Laughing in the face of depression
Joking about mental illnesses is how these comedians stay “relevant” in the comedy circuit, but here’s what they’re doing about it offstage. Read on.
“We do this because it’s the only thing that makes us feel alive” — comedian Daniel Fernandes’ words hit hard during his special, titled Shadows. Ironically, the jokes told on his hour-long set are made up of suicide, death and funeral jokes. “If you want your friends to prevent you from killing yourself, borrow money from five of them and keep it in a safe. That is real life insurance,” he quipped as he told the crowd about grappling with his anxiety disorder. Daniel released his special on YouTube late in 2019, asking viewers to pay whatever they wanted for the show. “I received thousands of fan mails telling me how different parts of the show connected with them,” he says, and adds, “When you look at a shadow, it represents whatever light is cast upon it. For me, the show represents parts of our lives we don’t want to talk about.”
And Daniel is not alone. Last year, Tanmay Bhat took to Instagram to declare that he is “mentally checked out”. “I feel almost paralysed and unable to participate socially and online,” Tanmay said. He was speaking about the dissolution of his company, AIB, on account of allegations of sexual misconduct during the #MeToo movement, which resulted in him being clinically depressed. However, when reached out to for a comment, Tanmay didn’t want to participate in the story.
The big bad internet?
The internet has often been termed as a scary place, for it’s a place where trolls dwell, who, shadowed by the anonymity of the World Wide Web, aren’t afraid to call out or even resort to ridicule.
Daniel says, “The internet is largely filled with negative energy, especially Twitter, which is a toxic place.” The comedian goes on to share that he got off the microblogging website a couple of years ago, which brought down his stress levels “considerably”. He is now active only on Instagram because he is “in control of what people say”. “There is a misconception that people in the limelight need to put up with trolls. But I will treat people on the internet the same way I would treat someone at home. Let’s not even call it trolling, it is bullying,” adds the 35-year-old comedian.
But is it okay to talk about mental health on social media? Popular comedienne, Kaneez Surka says, “For me, there is no shame about [receiving] therapy. My episodes were triggered by rejection in my romantic, family and work life. So, when I am going through something, I definitely like to share it with people on social media.” For Daniel, it is a “very personal choice”. “You have a lot of people reaching out to you but I am not professionally equipped to handle these situations. It becomes a catch-22 situation. I only know how much I have experienced,” he says.
“It is important to go beyond creating a picture-perfect impression of one’s life on social media,” begins, Sweta Mantrii, 32. “Living with a disability and an anxiety disorder in an ecosystem that has mostly failed to incorporate barrier-free infrastructure, makes it tough to be everywhere, and that adds to the anxiety and depression. I usually discuss these concerns with my comic friends, who obviously crack jokes around it, which sometimes stops me from spiralling further. But some of the jokes are too dark to take them to the stage. We live in times when there is still a stigma attached to having a mental illness,” adds Sweta, who will be performing at The Circuit Comedy Festival in March.
A kind of catharsis
Navin Noronha, 28, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his childhood. Currently, living in Mumbai with his boyfriend and three cats, Navin says, “I can’t afford a therapist so I use comedy as a means to find catharsis. If I don’t get on stage on a given night, I get really anxious.” Agreeing with him, Kaneez believes that the reason why some get into comedy is because “a lot of comedians struggle with mental health issues. Comedy is a form of therapy”.
Speaking about his death jokes, Daniel adds, “I joke about suicide because it is more cathartic for me. If I can laugh at the thought of committing suicide, then maybe I won’t kill myself.” Talking about mental health is not only cathartic for the comedian but also “for the audiences who resonate with an artiste and may feel less lonely”.
In the comedy circuit of India, therapy is spoken about off stage in a very nonchalant fashion. “I went to therapy three years ago, and about 90% of comedians go for therapy. It is very normal,” says Kaneez, who adds that everyone is willing to dole out their therapists’ number. Sweta adds, “It is important to make such subjects a part of the mainstream narrative so that more and more people can open up about their struggles and be okay seeking professional help for the same.”
Ask Navin for a solution and he laughs and says, “There is no curbing this problem. We can’t just smile 24x7 — that’s creepy.” But on a serious note, he urges on, “We need a union in the comedy circuit, so health care, including mental health therapy and consultation, could be a part of it.”
Comedians like Daniel advise people to first understand their condition and then manage their triggers. He concludes, “Always get help. There are way more people in need of help than the ones getting help right now.”
The comedians emphasise that attributing the problem of mental illnesses to India’s stand-up comedy unit is a gross understatement. Citing examples such as Deepika Padukone, Dwayne Johnson and even Michael Phelps, it is evident that this is not restricted to the stand-up comedy scene alone.
“When you say depressed, it is often interpreted to mean sadness. Or anxiety disorder is taken to mean anxious. After I got diagnosed, I realised this is not what it sounds like. But stand-up doesn’t cause mental illness. It is just a more vocal profession,” Daniel says.
Women in the mix
When asked if the incidence of mental illnesses are higher in the case of female stand-up comedians, 36-year-old, Kaneez replies, “Women do get more hate from the public. But that hate won’t affect me the same way it affects other women.”
“Mental illness is an equal concern for both men and women. Women are more in touch with their emotions and it is acceptable for them to be vulnerable, which makes it easier for female comics to talk about issues that affect them,” Sweta says.