This past week a comedian I greatly admired died of a suspected overdose. His name was Harris Wittels and he was a very smart, very honest and very funny human being. You can see some of his work here, here and here.
In the last few years I’ve turned into a huge comedy nerd, but I think I’ve always had it in me. When I was in high school my dream of becoming an actor was replaced with becoming a comic after I started obsessing over the Canadian sketch show, Kids in the Hall.
The pinnacle of this came when I was fifteen and shot a comedic movie with my friends (edited in camera, it ran almost an hour) about a shallow entertainment reporter named Maxwell Shanks (played by me) trying to create an edgy newsworthy story while he’s on a throwaway assignment interviewing ‘The Volunteer Museum Tour Guide of the Year’. We had much more fun shooting it than our parents had being forced to watch it in its magnificent entirety.
In university when I was studying acting I ended up writing a short comic play that took place on the set of a television shopping network. It ended up being directed by a student a few years ahead of me and was performed as a part of a theatre festival. As someone who has an absolutely volatile love/hate relationship with the stage it was such a hugely positive experience sitting in the audience and watching my work transformed by a good director and cast.
There’s an incredible vulnerability and self-awareness that comes with the territory, and often a lot of personal struggle. Humour is a coping mechanism to get through life, to try to get people to like you, to draw attention to your flaws and own them. It allows you to speak truthfully about the world and your own personal experiences.
There is a well documented overlap with comedians and mental illness, something that the University of Oxford explored in an extensive study, published in early 2014. Researchers polled over five hundred comics and compared them to a control sample of actors. Comedians scored significantly and consistently higher than the control group for traits that indicated potential psychosis and manic depression. Another interesting factor the study revealed was: “Most striking was the comedians’ high score on both introverted anhedonia and extraverted impulsiveness.” More simply, put by comedian Susan Murray: “Comedians are naturally shy people that have a creative outlet.”
Comedian Dana Gould wrote a fantastic article for the Rolling Stone in the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide, titled: Brains Behaving Badly: Why So Many Comedians End Up Self-Destructing. His line that really resonated with me was this:
“Being funny is not the same as being happy.”
This I can understand.
I can bring to mind nearly a dozen comedians that have either OD’d or killed themselves. Just off the top of my head: Mitch Hedberg, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Greg Giraldo, Robin Williams…and now Harris Wittels. These deaths, particularly the last two which are still in recent memory, have left me grieving for a person I’ve never even met, not entirely sure why I feel their loss so deeply.
When I was a child I was an absolute power line of nervous energy, and I found myself using humour to expend it.
As an adult I now have an uncomfortable tick where I start laughing when I’m afraid, or if I get into a legitimate argument with someone. It’s diffused several situations, but I’ve always been a bit unsettled that humour is my automatic go-to response.
It doesn’t seem fair to lose someone that makes you genuinely happy and has the ability to turn anxiety and depression into something you can you laugh at. But I guess there has to be a balance that allows these kind of people a vantage point in which to see how terrible and funny the world can be.
Latest posts by Sarah Hager (see all)
- Sarah: I don’t think being a good filmmaker, or a good artist, means that you always have to be kind. - March 23, 2015
- Sarah: Humour is a coping mechanism to get through life. “Being funny is not the same as being happy.” - February 23, 2015
- Sarah: The Highly Functional Neurotics Club - January 19, 2015