Depression is no laughing matter. It’s one of those things in life that since the symptoms can’t be physically seen, most people write it off as being nothing more than a ‘bad mood’. Depression has been officially classified as a mental illness, and it involves grappling with “feelings of severe despair over an extended period of time.” Almost every area of one’s life can be affected – physical health, emotions, relationships and work. It’s sort of like having a dark cloud hanging over your head every day, and it just won’t stop raining. Sometimes you might have an umbrella, but the cloud never really goes away.
“Eighty percent of comedians come from a place of tragedy,” explains Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada. “They didn’t get enough love. They have to overcome their problems by making people laugh.” Some other early research demonstrated that comedians are more likely to come from a low socioeconomic stratum of society, with approximately 80-85% of comedians coming from low socioeconomic homes. The harsh and unpleasant conditions of their home lives may explain why a lot of comedians went on to pursue their career.
Of course, this isn’t 100% conclusive. There’s a ton of research available that both supports and contradicts the above hypothesis. Either way, the correlation between choosing a career as a comedian and depression is something that can’t be ignored. Some of your favourite celebrities are likely to have either been depressed or are currently suffering from major depressive disorder (that’s the official name, by the way).
It all brings to mind the story of the man who goes to see his doctor. He tells the doc that he is depressed, and that he feels lonely and anxious. “Do you know the best thing you can do?” says the doctor. “There’s a circus in town, you should swing past one day and see the clown. He’ll get you laughing and take your mind off your problems.” The man immediately bursts into tears. “But doctor,” he says. “I am the clown.”
14. Woody Allen
Filmmaker and comedic actor Woody Allen has been fighting depression for 30 years. His therapeutic humour is a common theme throughout many of his films, and he’s been undergoing psychoanalysis for the past three decades to help manage his depression. He switched to clinical therapy, but then decided to cut all treatment after his marriage to his sixth wife.
13. Drew Carey
Drew Carey is probably best known from both his sitcom The Drew Carey Show, and his hosting duties on Whose Line Is It Anyway? but he isn’t always the cheery bloke we see on screen. In 1997, he released an autobiography where he let the world know about his personal trials and tribulations – including his father’s death when he was eight years old, that he was once molested, and his bouts of depression and two failed suicide attempts via a sleeping pill overdose.
12. Jim Carrey
Funny man Carrey admitted to dealing with and beating depression in an interview with 60 Minutes back in 2004. His method to combat the disease was spirituality – once he got off Prozac (which certainly helped him out for a while), he simply realized that ‘things are OK’ and life is indeed beautiful. He now rarely drinks coffee, and is adamantly off all drugs and alcohol.
11. Louie C.K.
One of the better-known members of this list, comedian Louie C.K. has suffered from a lighter form of depression – his in-depth awareness of the realities of being human, of society as we know it today. He’s said many times “No, I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve wanted to be.” Throughout the 1990s, he had a four-year stretch of bad luck where he went broke, had a serious motorcycle accident and he got screwed when making Pootie Tang with Chris Rock. He says “It never stopped getting worse. I remember thinking, This is too much for me to handle. I wanted to give up. I knew it was my right to. But then a few minutes would go by and I’d realize, I’m still here. In other words, there was no escape from it. And I’d be a little disappointed at not being truly suicidal. I hated being ‘all right.’ ”
10. Rodney Dangerfield
Our younger readers may not be so familiar with Mr. Dangerfield but the man born Jacob Cohen was a comedian and actor in the 1980s, best known for his roles in Caddyshack and Back To School. He was the guy who came up with the famous ‘I get no respect’ catchphrase. Anyway, in 1997 he admitted to a lifelong fight with depression, and ended up seeking psychiatric help.
9. Larry David
The Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator first encountered depression in the 1970s when he was in the National Guard, claiming, “If I hadn’t been so strapped for cash, I would’ve sought the aid of a psychiatrist.” In 1972, he was living with his parents, unemployed with no girlfriend and broke. It was during this time of depression that he found his true calling – turning a situation inside out then laughing at it, something that was key to his future creations.
8. Ellen DeGeneres
Today Ellen is one of the lucky few known the world over by one single name, yet she’s had some extremely difficult times in her travels. Anyone remember her sitcom in the 1990s? Well in 1997 both Ellen and her character came out, which unfortunately lead to a public ‘fall from grace’, which wasn’t helped by her KimYe style relationship with actress Anne Heche. The episode left her without work for three years and completely depressed. Clearly she was able to get herself out of it, as she now has an exceptionally popular show that has garnered her 15 Emmys.
7. Bill Hicks
Hicks passed away in 1994 from cancer, but he had suffered from depression in his 20s. Fellow comic and close friend John Farneti felt it may have stemmed from his drug and alcohol abuse, but also from a deep insecurity that if he appreciated anything, it was taken away from it. Hicks once said, “I get depressed, you think I don’t? You think I’m wearing black in the summertime cuz I’m a fucking ray of sunshine, dude?”
6. David Letterman
The Late Show host has had a remarkable career in television, though he has serious regrets about not having a family earlier due to his intense focus on his work – he has a young son but he wishes he had a daughter as well. This was partially a cause of his depression, which mainly stemmed from his quintuple bypass surgery in 2000. Three years after the operation, Letterman was taking medication for a bout of shingles and said of his depression “It’s different than feeling sad, it’s different than feeling blue. It’s the world with 20/20 vision.”
5. Conan O’Brien
Back in early 2010, O’Brien lost his dream job as the host of The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, a soul-crushing hurdle that kick-started his depression. He went out on tour over the summer of that year, but when he came home, the darkness really settled in. He was driving his wife crazy around the house, but as we already know, the story has a happier ending with Conan getting a new show and sorting himself out.
4. Sarah Silverman
Ms. Silverman is one of the most successful comedians around today, and just like most of her contemporaries, she plunged into depression during her high school years. On top of her own woes, her therapist hung herself, devastating the young, fragile girl. She says “It happened as fast as a cloud covering the sun. It was at once devastatingly real and terrifyingly intangible. I felt helpless, but not in the familiar bedwetting sense. As quickly and casually as someone catches the flu, I caught depression, and it would last for the next three years.”
3. David Walliams
Little Britain star David Walliams recently revealed in his autobiography that he has attempted suicide three times over his life due to depression – once at 12 years old when he was bullied at a Sea Scouts camp; another hanging attempt in 2003 after a break up; and he slit his wrists on New Years Day again in 2003, the same year that Little Britain hit TV screens. He says that depression has “blighted my adult life”, but his wife Lara Stone has helped him get through it all, though his irrational fear of being alone still haunts him.
2. Robin Williams
Robin Williams is actually bipolar, and although he hasn’t publicly spoken about being depressed, analysts suggest that manic depression was the driving force behind many of his movie performances. One writer suggests he suffered from depression after a break-up (a common theme here), another believes it was when he was dropped from Julliard, while another feels it came when the Bush Administration didn’t legalize abortion.
1. Owen Wilson
Folks may remember Owen Wilson’s much talked about suicide attempt back in 2007, when he slit his wrists at his home in Santa Monica. Some of his demons include a drug addiction, though Wilson’s episode came as a surprise to those close to him. One friend called it “the most out-of-character thing”, while another said “Owen is fun, kind and caring. [But] it’s like he has a little John Belushi in him. He has demons; on some level, he’s managed them for years.”