You might’ve noticed that a significant portion of the people who make you laugh for a living are also dealing with depression. Is there a connection between comedy and mental illness, or are these public figures just more visible and that’s why the link between depression and comedy seems so strong? To understand the connection, you must explore what’s known as the sad clown paradox.
The Effect of Learning a Comedian Is Struggling
When you look at your favorite comedians, you likely feel happy and positive because of the joy and humor they bring to your life. When you learn that a comedian is dealing with depression or mental illness or has committed suicide, it creates a stark contrast that can be challenging to understand and accept. From Pete Davidson to Russell Brand, there is no shortage of ‘funny people’ who have publicly faced mental health and substance use issues.
Although depression is common, affecting 8.4% of U.S. adults, there’s a cognitive dissonance associated with recognizing that comedians are depressed. This is the perception of contradictory information and can be difficult to comprehend. The effects of this dissonance is notable through studies showing an unexpected 9.85% increase in the period following Robin William’s suicide, particularly among males aged 30-44. The way we perceive and internalize celebrities certainly has an effect on us.
Are Comedians More Likely To Face Mental Health Challenges?
When you realize some of your favorite comedians are facing mental health challenges like addiction or depression, you may wonder why. Are these individuals actually more likely to deal with these conditions, or is it just more visible because they’re in the public eye? While being a comedian doesn’t necessarily put you at a higher risk of becoming a mental illness clown, research suggests that individuals who are predisposed to or experiencing mental health struggles may be more likely to gravitate towards comedy as a coping mechanism.
According to a 2011 review of the use of humor in serious mental illness, humor can be used in conjunction with conventional mental health treatments to help patients cope with their symptoms. The use of humor can empower patients and aid in their rehabilitation. Because of its benefits, humor is now being used in some group therapy and psychotherapy settings.
Comedians Who Have Publicly Faced Addiction or Mental Health Struggles
The Laugh Factory in Hollywood has hired a psychologist to support comedians who are dealing with mental health conditions like depression or addiction. A shocking number of public figures in comedy deal with depression and addiction or have committed suicide due to mental illness.
Chris Farley is considered one of the greatest comedians of his generation. He started out in improv and got his big break when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990. Farley was highly regarded by fellow comedians like Adam Sandler and David Spade. He famously struggled with addiction throughout his career and ultimately died of a drug overdose on December 18, 1997, at the young age of 33.
More recently, popular comedian John Mulaney has opened up about his struggles with addiction following a stint in rehab in December 2020 and early 2021. During an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Mulaney revealed that an intervention from his friends was ultimately the reason he checked into rehab.
He told Meyers, “When I opened the door, I knew right away it was an intervention. That’s how bad of a drug problem I had, that when I opened a door and saw people, I went, ‘This is probably an intervention about my drug problem.'”
John Mulaney drew a considerable amount of attention in this period due to his breakup with his wife and coupling and new parenthood with actress Olivia Munn. The reaction to these personal life changes can help reveal why it can be difficult to comprehend a comedian’s struggle with mental health; we build a parasocial relationship with them. Most comedians reveal intimate details about their life (though, sometimes fiction), these details, normally only shared among close friends bring the audience closer to them, creating a bond that is actually one-sided. John Mulaney’s personal life changes upset many people because they felt they were close and his relationship with his former wife, through the material he shared with them. The same can be said for a comedian’s material and their mental health. Believing they are confident and have a handle on the world is often a sugar-glass facade.
Comedian Sarah Silverman is incredibly successful, but she’s also had her fair share of mental health struggles along the way. In a 2015 interview with Glamour, she shared that her first experience with depression occurred when she was just 13 years old.
“My whole perspective changed. I went from being the class clown to not being able to see life in that casual way anymore. I couldn’t deal with being with my friends, I didn’t go to school for months and I started having panic attacks,” she shared during the interview.
Since then, Silverman says she’s learned to live with depression and manage it successfully. She’s on a small dose of Zoloft to help her navigate the emotional highs and lows associated with the condition, in combination with therapy.
Perhaps one of the most famous comedians to battle depression and mental illness is Robin Williams. Known for classic hits like Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, August Rush and Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams had a natural gift for comedic and heartfelt acting roles that touched viewers’ hearts.
Williams said in 2014 that he wasn’t clinically depressed but that he did “…get bummed, like I think a lot of us do sometimes.” Williams had notably dealt with addiction struggles and was sober for 20 years before relapsing. He checked into rehab in June 2014, just months before his death in August 2014. He was found dead of an apparent suicide at the age of 63. Robin Williams had been recently diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, at the time of his death, and reportedly often suffered from confusion and felt as though he was losing his mind, as written by his widow Susan Schnieder Williams. This, however, has not affected the general perception that he had been secretly suicidal for some time.
Why Are Comedians Depressed?
Does facing mental health struggles make you funny? A 2017 study exploring the connection between different styles of humor and depression suggests that some types of humor may take a negative toll on a person’s mental health. Aggressive humor is the tendency to manipulate or put down other people, while self-defeating humor is used to amuse other people at your own expense. These two forms of humor can have a potentially negative effect on the speaker’s self-esteem and mindset.
What Is the Sad Clown Paradox?
The sad clown paradox is the contradictory presence of comedy and mental health issues such as depression. It may answer the question “Why are comedians depressed?” The concept is based on an idea from Sigmund Freud that comedians attempt to make others laugh as a way to relieve their own anxieties or sadness — in effect, being a mental illness clown. It’s not uncommon to hear in comedian’s biographies how they started ‘being funny’ because other’s needed them to. In dire upbringings, it was a way to make their mother happy or to escape their world and find joy. As the popular twitter saying goes ‘Did you have a happy childhood, or are you funny’?
A famous example of the ‘sad clown’ paradox is the Pagliacci joke. This joke was famously used in Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel as told by the character Rorschach. This joke tells of a doctor appointment in which he recommends the comedy of the country’s most famous clown to treat a patient’s depression, only to learn the patient is the clown himself. The joke can be seen as a message that the situation is dire, in that the healer is sick, or that perhaps the best medicine is what he is doing.
Seek Support for Addiction and Depression
Comedians like John Mulaney and Sarah Silverman who are now managing their depression and addiction after seeking treatment are opening the conversation on how to cope with mental health struggles. Medication, rehabilitation programs and talk therapy are all possible treatment options for depression and addiction.
There are tactful ways to talk to HR if depression is affecting your work performance, whether you work on or off the stage.
If you or someone you love is dealing with substance abuse or mental illness, FHE Health has compassionate counselors standing by to take your call 24/7. Contact us by calling (833) 596-3502 today.