Amy Solomon loves comedy. The 22-year-old does improv, sketch, and a little bit of stand-up, and she grew up in Chicago worshipping comedians, especially Saturday Night Live‘s Second City queen, Gilda Radner. “But I thought I lived too comfortable of a life to ever succeed,” she says, laughing over the phone from Los Angeles. “I don’t know where I learned it, but I bought into this theory that everybody has: that all comedians have this darkness and these demons that haunt them.”
It’s a premise that’s finding new life right now, with the sudden passing of Robin Williams, who died as a result of suicide on Monday after a long battle with depression and substance abuse. Williams publicly discussed his mental health as part of his stand-up sets; as his friend Billy Crystal told the Guardian in 2009, “[Stand-up] is still a safe place for [Williams] to be, but he can talk about things and make himself feel better, not just everybody else.” With the coverage of Williams’ death, we’re seeing more made of comedy’s demons once again. As Just For Laughs president and co-founder Andy Nulman told the CBC, his first reaction to the news was grim: “Here we go again.”
There is an instinct in tragic situations to look for patterns and greater meaning, even where there are none. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many comedians have struggled with the sorts of things Williams battled: substance abuse, depression, anxiety. In 1966, Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose; 24 years later, Richard Pryor sets himself on fire while free-basing cocaine and drinking 151-proof rum. John Belushi, Mitch Hedberg, and Chris Farley all died of drug overdoses. The 2007 suicide of comedian Richard Jeni inspired the legendary L.A. comedy venue The Laugh Factory to offer in-house psychotherapists to performers.
It’s also hard to deny that comedy as a whole has become a darker craft. The work of the top stand-up comic currently working, Louis C.K., is bathed in an existential and moral darkness, even as he endeavours to be a good person. “I think the comic community has really embraced now that a great laugh comes out of making lightness out of darkness,” said Solomon. “Clearly, you don’t have to be depressed to be a comedian. But we’ve got down this path of that being the kind of comedy we like and I think that’s because comedy necessarily talks about the things that people aren’t comfortable with talking about, and right now, that’s mental illness.”
But was comedy always dark? How far back does the idea go that there is humour in pain, and the pained seek out stand-up? As a student and aspiring comic, Solomon wanted to know, so she did what any comedian would do: she dug deep into what made the stereotype true. For her final thesis at Princeton University, she interviewed more than 30 famed comedians—Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Rob Delaney—and traced it back to a response to a relatively Victorian era of vaudeville comedy, when gags simply generated guffaws and Ed Sullivan was comedy’s highly sober, highly selective gatekeeper. She found that things changed with two major moments: superstar comic Sid Caesar penning a magazine cover story about what it was like to undergo therapy at a time when the practice was dismissed as voodoo, and the rise of Jonathan Winters, a manic comedian who suffered from bipolar disorder (and who was Williams’s idol).
“The current generation of comedians were raised watching these people, and grew up thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be okay, and I can channel this into something.’ ” Solomon was struck most by something that one comedian told her: “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”
The intersection of mental health and comedy has been explored in science, too. According to a January study by a trio of Oxford University professor in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the link is a spin-off of the idea that creativity is associated with madness. The study found that comedians have an unusually high levels of both awkward introversion and manic extroversion. “Humour involves ‘sudden, surprising shifts in the processing of information,'” the study says. “The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis (both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder).”
By all accounts, the stand-up comedian Tig Notaro should know all about plumbing the darkness. In 2012, she vaulted into fame with a legendary stand-up set inspired by a truly brutal four-month period where she broke up with her girlfriend, lost her mother after an accidental fall, was diagnosed with pneumonia, C. difficile and then breast cancer, and had to undergo a double mastectomy. She plumbed all of this in an emotional set just days after her cancer diagnosis. She felt she “needed” to say it. But in a sense she represents the flip-side of a trend: she’s happy these days, and it comes through in her effervescent material. “It’s almost embarrassing how well I’m doing,” she told Maclean’s in an interview. And still her comedy career continues to blossom.
“I’m not just a dark, brooding comedian surrounded by tragedy. I’ve had my fair share, from the day I was born but I’m also eager to embrace the joy I’m experiencing,” she said from Los Angeles. “Comedians aren’t the only people in pain. Everyone walking around this planet is in pain. Life is tough, and I think people think it’s comedians and artists that are the more tortured ones, but it’s because we’re the ones who have the means to express ourselves. So the attention is on us. The reason [audiences] are drawn to stand-up is because they have the exact same life, and we’re speaking what they’re living and not able to express.
Solomon would agree. “The comedians I talked to all said, ‘I don’t think comedians are more messed up than, say, plumbers as a whole, but it’s stand-ups who have that platform to talk about it,’ ” she said.
Williams’s passing has brought about new awareness about depression. With any luck, the public outpouring of support and information on available resources will help those going through similar issues. They may have another potentially positive effect: if the dark strain and confessional bent of current comedy are a response to the taboos around mental health, destigmatizing the issue may result in the subject becoming less fashionable onstage. “Comedians talk about what’s hard to talk about,” says Solomon. “So maybe when [the public talks about this], we’ll move on to something else.”