The Dark Side of Comedy

Interviews: Avital Ash, Paul Foot and James Nokise share their experiences using comedy as a platform to address mental health, suicidal thoughts and personal trauma

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Avital Ash, image courtesy of Impressive PR
Published 02 Aug 2023

Content warning – this feature discusses suicidal feelings

Avital Ash laughs grimly, explaining that writing a show about her past suicidal thoughts prompted her to think about killing herself again. 

“Maybe it's just a coping mechanism, that everything is a joke. But I do think that's quite funny” she suggests. “Working on this show, I was just a fucking idiot. I was like, 'this is gonna be hilarious!'

In Avital Ash Workshops Her Suicide Note, the Los Angeles-based stand-up recounts how her biological mother killed herself when she was just a baby. 

Some of the biggest, darkest, most discomforting laughs in her Edinburgh Fringe debut, which also covers sexual assault, religious intolerance and generational Holocaust trauma, come when Ash shares drafts of her potential note with the audience.

“You're in this place where you're looking at your trauma and depression” she recalls. “And I was blindsided. It seems so obvious in hindsight that it would bring up so much. I'd been off anti-depressants for four or five years and had to get back on them. A lot of my depression is rooted in this shame of being alive and feeling like I'm always doing something wrong.” 

Proud that she “can make all the dark things funny” and that “people laugh throughout”, it was still “a lot to unearth”. And while previewing, she was overwhelmed with a feeling that she'd been insensitive and a “Judas” to the rest of her family.

“What if they disown me?” she wondered. “I don't reduce anyone to the worst thing they've done but there are unflattering things. If I cancelled Edinburgh though, I don't feel reliable. I've spent all this money and ruined my relationship with [her venue] Monkey Barrel. It started feeling like the only solution was to die.” 

Resuming medication and talking to her adopted mother helped Ash subdue those thoughts. She now believes making the show is “starting to become therapeutic”. But she won't call it cathartic, “because that puts an unfair pressure on the art to heal me”. And there are pros and cons to telling a story this way.

“Things are just much easier to swallow with comedy, it can be very hard to digest something dark, painful and dramatic without it” she explains. But “you can hide” in stand-up. Reflecting on an almost causally delivered line she has about rape, Ash points out that the joke makes it “relatable” and helps victims “feel seen”.

But “in another way it's reductive and lets you sidestep what's actually going on. And I see that danger. I'm not doing that with this show I believe. There's so much real pain coming up and people are moved and crying.” 

Paul Foot, photo by Jonathan Birch

Performing Dissolve, the most candid, personal hour of his more than two decade career, in which he discloses the epiphany that banished his long-term depression, Paul Foot is attracting similar reactions. Audience members are opening up to him afterwards about their own mental health, telling him that they found the show “uplifting” as well as funny. He only “obliquely” references his suicide attempts, withholding details.

The surrealist comic doesn't feel trauma discussing the “horrible things that happened, which had terrible effects on people that loved me”. But he won't share them on stage because he “doesn't want anyone who is feeling suicidal to get ideas about how they might self-harm or kill themselves.” 

Even so, he can look back on previous shows – in which he evoked myriad ways to die by suicide in a circus or a five-year-old mistaking Santa being stuck in the chimney for his grandfather who'd hung himself there on Christmas Day – and appreciate that he was channelling his depression and anger.

His mother believes Foot's absolute bleakest humour is fading and he agrees. “It was really funny but there was so much darkness in my last show, Swan Power, that it was a bit of a challenge to make sure there wasn't too much for the audience.”

For James Nokise, it's important not to “shy away from the facts” of his suicide attempts, to “not underplay what I was going through” in his returning show God Damn Fancy Man. Yet the Kiwi stand-up wants to “highlight how ridiculous the situations were, how cartoonish, and bring some irreverence to them. I'm more saying, 'you shouldn't let the trauma define you.'”

Nokise is reviving Fancy Man for a third time because the show continues to evolve and feels relevant during a cost of living crisis. “It's a light way to talk about mental health issues” he maintains. Notwithstanding the ongoing work he does on himself with both his depression and alcohol addiction though, he doesn't portray himself as an expert, “just a person with lived experience.”

His attempts to kill himself took place in London, in 2008 and 2017. Despite the value of him sharing, Nokise is acutely conscious of the potential harm in evoking suicide for entertainment, literally making it routine by revisiting it on successive afternoons.

“I'll always check in with myself” he reflects. Being a suicide survivor is “part of me and my story, it's something that happened but it's not part of my core. If I'm doing the show and it's not joyful, that's dangerous to me as a performer for my mental health. And it's dangerous for the audience, because they might have heard of those aspects in the show and I won't be able to make them feel safe.”

Playing an intimate room in Edinburgh, he shares the spoiler that it's ok: “I make it.

“I build an environment where no-one feels like they're going to revisit any trauma. They know they're in my world. I take their hand, I lead them in but then I lead them out.”




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