As someone who has mental health problems, the combination of mental health and humour has long been a source of interest for me. Many of us use humour as a mechanism to get through life’s challenges, but is it okay for comedians to make mental health jokes?
Mental health is often a topic amongst comedians, and it is sometimes met with a frosty response. The latest example of this is Rob Brydon’s recent joke at the GQ Men of the Year awards about Stephen Fry’s suicide attempt earlier this year. Unfortunately for Rob it went down like a, well, like a suicide joke.
When I was at university I did a lot of research into political satire, looking into where it came from and the deeper reasons behind comedy. My conclusion was that when we’re not happy about something, we often find ways to laugh at it. Instead of having an existential crisis over our inevitable death, we pick the easier and more enjoyable route of laughing.
Many of us will experience mental health problems at some point. Laughing about it makes us feel like we’re not alone, we’re understood, and that things really can’t be that bad if it can be made into a joke. But although laughter is important for everyone, especially those suffering with mental health problems, there is always a risk involved with those feeling more vulnerable, and this is why mental health and comedy is a debate, not just a one-sided argument.
Last month Asda, Tesco and Amazon were asked to remove ‘mental patient’ costumes from their websites. This request was met with a sheepish apology and sizeable donation to charity. Amid the protesters on Twitter were a few comments along the lines of ‘lighten up and don’t take things too seriously'. This is the perfect example of when comedy and mental health don’t mesh well together: when it’s just not funny.
Jokes on television and in the media have generally tamed down in recent years as stigma declines and understanding increases. Jokes about being ‘a bit OCD because my bottle of ketchup has a specific place in the fridge’ are fast becoming trite, never mind just plain inaccurate. If a joke is funny, we can choose to be offended or laugh. And when a joke isn’t funny, we’re not missing out on anything by taking offense.
I often (attempt to) joke about my mental health, but of course we’re all allowed to make fun of ourselves. It’s when someone else does it that we can take offence. I don’t usually find jokes offensive, because I know that they’re made purely to get a laugh and the person behind the joke doesn’t actually feel that way. But it’s all about perception, and if you’ve had a bad day, anything can be taken to heart.
The argument of whether we should joke about mental health is similar to the argument about fat jokes, thin jokes, and every other kind of joke that pokes fun at a particular minority or weakness. But that’s partly the enjoyment behind comedy. Comedy normalises things, makes us feel less alone, and it can take the edge off things worrying us. We have doctors and counsellors to take our mental health seriously – comedy is an outlet for relief from the serious.
Pictured: bottom, Jessica Brown