression and eating disorder, believes mental health issues are widespread in the comedy community.

''It's a pretty big generalisation, but I've definitely found it to have some truth,'' he says. ''Anxiety and depression are big ones. Substance problems are big, whether they know it or not. There's a running joke that, well, we're all broken people.

Beyond a joke: Fiona O'Loughlin has suffered from bouts of depression.

''Of course, I know a great many funny people who are very well-rounded, particularly fine people. It's like saying that all lawyers are d---s. There are some nice lawyers. But, on the whole, most of them are bad people.''

Nicholson's comedy, which has garnered widespread critical acclaim since he began performing five years ago, is explicit, dark, confessional stuff.

His graphic insights into sex, religion, politics and mental health issues make arrestingly frank comedy. His last show, Dawn of a New Error, was particularly focused on mental health. ''I'm very honest, but I always sell it in a particular way,'' he says. ''I wear my dick on my sleeve. Ooh, now there's a horrible image.

''Anxiety is like the hot mental illness at the moment. [US comedian] Maria Bamford talks a lot about mental illness. She has a great thing about how people don't take mental illness seriously, especially in workplaces. These scenarios where you wouldn't say, 'Well, Tony didn't come into work today because his cancer's flared up again. Seriously, Tony, we all have cancer'.''

Nicholson says comedian Hannah Gadsby has some of the best material about mental health. In a show at the 2013 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Gadsby discussed her use of antidepressants.

''Someone said, 'Oh, don't take a pill, just think happy thoughts','' Gadsby says. ''It's kind of depressing that they thought I hadn't thought of that before.

''Telling someone with depression that they just need to snap out of it is like telling someone without any hands to get a grip.''

Comedian Felicity Ward, who has been open about her struggles with anxiety and alcohol, agrees mental health issues are common among comics.

''I don't know if all comedians have something wrong with them, but I know a fair few of them that do,'' she says.

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There are many comedians who have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness: John Cleese, Paul Merton, Jim Carrey, Ruby Wax, Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Hugh Laurie, David Walliams and Bamford have all spoken publicly about dealing with depression.

British comedian Tony Hancock, lauded as the funniest comic actor of his time, was dogged by depression and alcoholism for much of his life. He killed himself while filming a television series in Australia in 1968.

Stephen Fry, who regularly talks about his mental health issues, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 37 after walking out of the West End play Cell Mates in 1995. Eleven years later, he made a documentary called The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which explored the disease and his life in light of the diagnosis.

Two of Hollywood's greatest comic performers, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, suffered from bouts of depression. Chaplin once said: ''To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.''

Both used melancholy and the essence of the sad clown in their films.

Spike Milligan, who wrote widely about his mental illness, co-authored a book and made documentaries about the subject. He was, he said, ''famous for being a manic-depressive'' as well as a comedian. ''It's a gift and a curse,'' he said. ''You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else.''

Ward, who has experienced panic attacks while performing on stage, has her anxiety under control, but says her comedy would not be the same without it. ''If I didn't have it, I don't know that I would have such an awareness about things,'' she says. ''With anxiety, you become very aware of your body and brain - how they're functioning in the world and how they're reacting, and you're constantly trying to control that. With anxiety, I became a lot more aware of what was going on around me, so perhaps that helps with comedy.''

Nicholson says his comedy comes from being ''obsessed with everything, so you notice everything.''

''I'm always pointing out things to my boyfriend - 'Look at that sign' - and always trying to make little scenarios out of things that I notice,'' he says. ''I know lots of people who are very funny, but they don't sit down and take the time to write out what's funny and they don't know why it's funny. That's basically what anxiety is. It's over-analysis of everything.

''I think there is a lot of mental illness in comedy, because it's a job that you can almost function in with a mental illness - and quite easily function.''

Ward is making a documentary for ABC TV about depression and anxiety. She says when she is filled with joy and her anxiety is calmed, her comedy skills and urges evaporate.

''I went into a relationship last year and I was very happy,'' she says. ''I thought, 'It is very hard to write comedy when I'm really happy. I've got nothing to complain about'. Then, I had a three-month writing block.''

In January, research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that comedians have high levels of ''psychotic personality traits'', such as those similar to bipolar disorder. The study, undertaken by the University of Oxford's department of experimental psychology, featured responses from 523 comedians from Australia, Britain and the US. Many were found to have an ''unusual personality structure'' with unsociable, depressive and extrovert manic-like traits.

Professor Gordon Claridge, who co-authored the report, told The Independent the findings did not prove all comedians had these traits. ''But ... these personality traits are more common. It is that idea of the sad clown.''

US comedian Rob Delaney, who deals with severe suicidal depression, has written about the link between comedy and mental illness, but detests the idea comics need to be ''tortured'' to be funny. ''Life, as any moron knows, will torture us all real good from time to time, and there is no use, and no utility, in relishing the torture,'' he wrote in a 2010 essay in Vice magazine.

Delaney, who sought treatment after he drove a car into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in 2001 while high on drugs and alcohol, says he has swapped the drink and pills for writing and telling jokes.

Making people laugh, he writes, ''makes me feel really, really f---ing good. I would even go so far as to say it gets me high.

''And now I don't drink or do drugs,'' he told Slate magazine. ''But when I get on stage, when I walk in front of an audience of hundreds or thousands, it really feels similar.

''Me walking on stage, I feel such a relief and at peace.''

Ward feels similarly about creating and performing comedy. Writing her shows has been a form of therapy, but, behind the microphone and in front of a laughing crowd, her mind has a singular focus.

''I'm engaged and present and there can be nothing else,'' she says. ''Being on stage has an energy and an exchange that can't be duplicated anywhere else. And when you are in that moment, and you are that present, there is no mental illness.''

Comedian Fiona O'Loughlin has a similar response to live performance. ''I feel the most safe and peaceful when I am on stage,'' she says. ''Which is odd. Comedy's a great release for the human state of anxiety. And to address those issues on stage is quite cathartic and liberating. Sometimes I'll tell 200 people what I'd barely tell a stranger.''

For O'Loughlin, a recovering alcoholic who has suffered from ''terrible melancholy'' and bouts of depression, choosing comedy as a career was ''not great for my psyche'' but absolutely necessary. ''It's such a scary thing to do,'' she says. ''But you've still got this burning desire to have a voice and be heard. And stand-up is almost as peaceful as it is frightening. It's such a conundrum.

''I've certainly written some of my best comedy when I've felt terribly bleak. Some of the worst days of my life have turned into a routine,'' she says. ''I think we're very, very lucky people, stand-ups. To have this form of self-help is extraordinary.''

While O'Loughlin believes there are a vast number of comics who are ''broken in some way'' she is aware of a great many who are entirely healthy. ''I think, 'Oh bloody hell, I can't find any chink in your armour','' she says.

Nicholson reckons comedians faced with peers who are the epitome of good cheer feel almost wary. ''If they're super chipper and having the best day of their lives, most comics are a bit dubious about that,'' he says. ''It's funny that there is almost a stigma within comedy to people who are really happy.

"It's like, are you not one of us? Which is, of course, horrible.''

Nicholson and Ward are united in spreading the word about their struggles with mental illness. ''The more we talk about it, the more the stigma is taken out of it,'' Nicholson says.

His decision to talk in his shows about his eating disorder was inspired by a friend who said male sufferers rarely discussed it. Ward's documentary, which will be released in October to coincide with Mental Health Week, features comedians discussing the issue.

''I love talking about it to other comedians,'' she says.

''There's a good portion of us that suffer. Some of us get help and some people don't.

''It's so incremental that you drift away from your status quo with mental illness. It's such an incremental decline that by the time you get really bad, if it gets left untreated, if you feel even slightly better, the next day you go, 'Oh, I'm probably fixed'.

''The days that I feel normal ... I can't believe the days that I thought I was normal but wasn't. It makes me feel sad how sick I was.''

WHERE TO GET HELP:

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling

  • Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 - Provides 24 hour telephone and text counselling services for young people

  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling.

  • Tautoko: 0508 828 865 - provides support, information and resources to people at risk of suicide, and their family, whānau and friends.

  • Alcohol & Drug Helpline 0800 787 797  

  • Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to 11pm)

  • Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)

If it is an emergency or you feel you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111

For information about suicide prevention, see http://www.spinz.org.nz.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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