Comics are peddlers of fun, truth and taboo, but more often than not, they’re an introspective bunch, too. They hawk their jokes in places with names such as the Laugh Factory or the Comedy Cellar — hardly the sort of venues where one goes to hear banter suited to a therapy session. And yet, for the past three years, the Laugh Factory has provided both: Once they’re done with a set, comedians can see an in-house psychologist.
This darker side of stand-up bubbles beneath the surface of comedy, obscuring itself until tragedy strikes — tragedy such as the death of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams.
Preliminary reports suggest Williams asphyxiated himself in his Tiburon, Calif., home Monday. According to his publicist, he was battling “severe depression.”
“You always hear that comics, the best of us, come from pain,” Arsenio Hall told Whoopi Goldberg as she interviewed him for her HBO documentary on comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Rumor had it Mabley was raped twice as a young girl and gave up both children for adoption. “If pain makes you funny, we definitely know why she was hilarious,” he said.
Richard Pryor, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest comedians of all time, famously set himself on fire in 1980. He had been freebasing cocaine and drinking 151-proof rum but said later that he had tried to commit suicide.
Williams, a guest on “The Richard Pryor Show” in the 1970s, also self-medicated. Last month, Williams checked into Hazelden, a rehabilitation facility in Minnesota. He struggled with cocaine addiction and alcoholism in the 1980s. In 2006, he checked himself into rehab after a relapse.
“This is serious,” Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada told the Los Angeles Times when word got out that the club would offer
counseling. “This is something we have to do. From Richard Jeni putting a gun in his mouth and blowing himself up [in 2007] to Greg Giraldo taking drugs and overdosing [in 2010], I just can’t stand to watch all of my family, one by one [self-destruct].
“From Sam Kinison to Rodney Dangerfield to Paul Rodriguez, Dom Irrera — every comic, they have a little demon in them.”
Marc Maron has been extremely open about his depression, though in 2012, he told the trade site Splitsider he wasn’t being treated for it.
As he was sharing his grief over the loss of his friend, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein tweeted, “Please, people, do not f— with depression. It’s merciless. All it wants is to get you in a room alone and kill you. Take care of yourself.”
Comedian Kevin Breel delivered a TEDxYouth Talk filmed in May 2013 called “Confessions of a Depressed Comic.” Breel is just 20, but he’s already had to battle suicidal urges. Outwardly, he said, he hardly seemed like the type you would suspect would be depressed — he was a model student and athlete.
“Depression isn’t chicken pox,” Breel said. “You don’t beat it once and then it’s gone forever. It’s something you live with. It’s something you live in. It’s the roommate you can’t kick out. It’s the voice you can’t ignore and the feelings you can’t seem to escape, and the scariest part is, the scariest part is that after awhile, you become numb to it.”
You can watch Breel’s talk in its entirety below: