Brains Behaving Badly: Why So Many Comedians End Up Self-Destructing

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Robin Williams as Mork in an episode of Season Four from 'Mork & Mindy,' in 1982.

The comic and 'Simpsons' writer explores why so many stand-ups get into staring contests with the abyss

Being a professional comedian brings with it a set of unintended consequences. For one thing, you develop an uncanny familiarity with the nation's airports. "Where are you, St. Louis International? They've got a pretty ripping Oki-Dog in terminal four."

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Additionally, stand-up comedians have to ask for their paychecks. Did you know that? At the end of the week, when performing in a club, we actually have to track down the club owner and ask to get paid. In all fairness, most of them are cool about it. But as I've said before, when it comes to club owners, it's hard to believe the occupation that gave the world Jack Ruby could produce some unsavory characters.

Lastly, being a comedian means knowing a lot of people who've committed suicide.

My count is now up to five. Five of my friends and fellow comedians have taken their own life. It ‘s shocking, but, sadly, not surprising. Non-comedians — or as we call them, "civilians" — are always surprised. And I am always surprised they're so surprised. They have yet to realize the Two Big Things all comedians know.

Firstly, the same brain that makes the good stuff makes the bad stuff. Is it really so shocking that an engine that can propel a car from zero to 100 mph in six seconds can do pretty much the same thing in reverse? Comedians dwell on things. They ponder, stew, obsess and spin out scenarios for comedic effect. The more inventive the mind, the funnier the scenarios. The genius of a great comedian is the ability to stride onstage and make it look like all of those amazing ideas are flowing naturally, in the moment and off-the-cuff. But don't be fooled. A lot of after-hours thought, poured into notebook after notebook, goes into that stuff. Late nights alone with a hyperactive imagination, however, is also when you can get into a lot of trouble.

Into this mix, one has to consider brain chemistry. A lot has been written about the actual, physical chemistry of the creative brain, and I've read none of it. That said, it's obvious to even the casual observer that our greatest minds were housed in brains that behaved very badly.  

Comedian Dana Gould
Comedian Dana Gould on January 6th, 2013 in Burbank, CA. (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty)

Charles Darwin suffered clinical depression, yet he managed to come up with the theory of evolution. Mozart, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway all lived in prisons of their own thought. The roll call of contemporary artists who have suffered a depressive disorder is so long, they could save time by just printing up the list of those who haven't.
Some of that list makes sense. It's easy to believe that Elliot Smith suffered from depression. Or Bob Dylan. Or Anthony Hopkins. But David Letterman? Jim Carrey? Or, as we so recently and tragically learned, Robin Williams? Really, Robin Williams? And that leads us to The Other Big Thing.

The same brain that makes the good stuff makes the bad stuff.

Being funny is not the same as being happy. This is an area to which I can speak with some expertise. False modesty aside, I have always been pretty funny. My elementary school report cards cite my "hyperactive imagination," and my "proclivity towards being talkative." I was also insecure, terrified and so crammed full of anxiety that I could barely function. Why? Because of my "hyperactive imagination." One day I came home from school and could not find my mother. She had gone next door to visit our neighbor and lost track of time. How did she know I was home? Because she heard me screaming.

Having my mother not answer when I called her name, at eight years old, did not mean I had license to watch cartoons and stuff my face until she showed up. It meant something had happened. She had been taken away and I was now alone and defenseless in a hostile world. How would I eat? Who would take care of me? Was she dead? Who killed my mother?! Was I next?! Of course I screamed. I screamed and screamed and scr – "Oh, hi, mom. There you are. I was just wondering where you'd stepped away to. No, I didn't piss myself, I accidentally spilled a glass of urine on my underwear before slipping my pants on and it must have soaked through. Say, what did you make of the President's speech last night?"

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How to deal with this free-floating and oft-visiting, inexplicable panic? I became talkative, in general, and funny in particular. After all, if you're going to run your mouth all day, you should at least be entertaining. Like many comedians, I put my nightmare machine of a brain to work in a creative capacity. Being funny allowed me to contextualize my anxiety and, also, allowed me a little relief from it.

Laughing and screaming are physiological cousins; both used by the body to release anxiety and tension. In terms of comedians, when the chicken-and-egg question of, "which came first, the sad or the funny" is raised, I can, with authority, say that the egg of acute anxiety begat the rubber chicken of inspired hilarity. In other words, I literally laughed to keep from crying. As do so many.

One of the comedians I fell in love with as a kid, and who remained a lifelong hero, was George Carlin. In 2005, Carlin released his 13th HBO special, entitled Life Is Worth Losing. If you'd like to see a skilled stand-up comic using his creative muscles to get some distance from a raging storm of emotional turmoil, you will find no better example. Performed on a set depicting a cemetery in winter, the show is a meditation on the futility of life, the savagery of man, the fallacy of religion — and forever circling back to the topic of suicide, as if it were some mordant motif.   

George Carlin in Atlantic City
George Carlin performs on December 9th, 2005 in Atlantic City, NJ. (Photo: Tom Briglia/FilmMagic)


Suicide is an undeniably fascinating subject, and one that has been well pondered by our greatest minds, comedic and otherwise, most probably because it hits so close to home in our psyches. In our worst moments, it's there, like a firehose behind a glass case, waiting to be busted out should the shit get too thick. In lieu of that, we must learn to cope.

Those of us whose emotional states are stable and manageable, and who haven't condemned ourselves to the hell of addiction in our clumsy attempts at self-medicating, do the best we can, by trial and error, to live a regular life. We try our hardest, every day, to masquerade as a normal person. A civilian. All the while poring over our faults and failings through our work. For money! It's a symbiotic system that can really pay off if you play your cards right. Not that material success is important.

This is another lesson you need to learn if you desire to go beyond just coping, if actual happiness is one of your goals. In fact, not long ago, I was sitting in the kitchen of a fellow comedian where I saw a sign that brought that point home. It sat atop his cabinets, and read, "Forget What You Want, Look At What You Have." I remember thinking that this man, who had a career like no one could ever hope to dream of, stand-up success, sitcom success, movie stardom, he'd even won an Oscar, and yet, he was humble, gracious, sincere, caring. He knew where happiness lay. He, who had so much, still knew what was important and what was not. "This guy," I thought, "he's really got it together."

I miss him.

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