The myth of the depressed comedian

Saturday, 16 August 2014 - 6:20am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Repeat after me - all comedians aren't depressed. It seems like a stupid thing to say, but after last week I want to clarify this if nothing else but for the Indian journalist. I believe the perception of the depressed comedian is rooted in multiple things. First, the pop culture representation of the idea of the clown has always been that of someone trying to mask his forlorn self in the laughter of others. That would also explain why McDonalds tastes so bad but let me not deviate from the point at hand. Much like how a Pakistani in Bollywood can't be anything but a terrorist, a clown in our representation can't just be a person that loves the art of clowning.

The second, a fair number of genre defining comedic icons publicly struggled with their demons be it substance abuse or depression. Think Lenny Brice, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinnison, Chris Farley. The list is long. When an icon like Robin Williams commits suicide after his long struggle with alcoholism and depression, this question pops up and gets reinforced in people's minds again. It's the kind of thing that lends credence to notions like you must be a tormented soul that has gone through hardships in order to produce great comedy. Let me say it again – comedians are a lot of things, but we aren't all depressed.

We're stupid – because no one in their right minds decides to stand in front of a room full of strangers and tries to make them laugh knowing full well that atleast 50% of those people will hate him. We're sadomasochists – because no one then decides to repeat that act of public humiliation day after day for years without making a single penny. We're disrespectful – to conventional ideas, to the status quo and to the people that love us the most because they're the ones we shit all over on stage. We're insecure – and we want everyone we ever come in contact with to love us all the time. We're moody, tasteless, control freaks and think everyone outside our world is an idiot. We still aren't all depressed.

Robin Williams' death has given the world another chance to start talking about mental health without the baggage that usually accompanies it. It has started conversations about being there for people that need help. It's something that has been long overdue. What I would like to guard against, especially in nascent industries like India is for the perception of the depressed comedian to gain further ground because it is another battle in the perception war that we have to face - as if all of us being jobless and comedy being an illegitimate art wasn't enough. For our sake, don't buy into the myth.

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