Here are two things that are true. I have stood up on stage, by myself, and made people laugh. Having tried to, I might add, I wasn’t accidentally naked or anything. I have also spent what I consider to be significant portions of my life so far feeling less than content. Here’s another truth, or at least a supposition – I consider these two things to be related.
I’ll get something out the way pretty quickly. I haven’t done stand up very much. Let’s say you could count the number of occasions on three fingers. But trying to make people laugh, in almost every scenario, is very much what I do. Up until recently, I would feel like I hadn’t really met someone until I had made them laugh. It wasn’t that I didn’t know whether I liked them or not, it was that I genuinely felt like we hadn’t actually been introduced until I had established that laughing connection. As if we were just standing next to each other in a queue, rather than actually talking. As an aside, you might not want to stand next to me in a queue.
Yes, we British communicate through humour. It’s how we breakdown our inhibitions and rituals, rather than just waving our hands around and shouting like those continentals. See, I’M HILARIOUS. But my instinct is just always, automatically, to try and make people laugh. One person, a room of people, my colleagues, a high court judge. I’m always, always looking for an opportunity.
I’ve also considered myself not worth very much at various points. Insignificant. Not very good at anything, not really. Not as worthwhile as other people. It’s more under control these days, but occasionally a mistake at work or a perceived slight makes me stew over failures past, present and expected.
Many comedians have suffered from depression. Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry have made programmes about their own experiences. Spike Milligan, the legendary purveyor of inspired nonsense who seemed to have a whole universe of his own to revel in, battled depression for 40 years, and inspired Anthony Clare, the late presenter of Radio 4’s In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, to write a book with Milligan about the depths of his experiences.
So is there a link? Does one bring on the other? Does constantly having to look happy make you unable to admit you’re unhappy in a healthy way? Does living on late-night food and green-room riders make you wish you were someone else?
Personally, laughter is my medicine, but it is also a symptom THIS METAPHOR ISN’T WORKING. Put another way, the desire and joy I get from laughter is a response to a greater feeling, a greater impulse, a more ingrained trait. My instinct is that these people have various and different such traits, but the gut desire to try and make people laugh is, in its way, a response to each.
For example, if you are unhappy and you want to escape this by spending all your time laughing and trying to make other people laugh, you may end up thinking, why can’t it be like this all the time? Why doesn’t everyone else want to constantly make jokes? How can they possibly be happy working on a spreadsheet at 2.34pm on a Tuesday afternoon when all I want to do is explore the outer reaches of the pun universe (Ed – puniverse??). I can accept that they’re probably not necessarily “happy” at that particular moment, but how can they just get on with it while I’m wishing for some sort of communist state as organised by Eddie Izzard? “Comrades! Bring us your weird non-sequiturs and profound daft-ery! You have nothing to lose but your job security and pensions! Jokers of the world, unite!”….other people don’t seem to need laughter to get by. I feel like I do.
Alternatively, the laughter is something to hide behind, to distract yourself, to get away from something else that lurks, always waiting for you to accept it’s there and to face it down, rather like the washing up. Making other people happy through the gut reaction of laughing, something that they can’t fake, gives me a sense of worth. But when they’re not there to provide that response, well it’s, just….not quite as good.
And then there’s the confidence thing. Making people laugh isn’t always about being confident, sometimes it’s about trying to prove that you are confident, which is the most tell tale sign of not being confident. So you act funny, and indeed happy, but you don’t always feel it.
People are somehow surprised at this. I’m not quite sure why. You don’t have to be happy to inadvertently make other people happy. Maybe it’s because a lot of people misunderstand the selfishness of making people laugh. I don’t do it for other people, I do it for me. I feel better when I do it because it makes me feel good about who I am, about what I can do, about life, about what we as human beings can create together, when a colleague says something amusing and you run with it.
Or you turn up to work accidentally naked. I mean, a joke’s a joke, I’m not fussy.