I have a friend who in his youth belonged to a comedy improvisational group. Their performance involved asking the audience to supply plots or characters which the actors would turn into extemporaneous skits. What resulted always ranked somewhere on a scale between funny to hilarious, and I was amazed that these artists could consistently churn out such good work on the spur of the moment. Climbing Mt Everest blindfolded and without sherpas struck me as an easier conquest.
Eventually, my friend gave up performing to become a social worker, but he retains his good humor to this day. Not all comedians do. Robin Williams comes to mind as someone who made others laugh but suffered from a debilitating depression. Surprisingly, he isn’t the only comedian to struggle with the disease. Depression among comics is so prevalent that the owner of Hollywood’s The Laugh Factory hired Ildiko Tabouri, a psychologist, to provide in-house counseling.
Christopher Goffard, who writes about the business explains the prevalence of depression among comics. “Show business is brutalizing, competition is cutthroat, and the road – where many comics make their money shuttling between stages in nowhere towns – is a lonely place.” (Reprint from L. A. Times and reprinted in The Week, 9/26/14 pg. 26.)
Success or failure is immediate for a comedian, as well. If a joke goes sour, the room turns quiet. Worse, a heckler begins warbling at the back of the room. Is it any wonder, psychologist Tabouri observes, “that depression and bipolar disorder are more pervasive in comics than in the general population.” (Ibid pg. 37.)
That laughter and tears are traveling companions comes as a surprise to no one. Didn’t Rugger Leoncavallo give us the tragic clown, Pagliacci? Didn’t Emmett Kelly build his fame upon his image of the sad clown? Life is unpredictable and we humans know fortune is fickle. A comic’s job is to remind us of this bitter uncertainty. Slip on a banana peel and get a laugh; slip on a banana peel and go to the hospital.
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