The Trauma of Comedy

This essay is about comedy.

I recommend the movie Concussion (2015) starring Will Smith.  It’s an incredible story.

While conducting an autopsy on former NFL football player Mike Webster, forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) discovers neurological deterioration that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Omalu names the disorder Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and publishes his findings in a medical journal. As other athletes face the same diagnosis, the crusading doctor embarks on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma.

In the movie, he describes Webster, an All Pro Center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as having had been in the equivalent of “25,000 automobile crashes” in over 25 years of playing football at the high school, college and professional levels.

It’s a great movie, but that one quote was the one that stuck with me after having not seen the film in about 5 years.

Again, this essay is about comedy, I promise.  Stay with me on this.

I had an epiphany while watching a TV show today.  In the show, a Christmas episode, there are lights and decorations hung around the offices for the Christmas season, seasonal music and hymns, lightly falling snow, and all of the things that paint the picture of Christmas to me.  All at once, I thought to myself, “when they all get back from vacation, all those decorations are getting boxed up and relegated to a storage closet.” I thought of the post-holiday depression that often strikes me; the holiday resonates with me the most on Christmas Eve, when anticipation is the highest, and while Christmas Day can be joyous, the let-down on the day after never seems worth the month-long buildup.

We like the presents, getting together with family, cooking and baking, shopping and wrapping gifts, traveling, Christmas music and temporarily observing the religious belief that there is salvation for us all, that a Savior was born into this Earth; but the day after Christmas, work obligations return, family returns home, leftovers are eaten and finished, and everything is “back to normal.”  It’s not a happy feeling.

Many priests and clerics report feelings of depression after the Christmas season is over.  After the celebration of Jesus’ birth, second only to Easter and the pageantry of Lent, they get let down, and it’s back to business as usual.  The joy of their work is over, the crowds subside, and for them, it’s not a happy feeling.

I know you’ve been patient so far, so here’s how all this relates to comedy.

I think of my life over the last 31 years as a comedian.  I spent time booking gigs, writing material, packing and traveling to work on the road all across the United States and Canada, and anticipating shows right up to the moment before I got on stage.  After the show, or weekend of shows, there was a let-down every time. My comedy buddies and I had a saying; the show is over, and now we turn back into pumpkins. Many comedians try to extend the party by drinking, doing drugs, and trying to hook up, but that was never my style; it was always back to the hotel and getting ready for the drive home to my family the next day.  If the gig was close enough to home, I’d drive through the night because there was no sense in sticking around. It was over.

If that feeling of depression after the show was over was an emotional “car crash,” how many of those have I been in?  Mike Webster felt the effects physically and it did a number on his psyche, and I don’t mean to equate his situation with the experience of myself and others in the comedy field, but after tens of thousands of mini-depressive episodes, wouldn’t it take its toll on performers?  Wouldn’t it explain, a little bit, the great number of incidences of drug and alcohol abuse, bitterness, anger and cynicism so prevalent in the field? How about the number of overdoses and suicides?

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic about it, but just as Mike Webster played football for 25 years, crashing into people on every down, because he loved the game, isn’t it possible that comedians, who love that time on the stage, would continue to do it regardless of the toll it takes on their mind, their self-esteem, and their relationships and family lives?  After each and every show, aren’t injuries inflicted, ones that don’t show and a doctor can’t physically diagnose by taking an X-ray and saying “Ah ha! There it is?”  

And the comedian who lives to get on stage and revel in that joy at all cost?  There’s no reason to reward that person, and pay them what they’re worth, because they would most likely do it at half the price.  And if they say “no” to that lowball money, there are dozens of performers who are acceptable replacements that will say “yes,” just to have that opportunity.

I think I finally understand why the clown is laughing on the outside, but crying on the inside.  Christmas is over and the circus has left town, hundreds of times a year, over and over again, and the mind just can’t cope with that many car crashes.

I told you this essay was about comedy.

Funny, isn’t it?

Ralph Tetta

7-28-19