The anxiety-related death of an Indian stand-up comedian while on-stage in Dubai raises questions about the state of mental health in the business of comedy.
Manjunath Naidu, AKA ‘Mango Manju’, was in the middle of delivering a bit about anxiety on stage when he suffered a cardiac arrest. The audience thought he was joking when he collapsed. The truth sunk only when he started gasping for breath. Later, paramedics were unable to revive him. It was the end of a long struggle with anxiety — a mental health condition that is increasingly prevalent in urban India.
Masking genuine grief with comedy is a well-known and well-studied coping mechanism for many.
According to the study, humour can help people “cope more successfully with traumatic situations… contribute to the enhancement of positive life experiences, and lead to greater positive affect and psychological well-being.” But, humour cannot necessarily help pull people out of their problems, or help them “bounce back from adversity”.
There are limits to humour, even if it is considered to be the best medicine. In an essay titled ‘Humor’, Sigmund Freud theorised that cracking jokes was just a way of avoiding pain. “The essence of humor is that one spares oneself the effects to which the situation would naturally give rise and dismisses the possibility of such expressions of emotion with a jest...The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer.”
What then, for those who in the business of humour and making other people laugh?
In 2016, a retrospective study looked at the life-spans of ‘elite comedians’, the top-ranked laugh-rakers in their field comprising “200 Stand-up Comedians (13% women), 113 Comedy Actors (17.5% women), and 184 Dramatic Actors (29.3%)”. The disturbing result was that the funnier the stand-up comedian, the lesser their life-span. Rank did not affect other artists like comedy actors or dramatic actors — higher ranks only correlated with lower life-spans in the case of stand-up comedians.
Of course, the most high-profile example of fame, fortune and comedy not equating sound mental health is that of Robin Williams. Known for his comic roles and pleasant temperament, Williams took his own life in 2014, an act that was followed by a ten per cent rise in suicides over America. A shocking and traumatic moment for many fans, it triggered a larger debate about the state of mental health and the tendency of depression to hide itself behind a smile.
On comedians and mental health, an upcoming documentary promises to explore the issue from the comics themselves. An upcoming documentary by Soul Pancake and Mike Bernstein, titled It’s Not that Funny, interviews Sarah Silverman, Chris Gethard, Rachel Bloom, Baron Vaughn, Rainn Wilson, Riki Lindhome, Wayne Brayd, Neal Brennan, Aparna Nancherla, Anna Akana, Sara Benincasa on the topic.
“A hundred per cent of comedians become comedians because in their childhood, they needed to be funny to survive,” Silverman says in the trailer.
Silverman is on-point. The ability of comedians to turn their childhood trauma into stand-up material has been a hallmark of the genre for quite a while. In 1975, a paper published in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis said, “The early lives of all the subjects were marked by suffering, isolation, and feelings of deprivation. Humor offered a relief from their sufferings and a defense against inescapable panic and anxiety.”
There are limits to comedy. The constant horror of being uncertain about one’s own material, the fear of an unresponsive or hostile audience, the never-ending need to keep the show running: These ingredients mix poorly with existing mental health conditions.
But, as to whether comedians are more depressed or anxious than the rest of society, the teaser of It’s Not that Funny offers an insightful question. Maybe it is not that comedians are more depressed than anyone else, but that they are the only ones who are professionally paid, in a sense, to talk about their depression.
The ability of the comedian to create material that the audience can empathise with is their greatest strength. This is what allows them to turn their personal tragedy into a larger message, hopefully of upliftment.
Ultimately, for those facing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, comedy proves a defence mechanism, an escape route, a vent and even a career opportunity, but not a substitute for good mental and physical health.