Perhaps the most difficult part of living with depression is the sense of social alienation it is easy to feel as a result. The longer you find yourself in a persistent state of down-in-the-dumpsiness, the harder it is not to feel as though talking about it makes you seem weak, self-indulgent, pessimistic or, perhaps worst of all, boring to others.
You worry that your family and friends are sick of hearing about it; that they secretly resent you for not having solved the problem by now; or worse, that they’ll start seeing you simply as one of life’s ‘victims’ – a burden to support rather than the fun, vibrant person you feel pressure to be. The cruel irony of depression is that the single most important action a sufferer can take, talking honestly about the problem and seeking support, is also the most scary. No-one wants to be the downer at the party.
As a stand-up comedian who has been dealing with depression for the last ten years, performing for the last six, and on anti-depressants for the last three, I feel I understand this problem in a particularly acute way. Because I have chosen to talk honestly about my depression in, of all places, comedy clubs.
I’ll be honest. It hasn’t exactly been what you’d call the perfect career move. You’re not likely to see me light-heartedly discussing my hourly suicidal thoughts to a star-studded audience on Live At The Apollo any time soon, and the stadiums are hardly heaving full of enthusiasts for existential despair.
Every review I’ve ever received, positive or negative, has unfailingly taken a moment to note that the choice of subject matter was insufficiently uplifting. In a particularly scathing example, a student paper at the Edinburgh Fringe described my show as ‘an hour of dour’ and advised its readers: ‘don’t let this herd of very sad buffalo trample all over your afternoon’ (my feelings might almost have been hurt if I hadn’t been so taken with the impressively avant-garde use of metaphor). Needless to say if I am booked for paid work at a club on a Friday or Saturday night, the domain of caterwauling stag parties and cackling hens, I have learned (the hard way) to abandon my usual act almost entirely in favour of lighter-hearted fare.
If you really want to feel like the downer at the party, try making jokes about the dark depths of the human soul to a pumped-up weekend crowd for whom you are merely the entrê to a drunken night of disco dancing, voluminous vomiting and eventual regret. In this situation I find myself wishing that going to a comedy club was de rigueur the morning after a heavy night drinking rather than the evening before; the miserably hungover, now that’s my kinda crowd.
So why stubbornly continue down this particular comedy path, except sheer masochistic self-destruction? Well first of all, as someone with an intimate knowledge by now of the absurdities of which the depressed mind is capable, I honestly think depression is funny. Obviously I don’t mean in a cruel kind of way (although I’ve no doubt a degree of schadenfreude is something my audiences enjoy). But there is an oxymoronic mixture of self-loathing and narcissism that a depressed person’s head is prone to that, when exaggerated, can be shown up as pretty funny. Not to mention all the melodramatic catastrophising, which I think would be pretty hilarious if it wasn’t happening to me.
The second, and main reason, and while this is somewhat of a cliché by now, doing comedy this way really does feel like its own bizarre form of therapy. Whereas before a particularly crappy pattern of thought that my brain had chosen to torture me with that day would just bounce uselessly around my head, now I tell it to a room full of strangers and they laugh. When it goes well, the catharsis and sense of empathy you can get from turning your misery into something that entertains people is terrific. The best thing about comedy is how diverse it is, but my absolute favourite stand-up is when a comedian manages to articulate an idea or feeling that beforehand you thought was unique to you. You thought you were the only one in the world who felt that way, but now not only does this comedian relate to you, but a room full of people are also laughing in recognition! I’ve had moments like that with many great comedians, but the most memorable I think has been with Marc Maron – I really recommend you look up his track ‘Prozac’ for some of the best material I’ve ever heard about the experience of being on anti-depressants.
While I would find it utterly mawkish and self-aggrandising to claim my stand-up career has any grand ‘mission’, I hope that when my comedy is at its best it gives something of this experience to fellow miserabilists. For this reason I would love it if some of you can make it along to the my show this Sunday, and if you do come along I’ll be around afterwards so come and have a chat.
You can get tickets to Oli's show right here. As an extra special treat, if you use the promo code SUNSHINE5, you can get tickets for just £5. You're welcome ;-)