Humorists and Mental Health: Mark Twain Prize Winners

Tomorrow night at 8 P.M. most PBS markets will televise the recently recorded presentation of Ellen DeGeneres: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize. DeGeneres is one of many humorists who has addressed mental health issues in one way or another.

This humor award has been given annually since 1998. When DeGeneres found out she’d be receiving it this year, she reportedly remarked, “It’s such an honor to receive the Mark Twain Prize. To get the same award that has been given to people like Bill Cosby, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell, it really makes me wonder…why didn’t I get this sooner?”

Besides the humorists mentioned in the above quote, the other Mark Twain winners have been Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart, Neil Simon, Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, and Richard Pryor.

Now, please indulge me as I make all of this pertinent to Minding Therapy….

Ellen and Neil Simon have had depression. And when Ellen’s character needed to address her coming out process on her sitcom, she used therapy.

Both Will Ferrell and Tina Fey have struggled with shyness. No, really.

Here’s Steve Martin describing his history of panic attacks: “(F)or those who have them or had them – I don’t get them anymore, thank God – but it’s a terrifying experience of disassociation from your own self, and it’s a morbid sense of doom and you feel like you’re dying.”

Whoopi Goldberg famously feared flying, apparently because of witnessing a mid-air collision many years ago. It’s been reported, including on segments of The View, that she’s overcome this with the use of a technique called Thought Field Therapy, or TFT.

Jonathan Winters admitted to having bipolar disorder.

Richard Pryor‘s substance abuse issues were well known.

As forever-producer of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels has overseen the work of many comedians in trouble with alcohol, drugs, and various mental health issues.

And if you thought that one was a stretch…

George Carlin once publicly denounced prayer as a form of mental illness.

Carl Reiner starred in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

And Bill Cosby as Dr. Huxtable on The Cosby Show represented the picture of emotionally healthy, if also comical, parenting.

Finally, several of the Mark Twain Prize humorists are known for their portrayals of shrinks or their potential patients:

Bob Newhart not only played Dr. Bob Hartley on popular sitcom The Bob Newhart Show in the 70’s, but a MADtv skit featuring his character’s special brand of brief therapy is also frequently watched. See it here on YouTube.

Billy Crystal, of course, is reluctant psychiatrist-to-the-Mob-boss in the movies Analyze This and Analyze That.

Lily Tomlin was Trudy the Bag Lady in Jane Wagner‘s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Trudy: “I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it. I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle, I found it too confining. It was just too needful; it expected me to be there for it all the time, and with all I have to do–I had to let something go.” More recently, on TV’s Web Therapy, Tomlin has played the wacky mom of wacky shrink Fiona Wallice (Lisa Kudrow), who admits her to a mental hospital.

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