Navigating Mental Illness With Dark Comedy For A Compass

Seeing the humor in everything is the gift of a curse at times or a cynical type of optimism. I grew up watching stand up comedians perform on ComicView, Comedy Central, and every so often (when we had it) an HBO special or Def Comedy Jam episode. I’m always fascinated with the steps comedians use to craft and execute a joke. The differences in the ways a story is told in order for it to be funny. The evolution of these steps, how they have changed or been reinvented through the years.

Laughter is a universal language, right? We recognize laughter through any language barriers so comedy has been around forever. But I just think it’s funny how in our current era, some (comedians, performers, fans) believe that “Everyone [America] is too sensitive now” and the climate is too politically correct for comedy to thrive. *High pitched “ehhhhhhhhhhh”* It’s hard for me to buy stock in that.

If you’re good, you evolve with the times. If you’re punching down and legit making fun of marginalized groups, that shit is tired and, as we’ve seen, doesn’t age well. In a way, it’s ironic how some want the luxury privilege freedom of being able to say whatever was said back in the day, as compared to comedians and performers who are in comedy today talking about the things that were shunned or not spoken of in major prominence like mental health issues. You gotta be strong to talk about that night in and night out, especially if you live with it or grew up around it.

I’m hard-pressed to say folks are too sensitive now, when we’ve got people and shows doing work in addressing such heavy topics as depression, bi-polar disorder, and suicide on large scale platforms. Now more than ever. That’s not to say others haven’t tackled it in years prior. As a young teen, I watched Christopher Titus’ specials where he did address these “taboo” issues. Titus maneuvers through dark comedy like a seasoned vet in a demolition derby, dude is a master.

My mother died in 2011. I found myself being influenced by Titus’ use of dark humor in order to navigate through that ordeal and in everyday life. A recent example is when I was eating with friends not too long ago. One friend got a phone call from his mother. When he rejoined the conversation I asked if everything was alright. He replied, “Yeah.” in the “my mom being a bit much” manner.

Me: Oh, trouble with your very much alive mom, hmmm?
You know how hard it is to hug a field on Mother’s Day?
Him: Well, she just made a suicide threat again, so…”

The table got quiet and the “oh shit” look instantly appeared on the faces of our friends sitting across the from us. I stared at him for a moment before saying my initial thought aloud which was,

Me: DAMNIT!
Him: *nodding* Yeah! Yeah!
Me: Arghhhhhhh, dead mom doesn’t beat that does it?!
Him: Nope! Dead mom doesn’t trump suicidal mom, Omar. What now?!

We were laughing about this while our friends were looking at us like “the fuck is wrong with y’all?” He then talks about this issue with his mom (which none of us were aware of). In turn, I tell him about the mental illness my mother dealt with (which none of them were aware of) and how it was growing up around that. We weren’t playing pain Olympics but instead showing that, although we weren’t able to fully relate to one another’s experiences, we have a parallel of understanding. That understanding comes from a bond through our Black humor (the humor of Black folk) in black humor (Dark Comedy)

Shared Trauma

Growing up, I was lucky enough that mom’s unwritten rule was “If you were in trouble but could make her laugh, the consequences wouldn’t be that bad”. To this day, my siblings and I will still argue over who is funnier (obviously me). Humor is how we relate to one another and growing up it was how we got through times where mom was dealing with a schizophrenic episode brought on by her chemical imbalance. I don’t need to provide graphic details into what that looked like because even though she’s gone, I still feel like that’s her business. I was just a witness to that struggle. To this day, nothing has scared me more than the signs of an episode approaching. Watching the person that raised me, who I knew the best, become withdrawn into someone else.

There was a day I was playing video games with my older brother, when mom went from a quiet demeanor to suddenly jumping up and down, praising Jesus. We stopped what we were doing and watched her like hawks until our sister (the eldest) came and took her to the hospital. When we started playing the game again I asked my brother,

Me: What would you have done if that didn’t go as smoothly as it did?
Brother: *Acts as if he’s put her in a sleeper hold* “I got her legs, you get her arms. Stop crying and get her arms!”

Obviously, he’d never actually put his own mother in a sleeper hold (Million Dollar Deam/Coquina Clutch) and yeah, that joke may come across insensitive outside the context of our specific family but what else could he have said to me in that moment? Lie, tell the truth, or find some sliver of humor in this: those were the only options (in hindsight at least).

My older brother making light of the situation so that I, his younger brother, would laugh after a frightening moment and not feel helpless, worried, or scared anymore. That meant the world to me, more than I’d ever come to know then, and helped me to take care of our mom during her episodes when it was just her and I. It didn’t make what needed to be done any easier, or lessen the decisions and actions I had to take, but it’s what held me together. For the record, Mom wasn’t amused in the least by my brother’s joke. She’d purse her lips not allowing a smile to come through and say, “y’all aren’t funny”, upon hearing it.

I say all that to say, it ain’t ever felt easy talking about the condition my mom had to live with and my dealings with it. Not out of a shame, embarrassment, or “what happens in this (Black ass) family stays in this (Black ass) family, but out of not feeling like there would ever be a time, place, or way to: and wanting to respect her privacy. However, the platforms, scopes and fans of comedy have evolved and grown larger.

I’m not worried bout folks that wanna go back to the way things were, when now even more folks are out here tackling that real shit. Shit that was stigmatized back in the day. Stand up comedian and skit sensation, Victor Pope Jr., is a perfect example of that. I would’ve killed to see this dude talking about mental health issues and disorders growing up, especially as a Black performer.

Victor has talked about being bi-polar and dealing with the disorder in interviews and online. His short film, Pope Fiction Chapter 2: Suicide Note, explores what he’s dealing with as it eases the audience into his disorder. Victor talks about the highs and how it feels when he’s so low. Victor mentions deciding to write a suicide letter but he couldn’t find any regular paper around, just post-it notes. As he re-enacts writing this letter on Post-It Notes the audience is laughing until he delves into the details. Realizing he lost the audience he assures them it’s all fiction. We then follow him home and as he’s taking his medicine, sitting down, the camera pans to his wall revealing the old adage of how “many a true word is spoken in jest”

Victor Pope Jr Gif Bi-Polar stand upVictor Pope Jr Stronger Than My Episodes
That video is heavy, real, and necessary now. Victor’s visual of his struggle is telling and honest and we’re lucky enough to be able to appreciate it due to the era we are in now. As gritty as this short gets, the ending with Victor holding the Post-it Note that happens to have “I’m stronger than my episode” written on it says it all. Victor holds it as a keepsake of inspiration to carry on.

Another comedian who deserves praise is Aparna Nancherla. Aparna’s monotone voice and witty approach to breaking down what it’s like having depression are relatable and surgeon sharp. I became an instant fan as soon as I saw her set. She weaves in and out of her issues with depression and anxiety like an un-bothered captain of a ship, navigating through a perfect storm. That she’s a woman of color addressing these issues, too? *kisses fingers* I didn’t get to see much of that growing up and it’s so comforting to see it now (especially at this time in America).


“So, I’m an OG depressive and I’m starting to see
a lot of new people moving into the neighborhood”

It’s gotta be evident how far comedy has evolved over the years and the audience is a reflection of that. You can’t say “we can’t talk about anything without people getting upset” when we got way more people in open forums doing the work, talking about the things most artists (or regular people) wouldn’t touch on years ago (shout out to Jennifer Lewis). Slim Charles said it best on The Wire, “The game ain’t changed, it just got more fierce”.

It’s even become (way more) apparent on television and mainstream media now approaches death, anxiety, and mental health. You look at Bojack Horseman on Netflix, an animated show about an anthropomorphic horse that’s an actor in Hollywood. They painted a vivid picture of what different types of depression can look or feel like.

There’s a certain type of strength when we see the performer making us laugh, giving us a glimpse behind the curtain. You go to a comedy show or watch a stand up special to forget your own problems for a moment and just laugh, right? That’s a luxury humor can provide for a spell, some solace. A big part of comedy’s evolution that we’re exploring more is the struggle of the performer. Comedians distract us from our shit by talking about their own personal lives, be it something mundane or awkward situations brought on by their fame.

Yet, there’s something about when they get real or into shit that’s truly affecting them. The difficult shit that humanizes them. It’s there (at least for me) that we get to see this other side of comedy that we don’t talk about that much for the creator. Rorschach, from Alan Moore’s Watchmen has a line that articulates what I’m getting at better than I ever could,

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci. Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”

The line feels like evidence that people we find funny or that are able to make a joke out of anything, go through some dark shit themselves. Of course, everyone struggles at some point in life, yeah, but not everyone has the strength to make light of it in front of their peers, let alone a room full of strangers. Setting aside all that hurt or issues you’re facing to make others laugh, to me is a measure of immeasurable strength. There’s a poem by Robbie Q. Telfer called Clowns that deals with this.

Robbie Q Clowns

In it, Telfer discusses all the tragedy, trauma, and death that many well known and renowned comedians underwent, much of which I never knew happened. The death of Mark Twain’s daughter, Tina Fey being slashed across the face as a child by a stranger, Jim Henson’s death. Telfer talks personal hurt that’s befallen these performers and them having to compartmentalize that in order to do their job and make people laugh. Telfer’s piece is without a doubt one of my favorite commentaries on comedy as it describes these dark themes and the performers having to maintain a straight face through it all.

Bo Burnham’s Can’t handle this Kanye Rant explores the same measures as Telfer’s Clowns but from an up-close and personal point-of-view. Burnham pays homage to Kanye’s rant/song that he went into on his Yeezus tour. Burnham knows his issues aren’t as big as Kanye’s but attempts it himself. Burnham is a genius with mixing comedy and music together as he hilariously sings in autotune about wanting Pringles to make their cans wider so he can fit his entire hand in, being self-conscious about his body, and then a rant about unknowingly overstuffing his burrito with too many ingredients at Chipotle. Burnham explains how no one wants a messy burrito and how if he knew it all wouldn’t fit he wouldn’t have gotten all the lettuce, cheese, peppers and so on.

The performance is hilarious, random, catchy and enjoyable and once Burnham has the audience, he unveils the real, how he wishes he could pretend these issues were his biggest problem, but his real issue is the audience. How he wants to please them and remain true to self, give’em the night they deserve, say what he thinks without fear of what they think about it. He wants to do all these things but is afraid and he can’t handle any of where he is at. Burnham admits all this under the guise of performance but art stopped imitating life as he’s giving real glimpses to what he’s dealing with and informing us this shit isn’t even the half of it.


gifset via MerelyBeing

Burnham expresses his mental health declining but knows that’s not what everyone is really here to see, so he brings back the Chipotle joke and all the ingredients he would have left out of the burrito. This time around we realize the burrito was a metaphor for fame and the ingredients (the lettuce, the cheese) were symbolic of the money he would have left behind if he knew it wouldn’t have all fit inside of the fame and struggle to remain true to who he is. All while trying to balance everything that’s off-kilter on the inside. Fam, come on. The fucking complexity of the beauty of all this. There’s a chilling air as Burnham says, “You can tell them anything if you just make it funny, make it rhyme, and If they still don’t understand you, then you run it one more time”

I’m not sure if it gets any more heartbreakingly true than that? Burnham does a great job not only pulling off this blurred line between comedic timing, delivery, and truth as a punchline, but sells it visually too, as all the lights dim when it seems most somber and return sporadically in multiple directions. It’s dark, it’s sad, and yet it’s presented through comedy. Isn’t humor the perfect medium for this? I mean, the way Peter Ustinov would tell it, “comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”.

Robbie Q Clowns

I always approached the use of comedy in terms of an escape artist, chained up in a straight jacket while inside a giant water tank. The hindrances and restraints are all your worries and problems and the joke is the key tucked away in your mouth or other places and you’re maneuvering to get to it in order to set yourself free. Maybe, it’s more like a Rubix Cube type of puzzle. When the worst occurs or feels like shit, if you could still find a way to line up all the colors and the sides to form a joke then you’ve solved the problem, at least temporarily, till you find the final solution – a way out of this. “This” is such a broad word but let “this” be an episode, a panic attack, anxiety, or just a shitty, rough time in your life.

That isn’t to say dark comedy is always the answer, I’m just saying comedy is a way to make light through a Black Cloud, right? We haven’t progressed into doing that by being “too sensitive”, you only achieve that type of feat by growing forward with the tide of comedy, not against it.

“On that laugh to keep from crying tip”- Open Mike Eagle

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  • Omar Holmon is a content editor that is here to make .gifs, obscure references, and find the correlation between everything Black and Nerdy.

  • Show Comments

  • Drithlí

    Thank you, I needed to hear this right now.

  • Chris Ryan

    Astounding piece. Bravo.
    As far as dark comedy working out mental illnesses, I’ll leave this right here: https://youtu.be/94qu1rmyxxk

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