Tears of an Orkan

Depression does not make you funny

Robin Williams.
One of the greats. He was funny because he was funny.

The suicide of Robin Williams has caused not only an outpouring of feelings, of completely justified sadness at the loss of one of comedy's greats, but also an opportunity for people to revisit an old trope about the craft of comedy. It's the whole tears of Pagliacci thing, the tragic irony that comedians are really the saddest people. People have been speculating about how maybe comedy, good comedy, real comedy comes from sadness. Robin Williams, rightly or wrongly, has now become the poster child for this idea, and here I'm putting aside my feelings about his passing to focus on this technical point. Is it true that sadness leads to comedy?

I am not entirely undepressed. I've had my moments of wrist cutting and breakdowns in my life. But am I particularly depressed, more than your average punter? Getting depressed and being depressed are two different things, and I'm reasonably familiar because my mom battled clinical depression for as long as I've known her, which, in relation to my mortal presence on the Earth, is forever. It runs in my family, and possibly in me, and if there's cause to believe that depression helps funniness, then I'm pretty sure I could tap into that. So I'm not motivated to discredit a potential well of comedy resource in myself.

Unfortunately, though, it's just not true. There is no causal relationship between being sad and being funny. If depression led to comedy, shouldn't the world be a lot funnier overall given how much depression there is? I hate always using the US for statistics, but the best stats are more easily available from there, so lets go with that. Apparently, in 2012, 16 million adults could be categorized as chronically depressed to some degree. It's hard to get numbers on how many people would consider themselves professional comedians, and searching online I've seen estimates ranging from 5,000 in the US to 100,000 worldwide (I assume that's only for English speaking countries). Going with the higher number just to make the point, if comedy is how depressed people might deal with it, about 0.6% of depressed people turn to comedy. Given that the outside number of comedians falls below statistical error, and there are 17.6 million alcoholics, which is higher than the depressed number, and lets not even talk about prescription and illegal drugs, it seems far, far, faaaaaaaaar more likely that being depressed will lead to substance abuse than being funny.

Okay, but what about the other way around? Clearly not all depressed people are funny, but maybe all funny people are depressed. Maybe, but this is really hard to say anything objective or meaningful because the group of funny people is too small and hard to define. When we want to count professional comedians, I think everyone agrees that standups count, but do writers for television, street buskers, or parody musicians? Is Penn Jillette, who I find funny, a magician who happens to be funny or a comedian who does magic? Does he count either way?

I've seen a lot of anecdotal approaches to this question in the last day or so, like this article by a guy at Cracked. On one hand, you could say he makes a good case because he is a funny person surrounded by funny people, and he can list a lot of them that are also depressed. So far, so good. But, what we also know about him and everyone he mentions is that they are also associated with Cracked. Even if the people he mentions don't work themselves for Cracked, by knowing him, that gives them a connection to Cracked, and so maybe it's something about Cracked that's depressing everyone around him, not funniness.

Of course, I don't actually think there is a connection between Cracked and depression, just illustrating the point that when people use personal anecdotes as their basis for an idea, their own position within their data ruins any chance at objective conclusions. Maybe it's not Cracked, but there could be all sorts of threads. Maybe it's that they lived one time or another in the same area as the writer, maybe its the guy himself who is depressing everyone he knows. Maybe, and this is my serious observation, maybe as a person with certain personality traits, depression being one, he gravitates toward like minded people. Or, more accurately, like minded people tend to all gravitate to the same common places and verify themselves against the people there. And, in the case of funniness, people who are similar tend to find each other funnier than people who are too dissimilar. In other words, there could be comedians performing all sorts of comedy that have nothing to do with the comedians being sad in any way, but this author won't see them because he does not run in those circles. It's true for all of us that no matter how much we think we explore this world and scan the horizons, the world is bigger than us, and there are always likely to be things we don't see. Or even if we do, we tend to not register them if they don't conform to our narrative. When George Carlin passed away, no one was writing about how he seemed about as healthy as anyone else, and what that means about comedy not being about depression. It's called a spotlight bias, and it's why we need objective data and not anecdotes to really verify anything.

It's not merely the spotlight bias at work, and unfortunately I've seen the need for self validation skew perceptions on this issue since long before the news about the death of Robin Williams. Depressed comedians, or those who most clearly self proclaim depression to be a source of their own comedy, are the most likely to claim comedy and depression are linked because then that makes them the most authentic comedians. See that guy doing gimmicky ventriloquism, making millions of dollars by making countless people laugh every night, and just generally having a bigger and more successful career than me? Yeah, well, he seems like he's all happy and giddy, so he's not a real comedian. I am, though, because even though I'm still just working small rooms and trying to get my snarky blog posts seen by anyone, I'm suffering, and that makes me authentic. It's a comforting form of confirmation bias, and like all biases, it makes for bad conclusions.

Between the appealing tragic narrative of the sad clown, and the people who want to identify themselves as "real" comedians, Robin Williams becomes a huge data point in their layman's analysis. Williams was as big as any comedian can get, and killing yourself is the biggest expression of depression, and so there you go. The depth of his depression was deep enough to fuel the best comedy. Following that logic, if you can delve even more into what makes you sad, you can be a better comedian. Except it's simply not true. Making audiences laugh is what makes you a better comedian, nothing else.

In the comedy group I hang out with, the standups routinely make fun of the improvisors for being social, happy, and all getting along. Unlike the standups who generally tend to be loners, cynical, and drink too much. Improvisors are performing as much comedy as anyone else, and yet in the three decades I've done improv, I've never come across a common trope that claims improvisors are particularly liable to be sad and depressed the same way standups are. Williams did improv as much as he did standup, so its clearly possible to be a sad improvisor, but, it doesn't seem to be the norm. There are all sorts of ways to not only perform comedy and be funny, there are all sorts of ways to get there. Being sad might be one of them, but it's by no means the only way.

There could, however, be some correlations between depression and comedy. Take a hypothetical person who is dealing with depression, and they also happen to have a talent for making people laugh. Just for the sake of argument, let's take it as fact that the two traits are, at the start, unconnected. That person goes on to pursue a career in comedy. Having entered that world of comedy, and making people laugh, then that person might be surrounded by people who keep saying, "You're so funny! And you're so successful! You have so much going for you, you should be really satisfied and happy!" Being constantly confronted with society's expectations that being funny, and being successful at it, should be an indicator of happiness or a source of it, or both, might make the person start to feel that maybe there is something more wrong with them. What everyone says should be working isn't, and that kind of disconnect between imposed expectations and reality, that can kill a person.

It might be that comedians, because their craft is so tied to laughter and perceived joy, have a higher expectation that becoming funnier will lead to more happiness than other crafts. It's entirely possible to be a musician who writes sad and depressing music and be surrounded by people confirming, and revelling in, their sadness. They're still sad, but at least they don't have the pressure of anyone expecting any different. By which I mean that I think celebrity, including the hope for celebrity even if not yet achieved, and comedy could possibly be more likely to cause depression than celebrity in general. However, celebrity and its expectations still seems be the more significant contributing factor, given how many musicians and actors overdose or kill themselves. In any case, whether it's celebrity and comedy or just celebrity, nothing is happening here that is causing funniness.

The suicide of Robin Williams does not prove that sadness is a cause of comedy. It only proves that being funny doesn't cause happiness. Isn't that enough in order to sympathize with a man we hoped would be as happy as he made us?