CNN’s The History of Comedy is an eight-part documentary series that highlights various facets of the comedy world and examines what it means to be a comedian. Yesterday’s JFL ComedyPRO panel, moderated by writer Kliph Nesteroff, featured The History of Comedy’s Executive Producer Mark Herzog and comedian W. Kamau Bell.
The History of Comedy features current interviews and archival footage of many celebrated—and sometimes infamous—comedians. The conference began with a screening of Spark of Madness, a segment examining the preponderance of mental illness and substance abuse among comedians. Here are some points raised by this compelling episode.
Comedians enjoy upsetting the norm: Bobcat Goldthwait points to legendary hell-raiser Andy Kaufman, “He annoyed a lot of comedians who didn’t have a sense of humour. It was a joke on stand-up comedy.” Elayne Boosler says about Kaufman, “He was an emotional rollercoaster… the only one truly working without a net.” Robin Williams explained his own brand of Legalized Insanity, “It’s trying things others wouldn’t do, just to push the boundaries.”
Comedy helps to heal emotional scars: Sarah Silverman explains how comedy helped her overcome the pain of being a childhood bed-wetter. “There’s a lot of humiliation to overcome.” Richard Pryor’s daughter Rain points to her father’s traumatic childhood, in a brothel owned by his grandmother. Neseroff describes Williams, “He was full of dread and didn’t know why. He used the stage to be free, to be comfortable, to be himself.”
Stand-up comedy is an exhilarating high: Says Dave Chappelle, “When I’m on stage, I get real happy. Maybe it’s the only time I feel like myself.” Larry David, known for his curmudgeonly alter-ego, says, “It brings out your best self—hello! You can be yourself up there.” Patton Oswalt explains his limited joy in performing, “For an hour, you’ve kept a potential disaster from being a total disaster.”
After the high, often comes the low: “The laugh is over and then it’s the pain again,” said Richard Pryor. Oswalt describes conditions on the road, “Irregular sleep, really bad food… basically the same conditions as combat. It’s either victory or crushing defeat—there’s no in between.” Gilbert Gottfried talks about John Belushi’s and Chris Farley’s battles with substance abuse. “There was the fun side (of comedy) and then there was the bad side of drugs and drinking. Maybe the two have something to do with each other.” Says Richard Lewis, “You’re wired dark; it can get really dark fast.” “In the end, drugs and alcohol always beat art,” says Oswalt.
Comedians are more honest about their problems: Said Williams, “In the process of looking for comedy, you have to be deeply honest.” After Lewis began talking on stage about his recovery from substance abuse, he says, “I found out I was having the same fears and trepidations as other people.” Maria Bamford weaves her traumatic life experiences into her comedy. “I’m all about talking about everything… It can help others to know they’re not alone.” Gottfried says, “If something terrible has happened, comedy won’t cure tragedy, but it’ll help loosen its grip for a while.”
After the screening, the panel discussed a range of topics, including whether or not colleagues are obliged to help curb a comedian’s self-destructive behaviour. Herzog said, “I hope the Industry will step in and help.” Acknowledging the inherent risks of being a comedian, Bell says, “You can be invited into bad habits… You get off stage and you’ve got all that energy. You think, ‘What am I going to do with it?’” In order to avoid that self-destructive behaviour, Bell advises, “You have to have other things that you’re doing this (comedy) for.”
The History of Comedy
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