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The Virtues and Woes of Laughter: Examining Comedians and Mental Health

Originally published in Her Campus American’s print magazine Collegiette, Issue 007

TW: Themes of mental illness, depression, anxiety

Right before John Mulaney’s most recent tour, “From Scratch,” he completed 60 days in rehab for his alcohol and cocaine addiction. The show was almost exclusively about his intervention, an organized attempt by Mulaney’s closest friends to get him to seek professional help.

Not long before, Bo Burnham released a 90-minute special on Netflix titled “Inside.” The show provides a front-row seat to Burnham’s anxiety-prone mind in the isolated and claustrophobic world of the COVID-19 quarantine. 

Patterns of addiction and mental illness among many of today’s most popular comedians raise the question of whether comedy is a coping mechanism for mental illness or if being a part of the industry is a cause of mental strain.

Laughing causes the release of the same endorphins that soothe the brain in response to pain or stress. These hormones behave in the body similarly to highly addictive opioid drugs, according to David DiSalvo, author of several best-selling books exploring the workings of the brain. This indicates that laughter promotes a feeling similar to a narcotic.

Laughing also activates the release of serotonin, just like antidepressants. This can cause short-term bursts of mood stabilization and happiness. It also lessens the body’s stress response, leading to effects beyond the brain. The heart’s blood vessels and muscles are protected with laughter’s anti-inflammatory characteristics. 

“In life, you’re supposed to give to others, you’re supposed to do for others. I really do enjoy making others happy and helping them cope with stuff,” Von Mychael, a Washington, D.C.-based comedian, said in a Zoom interview. Mychael also comments that comics are healers. 

Friends Laughing B&W
Anna Thetard / Her Campus

Laughter has a strong social effect, promoting social bonds and relationships. When a group experiences an endorphin release together, a sense of community and safety occurs. 

“It’s like a game of endorphin dominoes,” wrote DiSalvo in an article for Forbes. “That’s why when someone starts laughing, others will laugh even if they’re not sure what everyone is laughing about.”

Evidence of comedy as a drug-like endorphin rush supports the notion that it can be a form of self-medication for someone experiencing anxiety or depression. However, in an interview with Forbes contributor Lipi Roy,  comedian Jim Gaffigan adds that a career in stand-up comedy is not purely an endorphin rush. It is a “strange combination of control,” he said. Comedians have the microphone in their hands but still experience the pressure of depending on the audience’s reaction.

Bo Burnham speaks to this idea in his show “Make Happy,” which is now a full-length special on Netflix. Burnham is known for his musical comedy specials with topics ranging from those that are more lighthearted to those that focus on mental health disorders.

In particular, Burnham commentates on the pressure of pleasing an audience and avoiding the uncomfortable. “Look at them,” Burnham said of his audience in the special. “They’re just staring at me, like ‘Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.’”

In the same special, Burnham emphasizes the way that social media amplifies the burden of performing. 

For comedians and non-comedians alike, social media requires performing “everything to each other all the time for no reason,” Burnham tells The New Yorker. 

The pressure to perfectly curate content for social media, whether it is for a personal or professional goal is “prison,” according to Burnham. “It is horrific.” The pressure got so heavy for Burnham that he took a two-year hiatus from stand-up after he began having panic attacks on stage.

Comedian Jenny Saldana also spoke with Forbes, adding that most comedians don’t have access to healthcare and go long periods without seeing a medical professional. A lack of health insurance leads many artists to self-medicate with drugs and comedy.

Mychael says the most difficult part of a career in stand-up is learning to separate your image as a comedian and your identity as a person. He warns against getting caught up in seeking validation and taking the audience’s reaction personally.

He found this to be especially important with the onslaught of the pandemic. When live shows came to a halt, Mychael lost his identity. “I didn’t realize that I was using my career and the audience as my self-worth,” he said.

The key to overcoming this hurdle was learning to validate and take care of himself, whether that be drinking enough water or affirming himself daily. Mychael uses social media as a platform to share positive mantras and affirmations, hoping to brighten a space that is often a breeding ground for comparison and fear of missing out.

Just as in any industry, Missy Hall faced extra roadblocks as she navigated entry into the field as a woman in her 40s. 

Hall explained in a Zoom interview that she experienced heightened pressure over what a comedian should be. From her experience, the public perceives female comics as being naturally less funny than men or they’re considered to be “raunchy and monotonous.” 

Despite the hurdles, comedy has served an important role in Hall’s life. It was a tool in working through a divorce and starting fresh in her late 40s and it has transformed into a platform for motivational speaking. 

Using humor, Hall sheds light on the fact that a person can pursue a wellness journey and make progress in an area they’re insecure about without hating who they presently are. 

“We spend a lot of time in our heads,” she said. “We have to like what’s in there.”

Like any other artist, the best way to build up the comedian community is to support their craft and attend shows. Hall describes a unique authenticity in the exchange of energy between the comedian and audience in a live show that can’t be achieved by turning on a Netflix special. 

According to Hall, some of the best comedy comes from the smaller-name comedians. She encourages trying out different shows to discover a style that fits best with your sense of humor. 

“Don’t see one comic and think, ‘I hate live stand-up,’” she said. “You wouldn’t give up on music because you heard one song that you didn’t like.”

Comedians agree that the relationship between their profession and mental health is complicated. While the industry creates space to cope with difficult times and uplift audiences, it also invokes the pressure of crowd-pleasing and maintaining a cohesive identity. What should be learned about comedians is that regardless of how naturally funny they are, they’re just as human as their audience. 

“People think comics are always on,” said Hall, “but I’m a normal person.”

Ellie Blanchard

American '24

Ellie is a junior at American University majoring in Foreign Language and Communication Media (FLCM) and minoring in International Studies. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting, reading, and sampling local chai lattes.
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