Often the biggest laughs come not from life’s triumphs but from moments of human frailty. For veteran comedian Lawrence Mooney, talking about suffering can be cathartic – a kind of therapist’s couch – for the performer and the audience. “People who work in comedy are often searching for a laugh themselves or wanting to make people laugh to fulfil something inside them that is missing. They’ve got the darkness,” he said. “And audiences are voyeurs – they love to have a look inside. Identifiable comedy wins every time. Failure is funny, success is not funny.”Addiction, heartbreak, self-degradation and even an abortive suicide attempt are among the experiences Mooney has relived in his stand-up routines. This year, his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show focuses on his grief following the death of a beloved uncle. These experiences form the backdrop to an event tomorrow night, in which he and fellow comedians Tom Ballard, Sarah Kendall and Mark Watson will explore the role of comedy in dealing with adversity and tragedy.
Sick Humour at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre will also discuss how an increasing number of high-profile stand-ups are mining their struggles with mental health problems, loneliness, alcoholism and even sexual abuse as part of their routines. Fiona O’Loughlin recently went public with her substance abuse and suicide attempt, while Felicity Ward, Rhys Nicholson and Hannah Gadsby are among the comedians who have talked about their experiences of depression and anxiety. But is there a danger of crossing a line on highly sensitive topics? How do you make a suicide attempt funny? “Failed suicide in retrospect is hilarious,” said Mooney, who turns 50 this year and tried to take his own life after a messy break-up, aged 25. “It’s set up for the perfect kind of comedy. It’s high-stakes human folly, it’s time plus tragedy equals comedy. You’re also sharing, and the brutal honesty is very comic because you’re telling somebody something that is making them either squirm or cringe or laugh uncomfortably.” While media guidelines caution against discussing methodology, he strongly believes that frank discussions around suicide are important, and that comedy can play a role in reducing people’s sense of isolation. “Why wouldn’t you be as open as possible and say, ‘I tried to hang myself on a shower rail and the shower rail came off the wall and I was sitting on the bathroom floor wearing a shower rail and a belt around my neck?’ That’s funny. “What’s more, it gave me an opportunity to go, “F***, I don’t really want to die, and what have I done? What you’re saying to people is, ‘I tried it, don’t do it, I’m glad I’m still alive.’ “I do feel a responsibility to an extent and there may be people out there who may listen to me as more than just a comic message but I think our great mitigator is that it’s comedy. We’re not at a TED talk here, we are comedians.”
Tom Ballard agrees comedy should have no boundaries and that painful experiences can be the most entertaining. An ambassador for beyondblue, advocating on behalf of the gay and lesbian community – which suffers disproportionately high rates of mental health problems and suicide rates – this year his show is about the emotional effects of homophobia. Comedy, he maintains, can help challenge bigotry and discrimination. “I had a taxi driver tell me that gay people should be sent off to their own island to pollute it. I’ve been told to stop making out in the back of a cab with a guy, which I’m pretty sure was because we were two dudes not just because we were making out. It’s this idea of a death by a thousand cuts,” he says. “It’s reading in the newspaper that I ‘choose’ to live the gay lifestyle, or my grandmas at Christmas, who will talk at length about my heterosexual cousins’ dating lives but not ask me a single question about mine. It’s those things that can add up over a lifetime. Making it funny is quite cathartic, it’s a way to take ownership and give a majority straight audience an insight into that experience.” A sense of distance from the pain is crucial in making dark topics funny, according to Mooney. “When people haven’t properly comprehended what has gone on and they’re working through it on stage that can be pretty hard to watch,” he said. Ballard concurs. “I’ve seen people go on stage at open mic nights and be like, ‘My ex-girlfriend’s a bitch, just such a bitch, man, what a bitch’. And then you realise, yeah mate, you forgot to make it funny there, that’s just you hating the woman on stage and that’s not cool.”
In her show, Hannah Gadsby details how she was recently diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), after many years of believing she was a depressive. “The assumption was I struggled with life because I was depressed but it turns out I’m depressed because I struggle with life. I don’t have focus or attention and I’m late and I let people down all the time,” she said. “It turns out I do all those things because I don’t have good executive functioning. I’m so much kinder to myself now because I know I can’t help this. It’s not an excuse to stop trying, but that self hate has really turned down a notch or two.” While sharing her story may give heart to some audience members, she is realistic about the role of comedy in changing lives. “It can be really over-played. I just don’t think we’re solving anything. I think it’s a very momentary but lovely moment of release but that doesn’t solve their problems. It’s a little positive piece of a very large complicated puzzle.” Gadsby is also wary of the “sad clown” cliche. While acknowledging that substance abuse and depression are rife in the industry, she says it is a phenomenon not unique to comedy. “You’ll find the same cross section in all areas of the arts. It’s not necessarily about being sad, but about being creative people being sensitive. Van Gogh painted the most glorious canvases and he was in so much pain. If you’re sensitive to the world you’re sensitive to both the beauty and the subtlety and that can be quite brutal.”
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This article and image first appeared Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 2015.