‘There’s a lot about mental illness that’s really funny’ – How Fringe comedians are starting an important conversation
Felicity Ward

A number of shows – both poignant and funny – deal with mental health issues at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Siobhan Smith talked to four comedians and performers – Felicity Ward, Fern Brady, John Robertson and Pierre Novellie – about how they’re trying to raise awareness, and why comedians seem to be more susceptible than most to mental illness

Each year the Fringe seems to have at least one ubiquitous and yet completely coincidental theme.

2013 was the year that feminism made its mark. 2014 was largely engulfed by the looming Scottish Independence Referendum. This year the zeitgeist manifests itself in the form of mental illness.

Admittedly, with over 3,000 shows in the Fringe programme, you could probably identify the existence of a ‘theme’ in anything you wanted, all the way from puns to pandas.

However, in addition to being one of the official themes of the 2015 Fringe programme, this year saw the first ever Gala For Mental Health take place, with performances from comedians including Felicity Ward and Carl Donnelly. This absolutely signifies positive changes in attitudes towards mental illness and there is a definite buzz around how the subject is treated on stage. Which is great, in many ways.

While shows like Every Brilliant Thing and Bryony Kimmings’ Fake It ‘Til You Make It take a theatrical approach to addressing mental illness in the most wonderful way, there is also an abundance of comics performing stand-up that addresses the subject just as effectively. Oh, and they’re bloody hilarious. Which is also great, in many ways. 

Now I’m perfectly aware that I’m running the risk of getting a bit preachy here, but comedy can be instrumental in bringing mental illness into everyday conversation (as well as being bloody hilarious, don’t worry).

We live in hope that one day people can refer to seeing their therapist in the same way they would refer to seeing their GP.

(“Yes, completely happy to tell you in great, gory detail about my cervical smear test but God forbid anyone finds out that I am taking tablets that help balance out the chemicals in my brain and make me feel better.” Sure, makes perfect sense.)

And all of these performers are helping move that one step closer.

I don’t want to use the word stigma – Felicity Ward says its overuse makes her “roll her eyes” – but as someone who has been affected by mental health in different capacities (as most of us surely have) it is incredibly important, reassuring and effective to be able to talk about it in a funny way.

Why is the subject so prevalent this year?

Australian comedian Ward tells me that she is having the best Fringe she’s ever had, with her most successful show to date, What If There’s No Toilet? An hour about Irritable Bowel Syndrome and mental illness. Hardly most people’s idea of a laugh a minute subject matter. But why not?

Felicity believes that the biggest challenge for her when it comes to performing stand up about a serious subject that can make people feel uncomfortable is to make it more funny than it is alienating:

“I always knew that was going to be the challenge. Because people either don’t want to talk about mental illness or we only talk about it in very serious, respectful, reverent tones – otherwise you’re seen as laughing at mental illness when actually, there is a lot about mental illness that is really funny… If I’m talking about it then I’m giving you permission to laugh about it. I’m not saying that people that don’t have a mental illness can get up and go ‘how about those freaking crazies!? They’re nuts aren’t they?!”

One in four people will suffer from mental illness at some point in their life, and it will likely affect all of us in one way or another. A major positive for the comedians performing stand-up that addresses mental health is that audience members really relate to the personal subject matter and feel able to share their own experiences. Ward tells me, in an inspiringly light-hearted tone:

“I had a couple come up the other night and say, ‘We’ve just recently had a mental breakdown’. And I was like, ‘awesome!’”

I had a refreshingly honest conversation with stand-up Fern Brady (in the back of a pink vintage VW camper van – as you do) where she told me that part of the reason the topic is so prevalent at a comedy festival is due to the naturally open nature of comedians.

Brady was ‘referred’ to the counsellor she’s seeing by two other comedians who were seeing the same one, and she has “hooked up” another comedian who was suffering withdrawal symptoms from their anti-depressants. It’s not a subject that comedians shy away from.

“Everyone in comedy talks really openly about mental illness, which is amazing because if you work in an office you wouldn’t be able to talk about it at all,” she says. “Comedians talk about it really openly, which is a lot healthier.”

She also joked that mental health is an ever-present Fringe theme “because comedians are mental every year. Comedians have always been mental.” (She also said a few other things that I can’t repeat. Oh Fern, we love you.)

fern brady

Fern Brady

Are comedians more susceptible to mental illness?

While worrying that it would be offensive to ask, I questioned a number of stand-ups on whether they agree with the idea that comedians are more susceptible to mental illness. (Wait, why would it be offensive? There’s me, stigmatising the issue in my own head without meaning it… Idiot.)

Anyway, they all agreed.

John Robertson, a stand-up performing a routine that deals very honestly with a spate of suicides that have affected his life, including his own father when he was only aged ten, echoes Brady’s observation:

“Let’s go with the ancient stereotype – the most mentally unwell and most sad people in the entertainment industry are the comedians. It’s true.”

And statistically speaking, he’s right.

A study carried out by Oxford University showed that comedians have high levels of psychotic traits and are therefore more likely to suffer from mental illness. The study in question showed that while most people are either more introverted or more extrovert, comedians characteristically displayed very strong inclinations to both simultaneously.

I spoke with comic Pierre Novellie, whose show Pierre Novellie is Anxious Peter deals with anxiety and over-eating, and he was very much in agreement:

“Comedians have enormous extrovert behaviour. They’re confident, they speak in public, they’re putting on big public displays and shows, they want audiences to come and see them. But also they’re very introverted in the sense that they need to go away and be alone for a while and do their writing and have some peace and quiet and don’t necessarily like going to lots of social situations.”

It’s of course worth bearing in mind that the results of these kind of studies may be flawed. John rightly points out that the nature of the job may sway the results:

“The comedians are the only people in this entire industry that talk about themselves consistently so if somebody is going to tell you they were depressed, it will be a comedian.”

Pierre suggests that it may well be a correlation causation problem, with comedy being such a pressurised, unusual and mentally draining occupation. “If you weren’t suffering some sort of weird issue before you did comedy, you will be after you start,” he quips.

Pierre Novellie

Pierre Novellie

‘Comedy won’t fix depression but it’s a very good way of spreading the word’

When asked how instrumental comedy could be in challenging the stigma attached to mental illness and changing existing attitudes towards it, Felicity Ward sighs and says:

“The word stigma gets used so much, for me, that it has as stigma of itself. I kind of roll my eyes a bit when I hear it. It feels like it’s a buzzword or slogan because it’s used to frequently in regards to mental illness that its kind of lost its power and meaning.”

Well, the so-called “stigma” of mental health (shhh, don’t tell Felicity) has been something of a zeitgeist topic over the last year.

Fern Brady, who herself has spent time in a “mental ward”, reveals that at one point she genuinely felt there wasn’t much of a stigma attached to mental health any more, but then went on to say that she was wrong. Spending most of her time socialising with fellow comedians was her the reason for not feeling stigmatised:

“When you’re around non-comedians and people look freaked out, then you remember that it is a thing. Like, in my show, when I say I had a nervous breakdown I just say it really casually and then sometimes audiences get tense and you’re like ‘what is the problem?'”

Without overusing that troublesome word, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. But it is getting better. And comedy is doing its bit to break it down. By laughing at it. Talking about it. Opening up to people who may feel the same and letting them know it’s OK to ask for help.

Yes, people may feel uncomfortable talking about it but that’s exactly what we need to tackle. Robertson wrote his current show Let’s Redecorate after his best friend took her own life. He is adamant about the importance of talking about mental illness, whether it makes people feel uncomfortable or not.

“Who gives a fuck if they’re uncomfortable talking about it,” he says. “People should discuss mental health all the time… Because if you consider that the human body is a series of chemicals, everybody is mentally ill to one degree or another. I’m talking about mental health in a more free, more informed and more passionate way than I ever have, and that’s good.”

While every comedian’s main objective when writing and performing stand-up is to make people laugh, each comedian I spoke to recognises that comedy is an ideal medium for breaking down stereotypes. Everybody can relate to humour. It uses comedy to take something ‘negative’ and put it into a light-hearted, positive and open context.

In the words of Robertson: “Comedy won’t fix depression but it is a very good way of spreading the word. We’re the candy with the medicine. And I think that’s great.”

While reluctant to say that stand-ups are ‘changing attitudes’ – stating that she doesn’t want to over-estimate her importance – Ward hopes that comedy does have a positive effect on how people view mental illness, and how they talk about it.

“It happened a couple of years ago with feminism at the festival. When there was seven, eight, nine or ten comedy shows that were all about feminism and now, it doesn’t feel like a difficult subject to talk about – certainly not in the context of Edinburgh Fringe. So in the same way maybe it will give way to to other people feeling comfortable in the future to write shows about mental illness, or to write about it in general.”

Ultimately, everyone’s in agreement that addressing mental health through the medium of stand-up is effective in making other people feel better. And that’s crucial. To help people who feel isolated feel less alone, and to make them laugh. Which it certainly does.

John Robertson
John Robertson

Of course, performing stand-up that addresses mental illness is by no means a selfless act. It can also be a cathartic thing for the comedians themselves, although they all agreed that it is important to work through your personal issues off stage, and focus on bringing the funny to the audience. That is, after all, what they are here for.

“I’m using the medium of a comedy show to go through the grieving process at 2.15 every afternoon,” says Robertson. “I’ve certainly lost some weight.  It’s an exploration. We’re all people, We’re all alive. And we need to stay that way for as long as possible, goddamit.”

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