Pain is often expressed through art. We can point to endless exhibits of torment across almost all mediums, but comedy is an area where it’s still uncomfortable to explore difficult topics. There’s a social understanding that certain topics are off limits. If a comedian speaks about loss, suicide, or their own mental illness there’s a chance that the joke is going to be met with awkward silence.
One reason is that the joke might not be funny (haha). More likely though the audience tensed up as soon as the subject matter was announced. We’re conditioned from a young age that these topics and feelings are meant to be worked out internally and go unspoken, but that isn’t healthy. There are many comedians that have been making efforts to add these ‘dark’ topics to their comedic routines.
I’ve mentioned Paul Gilmartin’s “Mental Health Happy Hour” in a previous post on podcasts and it’s worth bringing up again. No topic is off limits. People of all ages (over 18) and backgrounds come on the show and talk about the really dark things they have thought and experienced. And there’s laughter! A term of theirs I love is “awfulsome” and it’s something that is truly soul-crushing, but looking back on it there’s something kind of awesome about it, even it’s just the riotous laughter that sometimes happens when one reflects on life experiences.
Anna Akana is a former guest of “Mental Health Happy Hour” and one of my top five favorite humans. Her younger sister committed suicide at age thirteen and Akana actively advocates for suicide prevention. Whether it’s through skits on her YouTube channel, her larger creative work like Riley Rewind, or a regular part of her comedic routine she challenges us to talk about suicide and the darkness we can easily be consumed with. She has a book out called So Much I Want to Tell You: Letters to my Little Sister that I cannot wait to get my hands on during winter break.
Maria Bamford is my hero. She is an established stand up comedian, an incredible voice actor, and she’s the star of Lady Dynamite, a Netflix show she stars in that’s loosely based on her life experiences. Bamford has bipolar two and is open about her struggles with hypo-mania, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and her recent hospitalizations. On the show she whirls though dark lows to vivid surreal highs and everywhere in-between. It’s one of the first pop culture representations that has found a way to joke about mental illness without making mental illness the joke (if that makes sense). It’s also the hardest I’ve ever laughed, possibly because of how close I can relate. I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to listen to and watch someone with a similar diagnosis be so raw and honest. She’s succeeded not just despite her diagnosis, but also because of it.
Louis C.K. is another comedian who has done an excellent job of blurring the lines between hilarious and heartbreaking. Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation is coming to Netflix and some of the subject matter deals with the death of his wife. I’m sure there are plenty more comedians that dabble in the dark, do you know of any I’m missing?
I think what I’m getting at here is that pain no longer needs to be a solitary experience. If isolating during your troubles helps you process, that is amazing and I am not trying to take that away for you. I’m merely suggesting that there are plenty of people out there who don’t necessarily want to be sad or alone while they are in pain or going through something, but have been so culturally reinforced that it’s something they need to do alone. You don’t need to be alone, we can suffer together and find the laughter in the low.