How Standup Comedy Puts My Anxious, Bipolar Brain at Ease

Standup is basically an acceptable form of public self-harm. As someone who thinks a lot about self harm, it's one place I feel accepted.
14 June 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Ashley Goodall

The moment I stepped on stage for my first ever performance as a standup comedian, my phone went off. It was my nightly alarm telling me to "take my fun fun" i.e. my antidepressants.

It was fitting. I'd been obsessed with standup comedy my entire life, but the crippling combination of anxiety, chronic depression, and unpredictable bipolar swings had kept me from performing. But there I was, on a stage, approaching the mic, being reminded by digital marimbas that I had made it this far in spite of myself.

Standup comedy—particularly amateur standup—is just an acceptable form of public self-harm. You are watching someone's dreams die in real-time. It's a snuff film for hopes and ambition. I love it.

When I started performing I was at my lowest point. Constantly harangued by suicidal thoughts, unable to get out of bed, daily panic attacks, and chronic pain: I was flatlining. My girlfriend got me onto a stage. She knew comedy had been my dream and my obsession and at this point in my life there were no truer words than "what do you have to lose?"

She was right.

In my first show, wearing a Cosby sweater and 15 extra kilos of wobbly pill fat, I got to speak openly about my life as an emotionally impaired manchild struggling to scrape together some sort of career that didn't involve cleaning things. I got to criticise my culture and my friends. I got to play out a phone call between by destitute actor friend whose Rolf Harris impersonation business had (understandably) gone belly up.

In groping through these twisted fantasies on a stage in front of 50-odd people, and to have them laugh at them in turn, I was able to claim back some of myself from my unstable thoughts.

Eventually, I began to talk more openly about my mental illness on stage and by articulating it I found some freedom. I created a joke about my anxiety, my depression, and my bipolar debating the best way to spend the night. Should I stay in, commit suicide, or give into a mania-fuelled binge? My ongoing emotional shitstorm of a life had people in hysterics. Each laugh chipped away at my illnesses hold over me.

Should I stay in, commit suicide, or give into a mania-fuelled binge?

One of the great ironies of depression is that it's easier to joke with a room of strangers about my attempts at suicide than it is to earnestly confide in loved ones. It's difficult to explain to friends and family how medication changes me, but on stage I transform my pills into a menacing Serbian war veteran and distil the dread they set off within me into a skit. I feel as though I'm more honest on stage than with my therapist. As fans of the animated sitcom Dr Katz will know, little separates a well-rehearsed routine from an emotional confession.

I've obsessively pawed over comedy like a pimple-necked geek for 25 years. I was around 13 when I realised that personal tragedy was the Mithril vein of pure standup.

It was the first time I'd seen Richard Pryor's 1980 special Live at the Sunset Strip. In it, Pryor starts the show by joking about a recent suicide attempt by self-immolation (the public thought it was a freebasing accident). Can comedy get more tragic than that? But for Pryor—whose life was an extended tragedy strug between child abuse and Parkinson's disease—his misery is the root of the deepest, worthiest laughs. Or so it seems watching his audience on 80s VHS.

Here in Australia, I'd say that comedy is limited by our cultural fear of anything resembling self-awareness or vulnerability.

To be a successful comedian here you really have to mirror the least interesting parts of society: middle-class, culturally homogenous, safe, straight, stable, masculine, white—meaning Adam Hills, Dave Hughes, Will Anderson, Peter Helliar, and so on.

Tony Abbott is the closest we've come to Andy Kauffman.

While these guys get laughs, and money, I've always believed more interesting comedy stems from discomfort. But as I have discovered over more than a few nights behind a mic, Australians prefer their chuckles warm, snug, and predictable (cue The Chaser reboot no. 19). This could be why there's no Australian equivalent of Dave Chappelle's "How old is 16 really?" bit.

Charlie Pickering is certainly no Lenny Bruce. Tony Abbott is the closest we've come to Andy Kauffman. Basically, very few local comedians have moments of introspection onstage or off.

That's not to say introspection doesn't ever get laughs. It does. It's just that saying "I struggle with mental illness" at an open-mic night—when most folk are joking about lolsworthy tinder dates and dog molesting (that one is surprisingly common)—is always a bit risky.

Yes, you can fly too close to the sun: You don't want to go full Lenny Bruce and stand on stage reading medical and legal depositions for 45 minutes. Being funny is still at the core of it, but alongside that is liberation from illness, and a separation of illness and self.

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