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Has stand-up comedy increased awareness of mental health?

Over the last 17 years since setting up Funny Women in 2002 I have noticed an increase in confessional, self-explorative, and often darkly humorous performances, from stand up through to sketch, character and clowning.  Does this indicate greater awareness of mental health issues?

There is no gender split in this observation, except that women are generally more visible now than when I started working in comedy, particularly on the live circuit. Plus, to get the scientific bit on the table, I can even cite our own Funny Women research from 2017 where we conducted a study of personality traits among female comedians in collaboration with Professor Gordon Claridge and his colleagues at Oxford University.

Claridge had previously conducted research amongst a larger group of comedians showing a distinctive ‘bipolar’ profile irrespective of gender, however, his sample had been predominantly male. We compared these findings within our own Funny Women community with comedian and non-comedian female participants and revealed an identical pattern of cyclothymic traits (or mood disorder) in female comedians. Read about our findings here.

Given that the pattern of mental health is not gender specific within the comedy industry I therefore wonder if the presence of more female acts encourages male comedians to be less macho on stage and explore subjects more ‘feminine’ in nature, like parenthood and state of mind, thereby increasing awareness overall.

Certainly about 10 years ago I was told by male comics that the presence of more female acts and Funny Women had impacted on their performance style and material.  It was cool to be seen as ‘sensitive’ and caring, open to discussing the emotional rollercoaster of relationships with partners, children, elderly parents and more.  Rather than the traditional set up and punchline, joke-a-minute, misogynist material that had been the mainstay of male comedy at a certain level, we were being told more stories, asked to empathise and immerse ourselves in an altogether gentler male perspective.

Comedians of both genders now talk openly about being gay, disabled, black, Asian, older, part of any kind of minority – difference has become a badge of honour, not something to hide. This also gives way to a more ‘emotional’ and honest style of comedy where the stage has become a confessional ‘safe’ space for acts to talk about their state of mind and mental health issues.

Great comedy needs balance to make it stand out and those of us who develop, create, write and perform, know that tragedy and comedy truly go hand in hand. Humour is an amazing vehicle for examining, exploring and depicting the human state so it’s no wonder that this is now being reflected in the type of comedy being commissioned and developed by major broadcasters.

Fleabag has really owned this space recently, giving vent to the messiness of life, love and loss.  This has come at the peak of a trend for brilliant, insightful and well-crafted comedic ‘tragi-drama’ – Pure, Chewing Gum, Back to Life all explore similarly ‘tragic’ themes and nail right down into the human psyche.

To be more gender specific, and relate this to my work on developing live comedy, women are more open emotionally and prone to sharing their feelings so does their increased presence on stand up stages impact upon this more confessional style of comedy?  With no real power base to sustain and the benefit of what is still a ‘new frontier’ (although I can argue that it’s not as new as it is portrayed) women have far less to lose when it comes to live stand up.  On stage, the boundaries flex and retract giving vent to women’s voices from all walks of life in a way that public life still doesn’t fully permit.

With women leading this brave new world in terms of material, it does make way for men to move towards the middle centre, eschew the filthy shock-value punchlines for an overall more self-deprecating style that sets the gag hags’ hearts aflutter!

This is where I believe the gender boundaries really begin to blur and we can truly come together through humour to understand and interpret some of the ugly stuff that life dishes out.  There’s plenty of that around at the moment too – and if comedy helps us to understand and listen to the opposite sex or somebody who is generally very different from you, then it’s doing its job.

The state of the nation’s mental health comes as a bi-product of all this angst so we exercise our right to laugh about it along with those who suffer – today’s comedians and comedy writers are making the issues surrounding this both accessible and acceptable, regardless of gender.

Author’s notes

Please note that this exploration comes out of my own personal observations and I have no academic proof, apart from the insights arising from the study with Oxford University.

This is based on my experience of working as a comedy producer.

Lynne Parker will be discussing this further as part of a workshop on Comedy and Mental Health: Future Directions at the University of Kent on Wednesday 1st May, 1.00-6.00pm.

You can read Lynne’s article about the original Oxford University study in November 2016 for iNews here

Read more about the results of our study with Oxford University published in July 2017 here.

Read about Lynne’s own experiences with mental illness here.