Would you laugh at someone who has a mental illness?
Yes you would.
In fact, you’ve been doing it all your life though you may not have known. Robin Williams, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax…all suffered from depression. It seems a lot of comedy is driven by pain.
You never really thought about it. Then one day another great talented much-loved comedian like Robin Williams takes his life and you ask that old, old question. You know the one I mean. ‘How could he do it? He was funny, he was amazing, we loved him.’
Today I’m going to answer it for you. After you’ve read these words I know you won’t ask it again.
Who am I? I’ll tell you.
Do you remember that fat goofy kid at school that nobody liked? Every class had one. I was that kid. It’s tough at any age if nobody likes you, but at the age of five or six, it’s agony. Do you have any idea how that feels when the birthday party invitations are handed out? And you are the only kid not to get one? I do.
Yes, I was that kid. And now I’m going to tell you what happened to him. He became a comedian. A funny guy.
Or at least my mum thinks I’m funny. You see? You see what happened there? Even now I can’t resist the urge. All comedians do that. If they ever say anything serious they immediately take it back or undercut it with a joke. Robin Williams did it all the time, at 90 miles an hour. Look at the interviews, if you can bear it.
I make my living by making people laugh. I get emails from people I’ve never met who tell me what a great guy I am. I’m not. But I am funny, and I suffer from depression, which means according to the obituary columns I have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
This is what people don’t understand. Clowns make everyone happy, how come they can’t do it to themselves? That’s what I am going to explain.
But first I need to clear one thing up. Depression isn’t like being sad. Or miserable. Or down in the dumps. This is where the problem starts, the lack of understanding. Being miserable is just the cherry on the cake for someone with depression. Miserable is how you feel when you start to get better. When you begin to be able to feel something. Anything. Even torment. A lot of people don’t get that. The problem is we use the same word for two different things. One is for the normal experience of going through a bad time, being down, having the blues. The other is for a lacerating medical condition that can drive the sufferer into the arms of death. It’s the difference between a splinter and being nailed to a cross. So really we need a new word for it. Like Valley of the Shadow of Death Syndrome. Or maybe just VSD Syndrome. I’m not expecting we’ll get one. But at least now you know.
So why are clowns so unhappy? There is no great mystery. It begins in school.
I was about six or seven. After years of being ignored I did something stupid, and the other kids noticed. In fact, they laughed. Wow. A reaction. No one likes being laughed at, but it is better than being ignored. So I did it again. And they laughed again. People love to laugh. The kid who learns how to do pratfalls becomes popular. Not in a warm-hearted way. They don’t like him, but they like having him around.
So I learned to play the clown, I got good at it. And as long as I was wearing the clown’s mask I got by. Notice that word? Mask? That’s the point. It’s an act. It’s not real. The trouble is, the mask becomes permanent. People love the fake funny guy so much, he doesn’t dare take off the red nose. He wears it all his life, like a birthmark. Imagine that, all your life pretending to be someone who’s not you. Someone who acts stupid, someone you hate.
That’s me then. The funny short stupid fat kid on the playground who turned his pain into jokes. Don’t get the idea, I resent you, really I don’t. I know you’ve got your pain too. No one escapes childhood unscathed. It’s a terrible way to begin a life. Well, we are not on the playground any more. We’ve grown up.
All we can do is try and be better, kinder people. So if you know this kid, maybe now you understand him a little more. Maybe you will see him a bit differently, be a bit kinder and, who knows, maybe he’ll trust you enough to stop being funny for once.
Or if you are that kid, and you are in pain, I urge you to call the Samaritans on one of the numbers below. They have kind and understanding volunteers ready to help 24 hours a day. At night when your friends are asleep you don’t have to be alone with your dark thoughts, you can talk to them. They understand what you are going through. They don’t care who you are or what you do, they won’t tell anyone you called. If things are getting too much or you just want to talk things over, they understand. It doesn’t matter how big or small the issue — relationship problems, job problems, money problems, loneliness, physical and mental pain, depression and thoughts of suicide. Whatever it is, they can help get you through it.
I know because they have helped me a number of times in the past.
As medicine goes, kindness is the best there is. I don’t know whether writing this will help, but I think it’s worth a try.
Thanks for letting me explain.
RIP Robin Williams.