Where Comedy and Suicide Prevention Meet
What’s funny about the fact that I work at a serious-sounding organization like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is that…well, I’m funny. Or at least, I try to be: I regularly perform, and have taught, comedic improvisation at The Peoples Improv Theater in New York City. I’ve always seen humor as a way of understanding the world, popping tension and revealing truth. My mom, who ended her life six years ago, was hilarious (not always, obviously), and she encouraged this.
Most people in our society are hesitant to talk about suicide and mental health. Even well intentioned, sophisticated people who realize that mental health is as real as physical health (actually, that’s nearly 90 percent of us, according to a recent Harris poll AFSP sponsored) simply don’t know how to talk about it. We can bring up an aunt who died of cancer or heart disease, and it doesn’t bring conversation completely to a halt. Suicide and mental health, though, we still tend to raise in a hushed tone, at which point all other words awkwardly vanish, like in a ninja smoke cloud.
Suicide is a serious topic. But it is my firm belief that it doesn’t have to be a depressing topic.
Let me tell you about Chris Gethard.
When I first started studying improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) 15 years ago, he was already a well known presence: a brilliant and unique improviser and teacher. At first glance, he’s physically slight: you probably recognize him from various supporting comedic roles in TV and movies, usually as the put-upon nerd. In reality, he is rebellious and hip, a fan of punk rock, rap and Morrissey: a cool guy.
Fast forward to 2011: Chris takes the anarchic talk show he started at UCB to public access television. Aided by a fully professional team of up-and-coming writers, actors and production staff, the show develops a huge cult following. In 2015, it gets picked up by the Fusion Network. The show is genuinely weird, out of control and above all else, authentic.
A few weeks ago, I heard through the comedy grapevine Chris was devoting an upcoming episode of his show to the theme of mental health. One of the myriad reasons I respect Chris is that he has always been forthcoming about his own relationship to mental health, as in his very funny book, “A Bad Idea I’m About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure.” I decided I wanted in, in some way. I talked to the rest of the communications team here at AFSP, and it was decided I should reach out.
I sent an email offering my services as an advisor on how to handle the delicate subject of mental health; and of course, how to avoid the possibility of contagion if the subject of suicide came up.
I wasn’t sure if I would hear back. As down-to-earth as Chris is, I understood full well that he is starring in and creating an actual TV show.
I sent the email mid-morning, and didn’t hear back until he called me around 8:30 that night. Chris and I spent nearly an hour on the phone. It was immediately apparent he cared very much about getting the topic of this episode right, and without my prodding, asked all the right questions: what could he do to ensure that he wasn’t glamorizing depression? What were the important points he could make that would be helpful to viewers who might be struggling?
I couldn’t believe how long he spent on the phone with me. It was decided I would be on set to talk to the writers and producers, and hang out in the control room during the taping. Part of the show would feature live call-ins, which he was concerned about. (The show live-streams on Facebook, airs in edited form on Fusion a week later, and appears on YouTube a week after that.) If I was concerned about something mid-taping, I could say something to one of the people in the control room. They could then call down to the set, and add something to Chris’s teleprompter to help him frame the messaging, or add material to make it easier to edit out anything problematic. (The show runs long, and is edited down.)
Prior to taping — right when things on a TV set are at their most chaotic, with a million moving parts being wrangled into place — Chris brought me into the writers’ room and had me spend 30-40 minutes talking with his team. Everyone seemed so genuinely happy to have me there: incredibly focused on being responsible and handling the subject carefully.
Watching the show from the control room — picture something from the end of “War Games,” a big room filled with monitors and computer screens, work stations and headsets — I was touched and entertained at the same time. I watched unfold everything I believe art and comedy can and should aspire to do. It all corresponded with the improv tenets Chris and I have both been indoctrinated in: the idea of approaching any topic from the height of one’s intelligence, and letting comedy emerge authentically, organically, from truth.
Chris proclaimed as his mission statement to encourage people to talk about mental health. He spoke boldly of his own experience, and how medication and therapy have helped him. His guest, comedian Maria Bamford, bravely shared about her own experience on a psych ward. People across the country called in to reveal their own raw experiences. Chris’s aim was to highlight the brutality that accompanies mental health conditions, and simultaneously put a spotlight on people who have managed them and come out of the darkness. Every story featured was unflinching, heartbreaking, powerful…and in some way, hilarious.
At one point during the taping, I became briefly nervous about one thing: a segment in which people called in with their own stories of funny medication side-effects. We’d discussed the segment in advance: no one wanted to give the false impression that psychotropic drugs contain more side effects than any other drugs. Chris began the segment with a carefully worded statement about how medication is good and necessary for many people: it had helped him handle his own challenges, and the idea that medication somehow suppresses your “real” self is bunk.
Still, I worried that the funny stories would overwhelm the initial disclaimer. I mentioned it to one of the writers, who assured me that the bit would indeed be cut down. I then noticed her speaking into a headset. A couple minutes later, Chris gave yet another disclaimer: just as with any medication, good doctors will find the right drug for any particular patient.
The show ends with a montage of photos sent in, in advance, by viewers (and some of the show’s staff) who have themselves experienced mental health issues: different young peoples’ faces smiling in goofy solidarity. The message, both bittersweet and triumphant, is that no one is alone: we are all in this together.
The episode, found here, is anarchic, crude, funny, serious, and not-safe-for-work: just as we all are, at times. I am so grateful to Chris and his team for making this truly special episode, and I am proud as hell to have played even the tiniest little part of it.
You can watch the episode below. Content Warning: Language and Method.