The adage ‘comedy = tragedy + time’ has been part of public consciousness for decades. Variously attributed to Mark Twain, Carol Burnett and Lenny Bruce, its general conceit is that everything is funny given enough space to reflect, mull and conjure humour from something as raw as pain and devastation.
But what about the more immediate need to find comedy in anguish? We don’t live in a leisurely world – one look at any social media platform reveals that today’s horror quickly becomes tomorrow’s afterthought. When it comes to personal tragedy, sometimes there’s a more immediate need for The Bad Thing to be released, mocked and moulded into something less terrifying or saddening than it is. For some, that’s where stand-up comes in.
“It’s like exposure therapy,” says Rich Hardisty. “With other forms of writing, you send it off, you wait months for feedback, then someone might say ‘no’. Whereas with stand-up, you think of it in a day, go out that night and get immediate feedback.”
Comedians often make reference to therapy in relation to the art of stand-up, but with different takes on how this should be considered. Chelsea Birkby is keen to state that, crucially, stand-up is not therapy. “The two should be very distinct,” she says.
“Making and playing are brilliant for mental health, but I’m not fully convinced that being in pubs most nights asking strangers if they love you is.”
Chelsea Birkby, photo by Chris CW Cox
Meanwhile, Sikisa counters with, “It’s an inside joke that doing stand-up is a great way to get therapy for free.”
No matter how seriously or jokingly they mix-and-match stand-up with therapy, it’s an interpretation that plays on their minds. And that makes sense when you’re a stand-up who lives with episodes of poor mental health. It’s not as if mental illness is a switch that can be flicked on or off: if you wake up unwell, there’s often very little you can do about it. Where stand-up differs from other careers is in the notion that you can employ the humour card as a way of making connections with people in a way other professions don’t really get to do.
“I suspect there’s a similar (high) frequency of people struggling with their mental health in every field”, says Birkby, “I wonder if stand-up attracts people equipped at making difficult things palatable for others, which has its pros and cons.” Humour is a vehicle that makes tough conversations a little easier to bear for the audience. Yet, it can have a profound effect on the person behind the mic too.
“You can be unhinged on stage,” says Hardisty. “My personality works on stage, but not in an office. [Stand-up helps to] stop the noise in my head. If I say a joke and you laugh, I know you understand me. So as long as I have that, everything is okay.”
There’s also something to be said about the freedom to present a different version of yourself – perhaps only minimally tweaked – when you’re on stage. Sikisa maintains there’s something essential about exaggerating who you are, getting into a different mindset and not having to be relentlessly introspective about your problems.
“I don’t like cancelling gigs,” she says. “So being forced to get out of bed, get ready and perform on a stage has saved my life. It’s a great way for you to tell your story – and for people to relate to your story, because you never know what they are going through.”
Isn’t this why any artist puts their work out on display, after all: a scrabble to find a shared bond, forge a connection, or reach out towards people who get you? Sikisa’s show is about a party, which is pretty high up there in terms of togetherness and communication, but she also delves into topics like immigration, race and gender roles.
“Talking about subjects that are personal to me allows me to educate people as well as making them laugh. It’s very important in this day and age, especially when we talk about things people have misconceptions about. Being able to address these issues through telling jokes is a great way for me to put a point across and not feel preachy.”
Birkby’s show centres around the concept of accepting the things about us that aren’t “nice”, discussing what being nice actually even means, and why we should all spend some time exploring our darker sides.
“Audiences can unpack where they learned to be lovely,” she says. “And question if it’s still serving them. I want my audiences to come away caring less about pleasing others.”
Hardisty deals in empathy and compassion – looking beyond initial impressions and trying to see what might have caused people to be and act in the ways they do.
“When you’ve truly lost your mind you’ll realise how little control you have over it. And that’s the thing I’ll never be able to forget now. I can’t judge anyone ever again. And that’s what my show is about: what it feels like to be me and how I see the world.”
We all have different ways of coping. For these acts – and dozens more during the Fringe – that’s getting up on stage and spilling their guts in the most vulnerable ways and trying to build a relationship, if only for 55 minutes (aka, fittingly, a therapist’s hour).