If you think about it, April might just be the most emotional time of the year for the Melbourne Town Hall. Each night, every one of its rooms – some grand and elegant, others makeshift and cramped – will host a person opening up to strangers. Some will fire out peppy one-liners; others will go deeper, pulling out stories from their lives, spinning them into comedy, and hoping that people will laugh – and maybe even relate.
Comedians have the power to break down barriers around issues that we find difficult to discuss, reminding us that we’re not alone. Humour can help us heal. And increasingly, comedians are opening up about difficult periods of their lives and their experiences of mental illness. On television, comedian Maria Bamford sensitively portrays living with bipolar disorder in Lady Dynamite, and in 2014, Eddie Perfect performed a song titled ‘Don’t Kill Yourself’ for a mental health-themed ABC comedy panel show (making the point that you’d miss out on Game of Thrones).
On stage, comedians like Felicity Ward speak candidly about anxiety and depression. The Australia-born, UK-based comedian became a mental health advocate in 2014, when she created Felicity’s Mental Mission, an ABC documentary in which she revealed her own struggle with anxiety and interrogated the stigma around mental illness in Australia. As part of the documentary, she also began work on her 2015 stand-up show What if There Is No Toilet? – a candid (and hilarious) journey through her battle with irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety. “I started thinking about my IBS and writing jokes about that, and writing jokes about mental health, and it was exciting to have something scary to write about because you’ve got to work extra hard to make it funny,” she says.
“I just wanted to make people laugh… but the response has been incredible. I’ve had people write to me the next day and say, ‘I’m at the doctor’s surgery, I saw your show last night. I’ve been pretending I haven’t had anxiety for six months.’ It highlights that there’s not enough resources out there; they feel like a comedian is the only person they can talk to.”
Her latest show – which received rave reviews at the Sydney Festival and Perth Fringeworld – is called 50% More Likely to Die, referring to an alarming statistic about people with mental illness. “People have come to the show who have mental illness, and for an hour, they don’t feel like a weirdo,” Ward says. “Mental illness doesn’t get joked about publicity by the people who have it… and when I make jokes about mental health, it’s like we’ve got a club, and we’re actually the cool kids rather than the outsiders.”
That said, Ward is adamant that if we’re going to properly address Australia’s mental health crisis, comedy can’t be the limit. “The whole awareness thing is fine, it’s good to talk about it… but I’m interested in how the government is going to provide support. This is my lifelong dream: I would love to have free mental health treatment for Australians.”
Ward isn’t bringing 50% to MICF this time around, as she’s decided to cut down on her touring schedule for her own wellbeing. Which begs the questions: does delving into the darker sides of yourself have any side effects? What impact does a career in the cutthroat comedy industry have on mental health? And can seeing the world from a different perspective make it easier to find the humour in painful situations? Join us as we meet six comedians who are unafraid to go dark and deep – and find out how they look after themselves in the process.
There’s a bit in David Quirk’s new show, Cowboy Mouth, where the Melbourne comedian and actor talks about the Overview Effect. It’s a term that refers to a common experience for astronauts who have seen Earth in its entirety from space. “They have this spiritual, overwhelming experience and some of them have to turn to religion or science to come to terms with the beauty of this thing that they understand, but that we down here don’t understand.”
Melbourne-based comedian and Triple R ‘Breakfasters’ host Geraldine Hickey is a bad liar – although she’s getting better at it. “I used to be hell-bent on being completely honest in my material, but now I think my priority is to be funny. I’ve done all my big stories. [Now] everything I write starts from an honest place, but then it goes on a humorous journey.”
In her decade-plus career, Hickey has learned a lot about looking after her own mental health as a comedian – which, she admits, is not always the healthiest career path.
The Bedroom Philosopher: "I think comedy is arguably the most anxiety-inducing of all the art forms"
No one can accuse the Bedroom Philosopher – real name Justin Heazlewood – of being guarded when it comes to talking about the harsh realities of being an artist in Australia. The musical comedian’s 2014 book Funemployed is a very personal insight into his tumultuous 12-year career, which culminated in a 2012 show that left him in massive debt, burnt out and angry at an industry that he had poured everything into: his time, money, health and self-worth. The memoir is laced with interviews with other artists and demystifying tips on navigating the arts industry; he devotes a whole chapter to the mental and physical toll of being an artist. “It was really healing,” says Heazlewood. “I felt like going, ‘Hi everyone, I’m massively unhappy’. I think a lot of artists are like, ‘oh, better not let anyone know that I’m struggling or I might not sell as many tickets ‘cos I won’t look cool as shit’.” Heazlewood believes that being a comedian is particularly hazardous to mental health.
Laura Davis: "Everybody in the room goes 'Oh, me too! I didn't know we were allowed to talk about it!'
“Because you’re kind of not,” adds Laura Davis, “unless you’re making it particularly hilarious and shiny and easy to digest, which is kind of the job you have to do.” The Perth-born, Melbourne-based comedian describes her experimental approach to comedy as an “almost medicinal approach… trying to think about what people might need”. Her new show, Cake in the Rain, is about “heartbreak and the end of the world and how we tend to find more meaning in negative experiences than what we do in positive ones”.
More than a decade ago, at the beginning of her stand-up career, Hannah Gadsby would kick-start the writing process by listing of all her faults on a piece of paper. “I felt like I had to explain myself, so I started thinking, what am I? I had such low self-esteem, so none of that was positive. And that’s how I wrote a show: everything that was awful about me.” In her new show Nanette, the Melbourne comedian is addressing a time in her life when her self-esteem suffered the greatest blows – her formative years in rural Tasmania in the mid-’90s, when the entire state was debating whether to legalise homosexuality.
It is not an understatement to say that Ruby Wax – veteran American/British actress, comedian, academic and author – is a pioneer when it comes to talking about mental illness and making it damn funny. The UK-based comedian became the self-described “poster girl for mental illness” nearly a decade ago, when posters for British charity Comic Relief appeared in Underground stations across London saying “one in four people have mental illness, one in five people have dandruff. I have both.” From there, Wax wrote a hugely popular show about the at-times debilitating depression that she had suffered from in silence for most of her life. Since then, she has worked as a mental health campaigner and gained a master’s degree in in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University. But Wax is quick to mention that her new show, Frazzled, is not about mental illness.
Make the most of your MICF
The MICF is in full swing, with hundreds of funnypeople vying for your comedy dollar. Here, in no particular order, we present our top picks of the festival. Whether you're into sharp political satire, keen observations or flights of surrealist fancy, there's something here for you.