Does comedy screw you up?

Kevin Maslen thinks it might...

How many times have you heard that comedians are a bunch of manic depressives with issues that go back to when they were still in nappies? Indeed we could all list famous comics that suffer from depression, bi-polar disorder or worse, fuelling theories like ‘comedy is the mask that hides suffering’ or ‘comedy is a release whereby troubled individuals obtain recognition and laughter not available in their ‘real’ life’.

I wonder are all comedians deeply troubled or does the comedy circuit itself create more issues than it sustains? Can someone with no history of depression come out of the comedy scene a year or two later as stable as they were when they entered it?

I came to the open mike circuit as a married 32-year-old with a family. Stand-up was an extension of my hobbies, writing sketches and sitcoms, and I thought: ‘You never know I might get paid for this hobby one day’.

For the first six months I really enjoyed the open mic scene, I felt I had made an accomplished start; I’d also made friends with some crazy and interesting characters along the way. However after about ten months I started seeing the circuit in a new, different, light.

Previously confident performers edged nervously closer to the promoter repeatedly asking how they did and asking what to do next. Other comics would watch on whispering negative comments to whoever would listen before going through the exact same dance ten minutes later. Then there were the after-show drink cliques that everyone seemed desperate to be a part of, almost like an encore to their earlier act – building rapport, being desperately funny and convincing everyone how thoroughly decent they are.

I had a wife at home and a job to get up early for so I rarely stayed around still I would always hear the same story of comics staying out drinking with promoters till 7am, angry that they still didn’t get those coveted spots at established nights.

As the months went on I noticed how much the stand-ups relied on the open mic circuit. It had become (unpaid) work, a social circle and a morale crusade all rolled into one, for some. The ongoing slog triggered strange personality traits, such as fear and denial. Traits that had not shown themselves in the early days of their comedic journey.

I would often hear complaints about the audience being terrible, or how the compare introduced them in the wrong way or how the room was just not set up for comedy and so on, and on. A few comics would even say, ‘I love dying on stage’ fooling no one but themselves or ‘Hey, you’ve never seen me do well have you?’ followed by a vain attempt to pronounce me some kind of voodoo bad luck charm bringing audiences of contempt wherever I go. This is obviously unrealistic, I don’t dabble in the dark arts, but I understand that it is far more palatable than the even darker, nastier truth.

I stopped gigging for about five months when I realised I was falling into the same trap. I started to hate, yes hate, people I didn’t even know and was bitching about other acts, promoters, audiences and nights. I realised I simply wasn’t enjoying myself any more and started feeling depressed, unconfident, jealous and judgemental. I have since heard from many others who have felt or acted the same.

So I’m sure we all know of comedians who have been doing the same routine for the last two to three years, who never quite tear the roof off a gig, who moan and bitch about the fact they are still doing five minute open mic spots when such and such is headlining a new night? Like me you may have feared for their mental capacities and pondered how they became so twisted and oblivious to the fact that maybe this just isn’t for them.

My question is were they always this depressed, angry, and miserable so felt a natural pull to comedy or has the wear and tear of the comedy circuit created a monster?

Published: 22 Feb 2010

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