More Than “Just a Joke:” How Comedy Can Keep You Sane
People often say that the funniest and most creative people are also the saddest. There are many famous examples of this. Lots of well-known comedians have dealt with clinical depression, including Rodney Dangerfield, Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Robin Williams, just to name a few. Williams, who took his own life in the summer of 2014, made this point very clear when he said, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”
Research shows that creativity and mental health struggles often go hand in hand. Comedy can be used as a tool to fight depression and anxiety. One of my favorite comedians is Bo Burnham, who talks about mental health in a very funny and interesting way in one of his Netflix comedy specials called “Make Happy.”
In his final song for the show “Can’t Handle This,” he talks about the seemingly tedious problem of ordering a burrito, only to have all of the ingredients spill out. He uses this superficial example as a metaphor for the real problems in life that we all try (and often fail) to hide from. He repeatedly asks himself whether he can “handle this right now.” He sings, “Come watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.” An article reviewing the special stated: “this line ties the whole song, show, and message together. Burnham’s job, when simply stated, is to make people happy, even if for only an hour. The resting irony of the piece is that Burnham can’t give himself the happiness that he wants to give his audience.”
As someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety, I can certainly attest to the cold, hard truth of Burnham’s song and Williams’ quote. It is absolutely the case that people with mental health issues often try to make people happy even when they cannot make themselves feel that way.
During my years in middle school and high school, I always had a desire to make people laugh, and I think I actually had a knack for it. I performed lots of comedic “bits” that took away from class time and annoyed the teachers but usually made the kids in my class laugh. My bits usually involved me interrupting the class in some way, pretending that I was not actually doing anything wrong, and then eventually getting kicked out. Now that I am older, I realize that this was not the smartest or nicest thing to do, but just making kids laugh and smile was worth it to me because no matter how bad I felt, I always knew that my bits might just make somebody else’s day.
My real struggles only began after high school. My first year at YU was relatively normal and easy. I had a few ups and downs, but I was making friends, having fun and getting good grades too. During my second year, I started struggling with depression more than I ever had before. I went to class but lay in bed as much as I could, and it was hard for me to pay attention and enjoy what I was learning.
During this time, I found that a great tool to combat depression was comedy. In difficult moments, telling and listening to jokes was often enough to turn around an entire day, just like in middle school. I regularly told jokes about my depression, and these jokes were often depressing themselves! Being able to laugh about my struggles alongside my friends who were comfortable with my dark humor was cathartic for me. It helped me see the real and funny side of life that had eluded me for so long, and gave me the strength to keep going.
I am now in my fourth year and things have gotten better, but I still struggle with depression and anxiety sometimes. When that happens, I rely on comedy and close friends to pick me up.
Even if today is difficult, we can always look forward to tomorrow. With a positive attitude and a little humor, it might just be the best day yet.
If you have any questions for Samuel, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Caption: Bo Burnham from the Netflix comedy show, “Make Happy”