Comedians and Mental Illness
Not all great comedians derive their skill from personal pain but many do. Russell Brand was molested at the age of seven, became bulimic at 14, left home at 16 and began taking drugs.
Art Buchwald lost his mother to mental illness as a child and was raised in seven foster homes. Bill Cosby had an alcoholic, neglectful, and abusive father. There are many others with equally miserable backgrounds who take to the stand-up circuits.
In her 2011 book, Humor’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve, Nichole Force writes that “The comedian’s sensitivity to their own pain makes them especially sensitive to the pain of others; and the relief of that pain in others helps to relieve their own pain. In this way, bringing their audience joy literally brings them joy.”
The rapid-fire improvisational genius went silent in August 2014.
There were no horrific stories of abuse and deprivation in Robin Williams’s background. He grew up in an affluent household; his father was a senior executive with the Ford Motor Company. His education was conventional and he was a classically trained actor.
He became hugely successful after his television debut as an alien in the 1970s hit Mork & Mindy.
However, mental illness is no respecter of talent and good fortune; psychiatric problems dogged Williams for most of his life. According to Julie Cerel, a psychologist and board chair of the American Association of Suicidology, Williams was known to have bipolar disorder and severe depression.
As with many people suffering from these ailments, Williams turned to self-medication. He became addicted to cocaine and alcohol and sought treatment for both problems.
He went on drug binges with his friend and fellow comedian John Belushi. When Belushi died of a drug overdose in 1982, Robin Williams quit the habit. Of Belushi’s death he said “Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped too.”
He also quipped that “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you make too much money.”
Twenty years later, he started drinking again and checked himself into a rehabilitation centre.
Following his death his publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said “He has been battling severe depression of late.” But Robin Williams knew as well as anybody how people with mental health issues try to conceal them: “All it takes,” he said, “is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are.”
Robin Williams in a Manic Phase
Jerry Seinfeld called Richard Pryor “the Picasso of our profession.”
Richard Pryor’s mother was a prostitute, his father was a pimp, and he was raised in a brothel in Peoria, Illinois. He was sexually abused as a child and regularly beaten by his violent grandmother. It was the sort of upbringing that pretty much guaranteed a life of bad choices and incarceration, but it didn’t work out that way for Pryor.
He began performing in school, usually as the class clown. By the early 1960s he was working in African-American clubs in the mid-west, honing the craft that would later make him a massively popular entertainer.
By the mid-1960s he was making guest appearances on top television shows, performing a gentle, observations-on-life humour in the styles of Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory.
In the late 1960s, he developed his own technique – hard-edged, profanity-laden, and filled with the n-word. He confronted racism head on and performed character-driven comedy rather than just telling jokes. This, says the BBC, places Pryor among “a handful of ground-breaking comedians who have changed the rules of the game.”
Despite his enormous success, the seeds of the demons planted in his childhood were growing vigorously. He self-medicated with cocaine, massive amounts of it. During one drug-induced haze in 1980 he doused himself with rum and set himself on fire in what he later admitted was a suicide attempt. He survived but his health deteriorated and he died of a heart attack in December 2005 at the age of 65.
Carry-On Star Kenneth Williams
Kenneth Williams played the camp and effeminate gay to the hilt, but underneath this theatrical persona was a man who felt deep shame over his homosexuality.
His father, Charlie, was bitterly homophobic and Kenneth hated him. There was great tension between Charlie and his son that seemed to cast a shadow over Kenneth’s life.
In 1962, Charlie Williams died in mysterious circumstances, having drunk from a bottle that carried the label of a cough mixture but in fact contained a cleaning fluid, carbon tetrachloride.
The verdict was accidental death, but police always suspected Kenneth had a hand in switching the contents of the bottle.
Despite his huge successes he lived alone in shabby apartments and struggled to come to terms with his sexual orientation; it was a struggle he never resolved. His personal diaries reveal a man often close to despair and entertaining suicidal thoughts.
The last entry in his diary reads “Oh - what’s the bloody point?”
He died in April 1988 from an overdose of barbiturates. The coroner could not decide whether his death was suicide or an accident.
Williams once said “I certainly wouldn’t call myself a happy human being. All the comedians I’ve known have been deeply depressive people, manic depressive ... They kept it at bay with this facade.”
The Death of Kenneth Williams
Tony Hancock was the grand master of situation comedy. He starred in the eponymous show Hancock’s Half Hour on radio and television in Britain in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
In the show, written by the brilliant team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, he played the character of Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock, an out of work actor.
Each episode dealt with some self-inflicted travail triggered by the loser personality of the character.
Despite the portrayal of the often pompous, snobbish, and egotistical person, Hancock became one of Britain’s best-loved comedians. The Queen Mother once told him “In our house we all stop when Hancock’s Half Hour comes on.”
But, he was highly self-critical and lacked confidence in his abilities. He gradually broke away from friends and colleagues; a separation made easier for them as his drinking became heavier and heavier. By the mid-1960s he had fallen into a self-destructive spiral of depression after several failed attempts at new shows.
His life came to end in June 1968 at the age of 44. Along with an empty vodka bottle and a scattering of the few amylo-barbitone tablets he hadn’t taken was a suicide note that read in part “Things just seemed to go wrong too many times.”
The Death of Tony Hancock
Others Pursued by Demons
Sadly, the four tormented people briefly profiled above are not alone.
It’s a cliché, of course, the clown who weeps on the inside – Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Pagliacci, Archie Rice as portrayed by Lawrence Olivier. But many comedians have battled depression – Dick Cavett, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Jim Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, Spike Milligan, and Andy Dick a friend of Robin Williams who says he’s “been in rehab 17 times.”
Stephen Fry has bipolar disorder. In 2006 he hosted a TV documentary titled The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. In 2013, he revealed that he had tried to take his own life a year earlier: “I took a huge number of pills and a huge [amount] of vodka.” This produced convulsions so violent he broke four ribs.
Jonathan Winters spent some time in a psychiatric hospital and Dick Van Dyke confessed that he was “mostly drunk for 15 years.”
Ray Combs was a stand-up comedian who came to fame as host of the game show Family Feud. A car accident, divorce, and financial ruin plunged him into depression. He hanged himself in a psychiatric ward while under evaluation.
Swedish comedian Micke Dubois chose the same exit route in 2005.
American stand-up and Tonight Show regular Richard Jeni suffered from depression and psychotic paranoia. He ended his life by gunshot in March 2007.
Freddie Prinze, star of Chico and the Man, was yet another depressed comedian who took his own life in 1977.
None of this surprises Mark Breslin, the founder of a chain of comedy clubs called Yuk Yuk’s. He’s worked with thousands of stand-up comics over the years and says “Nobody gets into the comedy world because they’re happy people. Nobody – including myself.”
Let’s let Discovery News sum up “While reasons for connections between occupation and suicide are speculative, suicide researcher Steven Stack of Wayne State University [says] statistics show that suicides make up three percent of deaths of artists and performers, including comedians (suicides account for 1.5% of all deaths in the U.S.).”
The story is that a man went to see a doctor and told him “I’m lonely and depressed.” The doctor advises to “Go to the circus. The clown will make you laugh and you’ll feel better.” The man replies “I am the clown.”
- “Suicide a Risk even for Beloved Characters Like Williams.” Karen Weintraub and Dennis Kelly, USA TODAY, August 12, 2014.
- “The Demons that Drove Richard Pryor to Make Us Laugh.”Chris Summers, BBC News, August 24, 2013.
- “Kenneth Williams: Secret Loves Behind the Life of a Tormented Man.” Vanessa Thorpe, The Guardian, October 10, 2010.
- “Tony Hancock Blue Plaque Commemorates Comedy Legend’s Old Flat.” Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, May 12, 2014.
- “Are Comedians Prone to Depression and Suicide?” Sheila M. Eldred, Discovery News, August 11, 2014.
- “Robin Williams and the Heavy Price of Funny.” Marsha Lederman, Globe and Mail, August 13, 2014.
- “Robin Williams and the Link between Comedy and Depression.” Ian Youngs, BBC News, August 12, 2014.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor