Jul 10

Stand Up for Mental Health: Comedy As a Form of Therapy

Many artists of all types, including comedians, have talked about their creativity being their chosen form of therapy. A few years ago comedian Kevin Hart, for example, said the following to an interviewer with AMC Theatres:

When you look at the greats, you know, from Pryor, Murphy, Cosby, the list can go on and on, they get so personable. And nothing is held back. It’s hey, this is my life, this is who I am. And sometimes you have to address the things that you don’t want to address, because it’s bottled up inside you. And we don’t figure it out until it’s too late, but we use comedy as therapy. This is my therapy. You know. I didn’t talk about my mom passing away. I never talked about my dad being on drugs. I didn’t talk about my relationship status, and me going through a divorce — these are all things I had just held in, and I was very very reserved about. And it got to a point where I was like, you know what? I’m a comedian! My fans will respect me more when I’m honest. The more honest I am with them, the more of an open book I am, the more they can relate to me and the more they can say, ‘Hey, you know what? Dude, I like this guy. I relate to this guy. He doesn’t care. Nothing’s held back.’ It’s funny but at the same time it’s real. And by me putting my real life out there, I think I got the best of me.

Counselor and humorist David Granirer actually created a program called Stand Up For Mental Health in which people with mental health issues can learn how to do stand-up comedy as a form of therapy. In the video below called “Cracking Up,” some participants introduce us to it.

You’ll need over six minutes to watch this—but it’s worth it.

If this whets your comedy appreciation appetite, clips of individual routines that have emerged from this program are available on the Stand Up for Mental Health website.

Below Granirer himself riffs to an audience on the topic of mental health stigma:

Jul 16

Maria Bamford: Humorous Mental Health Advocate

If you don’t already know Maria Bamford, she’s a stand-up comic who deals with her own mental health issues in a refreshing way—which makes her quite relevant to Minding Therapy (see previous post).

Today her new CD/DVD Ask Me About My New God! is being released. The CD is mostly material from Maria Bamford: the special special special!, her highly rated 2012 show, the one in which she directed a routine to an audience of two, her parents, who were seated in her apartment. 

For the CD, Bamford apparently performed the material anew, this time at a comedy club. Says Brett Watson, The Serious Comedy Site, “The material as delivered on The Special Special Special actually felt like an experiment. It was funny, but awkward. Here, on the new album, the listener is given the treat of pure, perfected stand-up comedy.”

The new bonus DVD is material from two of Bamford’s previous comedy specials. Jack Goodstein, Blog Critics, states that these “serve to emphasize just how much more effective she is when you can see her. She creates a voice, and she becomes that character.”

But that doesn’t mean he dislikes the (non-visual) CD. In fact, he reviews it thusly:

Almost from the first moment she opens her mouth, she has the listeners captivated, and once she has them she keeps them. There isn’t a down moment on the album. Whether she’s reeling off Paula Deen recipes as suicide notes (a bit that has some current resonance today, that it didn’t have last year); describing her sister’s style as a life coach, or her father’s grumpiness; or talking about dating at age 40, she keeps the momentum of the set building. It is a bravura performance, and it begs to be seen as well as heard.

A brief clip from the CD is below:

Although Erika Star, The Laugh Button, also misses actually seeing Bamford doing her “socially aware, self-deprecating humor,” she has high praise for the new CD. One excerpt from her review:

It’s hard to write a review of Bamford’s work that doesn’t include her effortless ability to create visual characters merely with voices and the brilliant ways in which she engages the stigma of mental illness, and ‘New God,’ is no exception. Her hilariously on-point voices, even of the most mundane archetypes, seem to be organic extensions of herself while allowing us a front-row seat into her creative genius. Anyone else delivering the line ‘Suicide, Anyone?’ would be faced with some gasps and groans, but Bamford owns the topic with such strength and knowledge and manages to tell people, ‘it’s ok’ or ‘it gets better’ with sarcastic, but genuine, sentiment.

Brett Watson has this discerning advice for the prospective CD listener: “Her material is surreal, dark, and deeply personal. It demands to be listened to multiple times, because you are undoubtedly going to miss a lot the first time through … either because you are laughing too hard, or quite simply because you didn’t ‘get it’ the first time.”

Want to see or hear more of Maria Bamford? Check out different parts of her website, or consider finding her on tour, or take in her web series Ask My Mom, in which she plays the “mom” who’s a “retired family therapist” doling out advice. Below is a clip:

Mar 22

“Why We Laugh: Funny Women” Narrated By Joan Rivers

Last night Showtime premiered the documentary Why We Laugh: Funny Women. If you missed it, there are other chances to see it, and soon—the schedule link is provided below.

According to TV By the Numbers, Joan Rivers narrates this collection of interviews and performance clips that addresses what it takes for females to succeed in a stand-up comedy biz that’s largely male-dominated. She states, “FUNNY WOMEN is about the legacy that comediennes are carving out in this industry and I am happy to be part of a project that explores the huge dedication and passion that my fellow comediennes and I share for the craft.”

The list of funny women who are involved includes Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Griffin, Lily Tomlin, Janeane Garofalo, Sandra Bernhard, Brett Butler, Rita Rudner, Kym Whitley, Holland Taylor, Merrill Markoe, Jane Leeves, Kim Wayans, Kathleen Madigan, Robin Schiff, Tig Notaro, Kathy Najimy, Amy Hill, Aisha Tyler, and Sheryl Underwood—and more.

Watch this preview of Why We Laugh:

Previously from the same folks there was Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy, which covered the history of black comedy since 1901 and was based on the 2006 book by Darryl J. Littleton. From the Booklist review: “Stand-up comedian Littleton offers a historical perspective on how humor has been used by black comedians and their audiences to comment on social inequities and absurdities and to relieve the suffering imposed by racism.”

Below is the trailer for the 2009 documentary, now available on DVD.

Dec 07

Tig Notaro: A Routine As Funny As Cancer, Believe It Or Not

A comedian is simply a different kind of therapist. A comedian is a psychologist and a psychiatrist rolled into one. Except I can’t prescribe medicine. (You still need a doctorate, which is bullshit.) Okay, so I’m not like a psychiatrist. Fine. But I’m still like a psychologist (except I can’t diagnose or treat mental illness). Eugene Mirman, comedian

Comedy can actually be therapy—for both the comedian and the audience. Even when the stuff of said comedy involves the most difficult of circumstances. Just ask Tig Notaro.

Maybe at some point you’ve heard or said something along the lines of, “That’s (you’re) as funny as cancer.” Obvious meaning: “Cancer funny? Not so much.”

Cancer is not funny. But, can you be funny about cancer? Possibly—when it’s your own. Is it therapeutic? To others, very possibly; to the comic with cancer, undoubtedly.

When Ross Luippold asks in a recent Huffington Post article, “What kind of comedian publicly announces her breast cancer diagnosis without her tongue firmly in cheek?,” he’s talking about Tig Notaro, whose recent cancer was only one of a string of significant stressors in her life. (She says she is now cancer-free.)

Writing on wbez.org, Al Gini describes those stressors and how Notaro handled that proverbial last straw:

Notaro was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, and underwent a double mastectomy, chemo-therapy and radiation treatment. This was not long after she contracted a serious bacterial infection, lived through the sudden, unexpected death of her mother, and suffered a bitter break up with her girlfriend. What did she do with this bad luck and medical agony? She made fun of it, by turning it into a stand-up routine: ‘Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Is everybody having a good time?’

Macabre? Indeed! Shocking? You bet! Cynical? Absolutely! Angry? A little? Funny? Well, yes! After you let it all sink in. Notaro is really not being irreverent. She’s not talking about other people’s cancer, she’s talking about her cancer and trying, through laughter, to take away the fear, dread and stigma of having cancer. Her routine is a bit of ‘gallows humor.’ It’s an attempt to detox her own fears, and perhaps help others to deal with their fears of illness and death.

Although I can’t show you a clip of the above-mentioned August performance, it is now for sale on iTunes.

What’s Tig Notaro like in general—that is, when she’s not using cancer for humor? As described by Joe Berkowitz (www.fastcocreate.com): “Notaro’s delivery is drier than fabric softener sheets made out of sandpaper, a natural extension of her authentic personality.”

Below, one of her better known comedy bits, pre-cancer:

Dec 02

“Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor”–A Documentary

A while ago, I posted about a program that uses stand-up comedy as a therapeutic tool for those with mental health issues (Stand Up For Mental Health). Turns out another program, Comedy Warriors, exists to aid soldiers who are injured physically and mentally.

Five veterans who were hurt in combat—four men and one woman—will be featured in an upcoming documentary about their experiences of learning stand-up comedy from some well-known Los Angeles comedians, including Bob Saget and Brad Garrett.

As stated on the website Comedy Warriors: “As any comedian will tell you, the most poignant comedy comes from pain. And no one knows this better than a service member with a life-changing injury.”

Below is the preproduction video of this documentary-in-the-making, Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor. Currently seeking funding, the filmmakers expect completion in about a year, according to this article.

Update, August 2016: The documentary Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor was indeed released, in 2013. Here’s another video intro:

Selected Reviews

Larry Richman, Larry411: “These are our country’s finest, those who’ve served admirably and returned home disfigured, with missing limbs, and horrific stories of roadside bombs and buddies lost in battle. Yet they immediately disarm the audience (pun intended, which, no doubt, they’d be the first to laugh at) by poking fun at themselves and calling attention to the obvious. The jokes might be offensive coming from anyone else but when these brave combatants do it, the reality dawns on the viewer that ‘healing through humor’ is targeted at both the performer as well as the audience.”

Michael Friedman, LMSW, Huffington Post: “All of these veterans might have slipped into despair, as many veterans do. Major depressive disorder, PTSD, substance abuse disorders, and suicide are unfortunately prevalent among veterans. Several of the comedians tell us that they still live with PTSD. Having a sense of humor, they all say, is what saves them.”

Jessica Zack, San Francisco Chronicle: “With its unflinching look at the wounds of war, and emphatic message that pain is a comedian’s best friend, ‘Comedy Warriors’ provides a message of hope for injured service members who have just begun their rehabilitative journey or for anyone who is suffering a trauma or setback.”