It’s exhausting being funny: on the intersection between comedy and addiction

Okay, I wasn’t going to write anything more about Robin Williams, especially in light of some of the comments that came in on the last related post.  Several people said that I shouldn’t be focusing on the addiction issue when it is pretty evident that mental illness was the main contributor to this tragic death.  Mentioning his history of alcoholism, and the fact that he was in rehab just weeks before his death, was called ‘gossip’ – and I can see that, although it wasn’t my intention.  I’m not discounting William’s mental illness, but I write about addiction: that’s what I do.  Which came first, for Williams or for any of us, is an unanswerable question.  

But there are wider lessons to take, here, and some of them apply to us addicts even if we don’t also suffer with mental illness.  In particular, this Cracked article, Why Funny People Kill Themselves, is one of the best things I’ve read on the topic so far.

comedycurrent

Let me tell you about who I was, in high school.  I was the kid with the strange accent, and the not-quite-normal-ness that comes from being an immigrant.  I didn’t have the right sort of lunch, or know the right television programmes to watch.  Also I wore glasses, and had a pronounced overbite that had never been fixed with braces.  I was also precociously smart, which meant that I was a year younger than everyone else, and I used words like indomitable and picturesque in normal conversation.  As you can imagine, I was a TOTAL HIT in the school yard.

Actually, after a while, I was.  Those first couple of years were rough, but by the time I was in senior high, I was pretty popular.  Boys flirted with the idea of flirting with me; I had friends, and went to parties, and entertained classrooms full of people.  I had a reputation for being funny, and quick, and funny, and daring, and funny.  Because by then, I had learned that funny is a winner.  I still remember, and treasure, every time someone told me I was funny, or asked how I did it, or complimented my value at a party.

But being funny is a mask.  While I wrote here about the myth of great artists as alcoholics, a myth that is largely due to confirmation bias (that is, we don’t hear about all the alcoholics and depressives who die of their conditions, but who aren’t famous), there does seem to be a link between comedy and depression.  Here’s Jim Norton in Time on the subject:

The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.

I was funny because I was never convinced that people would like me if I stopped cracking jokes and started being me.  I’m not even sure why I’m using the past tense here:  I do this all the time, even now.  I measure how successful an evening was by how many times people laughed at my jokes.  I’m funny on Facebook, I interweave puns into my writing, I have been known, awfully, to interrupt a perfectly reasonable conversation at a party, that I am having with someone else, in order to interject a quip.  I’m already talking to this person!  They already want to spend time with me!  But I can’t relax into that: I have to try harder.

Plate-spinning

It’s, yes, quite tiring.  But guess what always helped to keep that persona going?  Alcohol.

Many, many people say that drinking helped them socialise.  Lowered their inhibitions, banished their shyness, gave them confidence.  Socialising when sober is one of the scary milestones that loom up in front of a newly sober person.  How will I do it?  What if I’m no fun?

It’s a very common characteristic of the alcoholic, I think, that we are convinced that our natural selves aren’t good enough.  We turn to the bottle to enhance what we already have.  To fuel the humour or give us confidence to flirt or just overcome the desire to flee back to our little nests on the sofa, safe in our own homes.  

But alcohol is a depressant, so the more that we turn to it as a crutch, the more it takes away from us.  When I was drinking, I hated myself.  The more I hated myself, the more I was convinced that everybody else hated me too.  The more convinced I was of that, the harder I tried to be likeable, and liked.  So I ramped up the efforts to be funny, and to do that, I drank more.  And so the cycle continued.

If you learn early on that your worth is contingent on how well you perform, it’s hardly surprising that you turn to drugs or alcohol to help you do just that.  And of course, if you start with mental health issues, all of this is exacerbated.  You struggle with happiness, you compensate with humour, you self-medicate with alcohol so as to keep the plates spinning in the air.  See, look, now I’m spinning them higher, am I good enough now?  There’s flames!  And I’m on one leg!  Do you love me enough?  Am I worth loving?

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8 thoughts on “It’s exhausting being funny: on the intersection between comedy and addiction

  1. I was so bummed about Robin Williams passing. My drinking escalated when I was in full depression mode. The first two drinks I made me feel better. Happier. Livelier. But the bottle or two aka depressant worked on me and made me fall into despair. I am 137 days sober. Working the 12 steps. Despair is gone. Not the depression. But at least it’s not as bad!!! Love your blog!!!
    Irishgirl.

  2. In the 10 years of my recovery I’ve met many many alcoholics and addicts… we are all different but also share many many similar characteristics. As you say many of us consider ourselves “less than” the rest and strive often to be much better to then prove, to ourselves only, that we are worthy. Maybe that is why so many great talented performers, artists and even statesmen (Winston Churchill) are addicts that inherent driver to prove to ourselves we are good enough drives us beyond where many normal people would drive themselves. Who knows… there’s a research grant there for someone to look into it!

    One thing – I find it interesting that some people are separating depression and addiction in this debate now ignited by RWs passing. As though addiction is not a mental illness… hmmm…

    WHO define it at…

    “…a maladaptive pattern of use indicated by …continued use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, occupational, psychological or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the use [or by] recurrent use in situations in which it is physically hazardous”

    Note… the word psychological in the list of problems – I’ve met very few alcoholics or addicts in recovery who wouldn’t say that the psychological problem was the major problem of addiction – if it was just physical you’d dry out and never have a problem again… why then do so many relapse? Like Mr Williams did himself after 20 years clean and sober… 20 years! … that to me points to only an underlying psychological issue. That is my addiction I know

  3. Thanks for the link to that Cracked article. Excellent stuff. And for the record, I like your writing always. When it’s funny. When it’s clever. When it gets waaaay too close for comfort because let’s face it, the best writing does sometimes. When it just is. Thank you for contributing to the world. It’s a better place because of it.

  4. Sorry you got flack for that Robin Williams post. I think we all know he was battling depression, but we also know the relationship alcohol can play. This morning on TV, people admitted he was in a worrying state before his death, but said he had a network of support around him. Lonely in the midst of all those loving people. You made me think. I am also striving to be funny on facebook, but I’m less funny in real life. I can’t think as quickly, and my inhibitions make me censor what I say. Social drinking was never a huge problem for me, but I’m aware it made me think I was funnier. I probably wasn’t. You only have to attend one party sober to realise this stark truth. Believe in the good you are doing through your writing.

  5. I agree with Heather – alcohol just lessens the inhibitions so more material slips past the censor and – yep it is funny. Funny outrageous or funny I would never have said that or funny omg. But it just isn’t sustainable over the long term.

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