Tears of a Clown is an hour-long BBC 4 Radio documentary hosted by Robin Ince. Following the suicide of Robin Williams, it investigates the mental health of the comedian population. Interviewed are mental health professionals, comedians like Josie Long and Simon Amstell, and even comedians who used to work in mental health like Jo Brand.
So why do people become standup comics? This is a question that’s bothered me for years. It seems that the only people who should be comics are the people who cannot possibly handle not doing it, because it a brutal profession. Comedians are volunteering themselves for ridicule, moreso than musicians or any other kind of performer. Jo Brand recognizes the statistic saying that there’s an over-representation of comedians who are adopted or who lost a parent when they were very young. Host Robin Ince realizes that the car crash he was in at age three that put his mother into a coma for a long time could peg him as one of these comedians. The documentary doesn’t make such a broad claim that all comedians became comedians because they are emotionally damaged, but it does say that for many, it provides a sort of free therapy.
Standup comedy may well be the disease, but it may also be the cure.”
A few highlights:
- Simon Amstell’s Numb show is about going to therapy for two years because he couldn’t feel anything. He feels standup is like therapy because if he says something shameful on stage and people laugh, it’s like acceptance.
- Robin Ince asks Jo Brand if standup creates a pseduo bio-polar effect because it forces really high highs and really low lows. Brand says standup is more similar to cyclothymic personalities who experience these extremes but are functional, whereas people with true bi-polar disorder usually need heavy drugs to live normally.
- capacity for enlightenment = capacity for depression
- Many comedians mimic symptoms of disorders: pressure of speech and flight of ideas is a symptom of bi-polar, which comedians like Eddie Izzard mimic; many comedians are self-depreciating; most have emotional issues, but they are under control.
- A psychiatrist says, “If you repress some of your feelings, you repress all of them.” Jokes that bat away sadness are not as funny as they could be.
- Josie Long went to therapy for a few years because of her family life, but she feels that her recent standup show about her bad breakup exorcised the pain from her. She says that when a comic performs, people laugh for an hour but the comic hasn’t laughed once.
- Simon Amstell says that with his sitcom Grandma’s House, he wanted people to wonder which parts were real and which were fiction.
We’re all constructed personalities. The truth is that everything is a story. The truth is that I’m not Simon Amstell. I’m not this person. I’m not this face. This face is going to change. The name is just a label. The truth of who I am, I don’t know who I am. Everything I’m doing whether it’s standup or writing that sitcom–the question is always who am I?”