The adage is that tragedy plus time equals comedy. In 2012 Tig Notaro stood on stage at Largo and told an unsuspecting audience that she had that week been diagnosed with breast cancer. "I am just at tragedy right now," she said. However what followed was a set of courageously honest and blisteringly funny observations of the horrific past few months of her life, culminating in her cancer diagnosis. It would seem that the only 'time' she needed to get to comedy, was the time it took to work it out on stage before her enthralled onlookers.
We are all familiar with the cliché that comedians are damaged, moody individuals who retreat from the spotlight after each gig to a darkened room where they sit rocking in a corner, blinking crazily at the wall with a bottle of whisky in their hand. A wild exaggeration of course, but the marriage of emotional difficulties with a career in stand-up comedy is well documented. We are aware of the large amount of successful funny people out there lamenting their self-doubt, isolation and pain. So what is it about stand-up comedy as an art form that seems to attract those who are most intimately acquainted with tragedy?
Perhaps it is the freedom onstage to express publicly the intolerance for things you would put up with passively in real life; discovering a voice where you would usually have greeted something with a mute nod. I grew up with wonderful friends, but while they were off discovering boys and flirting and adolescence, I was stuck in what I call chubby-kid-limbo. I wouldn't say I was bullied, but there would be the occasional jibe about my appearance, and I found the greatest defence mechanism was to get in there first.
If I made it clear I was willing to laugh at myself, if I could make the joke before them – and make it really funny – their power somehow ebbed away. Ultimately their interest in being cruel would wane because either they thought it had no impact on me, or in the best case scenario, I had made them laugh and was therefore accepted in some way. Meanwhile, I spent most of my teenage years discovering drama, steeped in comedy and on a stage pretending to be anyone but myself.
Of course, I would in no way describe my childhood as anything close to resembling a tragedy, but while I am essentially grateful that the chubby-kid-limbo played a part in me developing a sense of humour, a passion for theatrics and a strong sense of self, I still often felt like a bit of an outsider growing up. In my twenties I developed severe anxiety and that sense of isolation came right back. I was irritated and exasperated by my inability to cope.
When started working on material for stand-up I found that these frustrations were ripe with comic potential. My outrage at other people's behaviour, despair at bad luck and irritation at my own confusion were entertaining to other people. A new energy arose in me when bad news hit, because suddenly it was fodder for a set. How could I shape it so I could laugh at it, and then make other people laugh too?
In January of this year, a study at Oxford University revealed that comedians tend to have high levels of 'psychotic traits'. Professor Gordon Claridge told BBC News: "Comedians tend to be slightly withdrawn, introverted people who may not always want to socialise, and their comedy is almost an outlet for that. It's a kind of self-medication."
Medication indeed, for it is well documented that the act of laughing is physically and emotionally beneficial to us. Laughter therapy advises that it produces endorphins – feel-good chemicals that are released into the bloodstream, giving us a boost and lowering our stress levels.. In the 14th Century French surgeon Henri de Mondeville used humour therapy to aid recovery from surgery. He is quoted as saying, "Let the surgeon take care to regulate the whole regimen of the patient's life for joy and happiness, allowing his relatives and special friends to cheer him and by having someone tell him jokes."
Alongside the physical benefits of a good giggle, anxiety and depression are often acquainted with low self-esteem, so perhaps part of the attraction of stand-up for sufferers is that freedom to adopt and embrace a persona, to be someone else, to hold different views and break away from who you fundamentally are. You can pretend to be anything: socially or sexually confident, dynamic, dominant or powerful, when in reality you despair at how easily you tend to be the very opposite. True of all the performing arts, but to take your suffering and turn it into someone else's joy, to have someone laugh at your thoughts, at your life, at your situation: what clearer, stronger way is there to empower yourself?
Stand-up comedy is escapism, standing on the stage can actually help comics better understand how their brain works; how they react to situations and how their thoughts formulate. As Bill Burr has said, "I've battled with that type of stuff but what I've found is that by doing stand-up, I've actually learned about depression and how to combat it."
Comedians are often celebrated for their willingness to approach an issue and tackle it honestly and bluntly. It is often through comics that mental health issues are flung into the limelight, as another famed funny person publicly discusses the dark moments they have suffered. After all, mental health issues remain cloaked in stigma. The notion of 'pulling oneself together' overshadows the concept of being crippled by depression or anxiety. How enlightening it is then for the unaffected to see someone who they would have assumed was a cheerful soul sharing surprising tales of loneliness or despair. Alongside raising awareness of these unfortunately common issues, they also force people to reconsider the generalisations concerning the types of people who are affected by these problems.
In 1990 Anthony Griffith lost his two year old daughter to cancer whilst simultaneously finding new levels of career success, appearing three times on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Unlike Tig Notaro's set at Largo, his material during this time was not directly concerning the pain he was suffering, but was inevitably coloured by it. In 2003, during a speech for The Moth entitled 'The best of times, the worst of times,' he reflected on the dichotomy of having to harness his suffering and 'buck up' to do his job: "I'm a clown… and I have to come out and make you laugh because no one wants to hear the clown in pain, because that's not funny, but my humour is becoming dark and it's biting. It's becoming hateful… and I want to be honest and tell life, and I'm hurting and I want everybody else to hurt, because somebody is to blame for this."
Griffith goes on to describe how the Tonight Show were not interested in anything besides "a nice cute routine," so he duly buckled down and created one for them. To the producers of that show at least, his pain had no place on a stage. He was there to provide entertaining diversion for other people, not to work his issues out onstage in an attempt to find solace, or to simply cope.
So at what point does the comedian's 'self-medicating' comedy become self-indulgent? Jeff Garlin has said "The purpose of my job is to ease people's pain." Is there space then for the comedian to heal himself too? For me, the answer is clear: so long as it's funny. Your primary goal is to regale and to entertain and if you are doing that, who cares where you go with it? After all, it is not just comedians who will tell you that the richest comedy comes from tragedy. We have all laughed long and hard when 'we shouldn't.' So what a wonderful therapeutic tool it is then to be able to turn the things that scare or distress you into a source of comedy, how satisfying it is to pinpoint where the humour stems from in front of an audience, to see the recognition of those moments in their faces, and to realise that most of our problems are universal in nature.
We have all felt scared, hurt or alone, and we all will again. Sometimes the realisation that many of life's miseries are a shared experience can be the simplest and greatest comfort of all, especially when we're all united at laughing in the face of them, whether onstage or off.