Comedians Talk Depression, Anxiety At Just For Laughs Festival

By Paul Gaita 07/31/19

Comedians discussed making people laugh while dealing with depression and anxiety during a panel at the Just for Laughs Festival.

comedian holding mic at Just for Laughs festival

Stand-up comics tackled serious issues at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, Canada, where a panel discussed mental health and addiction-related issues among comedy professionals.

The panel members—which included Byron Bowers (The Chi), Felicity Ward (The Inbetweeners 2), and Keith and Kenny Lucas (Lady Dynamite)—spoke on July 26 about working for laughs while balancing depression and anxiety, as well as the toll that this can take, as evidenced by the deaths of top performers like Robin Williams and Brody Stevens.

The panel also focused on the support that comics have received from their peers and the industry as a whole, as well as the continued need for comics to speak honestly about their issues.

The Mask Of Depression

Whether comedians are, like many creative individuals, more prone to mental health issues remains an ambiguous area of research. Clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, who authored the book Living With Depression, told ABC News that many comedians turn to humor as a "counter phobic" response to their inner turmoil.

"They often wear what we call 'the mask of depression,'" she said. "But behind that mask, there is a terrible struggle going on."

Whether that condition is fact for comics remains a topic of debate, but for the comics on the Just for Laughs panel, the push and pull of depression and anxiety and laughter can be overwhelming.

Courtney Gilmour, who won the 2017 Festival's Homegrown Comics Competition, said that she battled both while also contending with career success. "I felt so guilty," she said. "Who am I, to get what I've wanted my whole life, and I feel sad?"

For some comics, the stand-up stage allows them a venue to put those feelings into words that can also be beneficial to their careers. "I don't go to therapy," said Bowers, who stars in the upcoming film Honey Boy. "I fill a room with people and talk about these things, and sometimes it's funny and sometimes, it's fearful."

UK comic/actress Felicity Ward also noted that the comedy world can provide a safer haven and greater understanding for those with mental health issues than other social or work situations. "With lots of regular jobs, if you turn up and say, 'I'm off my meds today,' they'll say we don't want to know or we don't have a plan for that," she said. "If you turn up for a gig and you say, 'I'm off my meds,' they're cool, and say you're on in three minutes."

Solomon Georgio, a writer and actor who appeared on HBO's 2 Dope Queens, described the situation faced by comics with mental health issues as "a mental juggling act," but added that patience and self-compassion can provide a positive response. "If I drop theball, I don't say f— anymore," he said. "You don't have to take it all on. You can set something down and be okay."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.