Comedians & Depression

Truck stop sign in Mauston, WI

In honor of Dobie Maxwell, a comedy “lifer” who started the Facebook group “The Maxwell Method” as a forum where experienced and new standup comedy performers could gather and share information, I want to talk a little bit about being a comedian, depression at holiday time, and depression in general.

Our field has a much larger than normal population of people with depression, and it also attracts some of the most fragile individuals.  Common themes amongst comedians (the good ones, anyway) seem to be unhappy childhood, unhappy marriage or lack of close personal relationships, financial instability, drug and/or alcohol abuse, difficulty fitting in, social clumsiness, Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia, and conditions of almost any stripe that require antidepressants, counseling, or some sort of institutionalization.

This isn’t a mistake.  Comedy isn’t meant to be practiced by stable individuals with a great family, no hang-ups and a positive outlook on life.  They would probably be the most boring comedians ever.

Henry Rollins, the musician/poet/spoken word artist once told a story about this.  He framed it in these terms, and I am *extremely* paraphrasing (with heavy embellishment on my part, I promise you): imagine you are going to go to the movies, and there are a choice of two.  The first movie tells a tale about a family who packs up the station wagon with a picnic basket and the family dog, and goes to the park.  The kids play frisbee with the dog while the mom and dad clear an area under a tree of sticks and pinecones and spread out a large blanket.  The mom gets the food ready and the dad gets in on the action, tossing the frisbee around with the kids until it’s time to eat.  Soon, the mother calls everyone to lunch and they enjoy sandwiches, homemade potato salad, icy-cold lemonade from a big pitcher, and some blueberry cobbler for dessert.  The kids talk about their friends and what they want to be when they grow up, and the parents eagerly hang on every word.  After lunch, they pack up the blanket and leftovers and go for a nature walk.  They throw sticks and the dog runs to fetch them and he’s just having a grand old time.  Eventually it gets dark and they start making their way back to the car.  They get home and everyone enjoyed the day so much, they sit on the front porch enjoying one last glass of that lemonade and they look up into the night sky at the stars, and try to pick out the constellations.  Soon, it’s bedtime and the family turns in for the night, comfy and cozy in their beds and glowing in the love of their family’s time together.

In the second movie theater, there’s a movie about a guy who is single and lives in a crappy apartment in a crime-ridden part of the city.  Every morning he gets up, locks his place up tight as a drum and dodges the panhandlers and drug zombies on his way to the bus stop.  He misses the bus and it’s raining and he has to stand there for another 17 minutes for the next bus, which means he’ll be late *and* soaked when he gets to work.  He hates the job and he hates his boss, but he does what he has to do to survive, and he doesn’t have a lot of options because he’s alone in this world, with no family and very few friends.  When he gets to work, dripping wet from the rain, he gets chewed out by his boss who tells him that his attitude stinks and he doesn’t seem like he wants to be there, and he gets let go.  The guy half-heartedly begs for his job, but he knows there isn’t a chance, so he leaves.  On his way out, the whole office pretty much knows what happened because the guy didn’t sit down at his desk, and even though he didn’t clean it out of personal possessions, they are sure he’s been let go.  He doesn’t make eye contact because he doesn’t want to look any of his former co-workers in the eye, he never liked any of them and he was pretty sure they didn’t respect him anyway.  He goes home and goes into his closet and finds two handguns that he bought weeks ago without really knowing why.  He takes the guns apart, cleans and oils them, and loads them.  He puts on a big trench coat and hides the guns in his pockets and takes the bus back to his office.  He starts firing as soon as he gets through the door, wasting the receptionist who never said “hi” to him ever, the jerk with the bad breath who always cornered him at the water cooler with stories that never went anywhere, and finally that asshole boss of his, with his stupid sweater and the stupid pictures on his desk of his stupid wife and stupid kids and stupid dog at their stupid picnic in the park.

Which movie do you want to see?

The theater for the first movie is practically empty, and the theater for the second movie has a line around the block, I guarantee you.

People are voyeurs, and they want to see suffering.  They have sadness in their life, and disappointment, and rejection, the same as everyone who is human, and they want to see it from others.  This is why self-deprecating humor lands so cleanly and efficiently.  If a comic stands on stage and says “I have no luck with women” or “I did this thing that embarrassed me” or “Take my wife, please,” it strikes a chord in an audience that either says “Wow, I can totally relate to this comedian, they have the same problems as I do” or “Wow, I thought I had it bad, but this comedian is really a mess.  I’m glad I’m better off than they are.”

Comedians need to have a cynicism about life, a negative spin on the normal.  A lot of comedians are lauded as “saying the things that other people were thinking but didn’t have the guts to say.”  Those things are not usually observations on how wonderful the world is or how nice people can be.  They are usually commentaries on things that are wrong, unfair, unjust, or just plain stupid.

A while back, a study was done of a group of chimpanzees in the jungle, and the researchers found that at certain times, a small number of the chimpanzees would migrate to the outside of the group.  These chimpanzees would exhibit signs of depression and alienation, and members of the group would rotate.  The depressed chimpanzees would eventually work their way out of depression and rejoin the group, playing and gathering food, and other members of the group would take their place on the outskirts in a natural cycle.  All of the chimpanzees, at one time or another, exhibited signs of depression and would retreat.

The researchers decided to give the chimpanzees antidepressants, which they introduced to them in their food.  They left the chimpanzees for a few weeks, and then returned to observe the group.  When they arrived at the site of the chimpanzees’ habitat, they were all dead; they had all been killed by jungle cats and other predators.

The chimpanzees who were depressed and moved to the outer edges of the group were able to act as lookouts, and would warn the group when predators were coming near.  Without any disassociated members of the group, there was no one to sound the alarm that danger was near, and the group was quickly turned into tiger chow.

Comedians are said to be the people who speak truth to power, the ones who “sound the alarm,” and some do it more vigorously than others.  Some comedians comment on the news of the day or social issues or politics, and even a comedian who just talks about relationships is giving a warning in their own way.  Society needs comedians to be there, on the outskirts of the group, to point out the dangers of everyday life.

The job description of standup comedian feeds this depression; comedians are away from home for a long time, and thus have difficulty maintaining relationships, particularly romantic ones but even basic friendships.  While on the road, comedians acrete to each other, because out there in a strange city, the other comedians are all they’ve got.  People from the club have day jobs, families, and no time to hang around with comedians all day (for the most part).  So now you have lonely, depressed comedians sitting in hotel rooms or sitting on the couch of the comedy condo, and absolutely nothing to do until 8:00 showtime.  The days become filled with drugs, alcohol, gambling, porn, or any behavior that helps deaden the depressive funk of someone with little or no companionship or healthy outlet for the time.  I have seen comedians travel around with hundreds of dvds, and game systems with dozens of video games.  Every comedian carries a laptop, and spends time communicating (or arguing) on the internet, just to feel some sort of human connection.  Multiply these conditions by years or decades and you wind up with some distorted and unhealthy individuals; depressed, disassociated, angry, lonely, tired, and hopeless.

The good news is that there are signs that road comics are learning to take better care of themselves; being concerned with their health, quitting drugs and/or drinking, eating healthier, repairing old relationships and/or establishing new ones, putting time into creative projects, writing books, blogs, reaching out to an audience through social media, seeking counseling when available and taking time to enjoy life when scheduling allows.

For those of us that have yet to reorient ourselves to this more positive way of handling the job, depression continues to be an issue and the holidays can be the worst. The job description is to entertain people who are having a night out as a break from their normal routine.  The comedian is there for them to make them laugh and enjoy themselves, but who is there for the comedian?  At holiday time, the images of joyful people getting together with their families and hanging decorations, shopping for presents, eating a great meal with everyone gathered around a big table and feeling the warmth of holiday cheer can bring great pain to the comedian who will experience few of these things or sometimes none of them.  

Here’s a personal story, if I may; I was working with Dobie once upon a time in the town of Mauston, Wisconsin during the run-up to Christmas and he was driving back and forth to Milwaukee to be with family (God bless him).  I was alone in a strange (and small) town, and the closest they had to a mall was a Wal*Mart that was about 25 miles away.  I drove there on a Saturday afternoon and the sight of all the families buying things for Christmas, the displays of trees and wrapping paper, the holiday music coming out of the speakers in the ceiling and the children in particular, cut me to the quick; my wife and infant child were over 800 miles away.  I never felt so alone and forlorn in my whole life, and I ran out of the place before I burst into tears.  I cried plenty in the car, though, don’t you worry.  Dobie and I did our final show Saturday night and he bought me a steak dinner at the only place that was open, the truck stop.  He’s a saint of a man, I promise you.  There’s a tradition in the comedy business that the headliner buys the feature act a meal, and at that point, Dobie had already bought me a meal after a gig in Battle Creek, Michigan a long time ago and when I protested, he said “Pay it forward.”  Other comedians will actually save your life on the road, especially class acts like Dobie Maxwell.  I’ve purchased a few meals for my features since then, it’s important to keep the good will flowing.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the road comic to put their affairs in order; find some way to sanity, whether through counseling, relationships, keeping busy, or something as simple as a hobby that keeps you entertained or makes you happy.

I have gone with counseling, and it’s been doing wonders for me.  I’ve identified that depression isn’t something that you have, like a cold, but rather something that occurs when certain behaviors happen, like avoiding unpleasant feelings, and avoiding situations that prompt these feelings.  A person who is experiencing depression is having that experience because they aren’t living their values.  No one who signed up to be a comedian ever said “I’m really looking forward to the loneliness between shows, the time in the hotel, the alcohol and drug abuse, and the separation from my family and friends.”  We are enticed by that 15 minutes or 30 minutes or hour on stage, and then after the performance is over and everyone goes home, the crash occurs. The lights are off and the comic isn’t the center of attention anymore, the good times are over, and now there is the emptiness where those things used to be.  The emptiness needs to be fed, and it’s fed by gambling, drinking, attempting to hook up, drugs, or just watching movies on cable until you pass out.

You can escape this empty tank by filling it with your personal values.  A depressed person is a person who doesn’t know how to cope with their situation, and a great way to address that is to decide what things are important to you, and focus on them.  For people who are concerned about their health, exercise is great.  It’s not always available on the road, but sometimes just a nice walk can do the trick.  If you miss your family, call them or write them a text or e-mail message.  If you have a hobby, see if there is a place locally that you can visit.  You don’t have to buy anything, you can just be around what you love and spend time in the store, whether it’s music, comic books, model trains, memorabilia or whatever.  You’ll be around people who have a similar interest and you will be able to fill up some of the time with human interaction.  And work is a healthy distraction, if you can spend time writing, whether it be new material, a novel, a letter to the editor of a newspaper, a piece of work for hire for a print or online magazine, or content of any kind (see my #jokesforsale #cheap on Twitter), it will keep you occupied and balanced and help stave off some of the feelings of sadness, alienation and insecurity.  You can work on projects, develop a podcast, or plan a tour, or put out an album’s worth of song parodies, whatever you can think of.

Marc Maron’s story is pretty well-traveled, that he helped combat feelings of depression by doing a podcast in his garage and talking to friends and other performers, and that turned out great for him.  When in doubt, reach out to other comedians.  We’re all in the same boat, and we know the pitfalls better than anyone else.  And we have a wonderful platform to reach out with, Dobie Maxwell’s group.  We don’t judge or punish, unless you’re being a dick about it.  We reward in the form of support, shared knowledge, camaraderie, and common experience.  I wish this was around 20 years ago, but it’s here now, and that’s important.  It’s like that old saying “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time to plant one is today.”

I wish all of you the best for this holiday season, a new start for the new year, and all of the success and happiness you can handle!