In creative circles, it is often suggested that the most “valid” art can only come from pain and sadness. Multiple studies have linked creativity to mental illness, including a recent study which showed that creative people had significantly higher risk of mental disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar. Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Robin Williams famously suffered from depressive disorders that spurred their critically acclaimed creative work.
Ostensibly comedy is about happiness – its purpose as an art form is to elicit laughter. And yet, as an audience member, I find I almost unconsciously seek out comedians whose material is deep, complex, and extremely dark. Happiness is rarely profound, just as it is rarely funny.
Laura Davis (above) has been performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) for almost a decade. Her comedy shows are conceptual, experimental and often bleak. Her last two solo shows were about an abusive relationship and an existential crisis respectively.
But Davis’s show at this year’s MICF – Marco Polo – was a departure from her usual style. Where her previous shows focused heavily on Davis’s own life – especially the comically miserable aspects of it – this show contained almost no jokes about her personal unhappiness. On stage, she spoke about receiving emails from fans who were disappointed with the tone of this year’s show – that it wasn’t as bleak, as dark, as her previous work. People had come to her show expecting more; they wanted her to perform her suffering.
‘It’s very hard to write jokes about [just being happy],’ Davis tells me. ‘It’s not funny; unless you’re feeling very happy for a bad reason. A lot of comedy comes out of frustration, loneliness and anger.’
In 2014 I saw Davis’s show Pillow of Strength. The show narrates the story of an abusive relationship, while also inviting the audience into that relationship with her. She used her position as the victim of abuse to get the audience onside, then slowly turned on them, becoming more and more aggressive as the show progressed. I saw the show with friends. Afterwards we left, caught the tram back to my apartment together, and did not speak for over an hour. It was devastating. But the show was remarkable for the way it spoke about such a difficult topic so affectingly. For me, that reaction is part of the reason I remember it so profoundly. When I tell Davis about my response to the show, she seems uncomfortable.
‘People loved it. But then so many people say similar things… That it just shattered them and ruined them and they went home and cried. That’s not what I wanted!’ She ensured that the show had an uplifting ending; while it took her audience to dark places, she never intended for us to wallow there.
Much of the comedy that has had the biggest impact on me are shows that have made me cry – shows such as Pillow of Strength, Hannah Gadsby’s 2013 show, Happiness is a Bedside Table, about her mental illness, and Alice Fraser’s 2015 show, Savage, about her mother’s death. I’ve recommended these shows and these comedians, partly as a result of the emotions they elicited in me. But talking to Davis made me wonder – is that a good thing? What does it say about me that I relish shows that plunge me into these places? These shows make incredible demands on the performer. They require the comedian to be vulnerable, to expose themselves every night to a room full of strangers.
Davis performs Marco Polo while blindfolded. She starts and finishes the show sitting atop a ladder, wearing nothing but a swimming costume. Without ever removing the blindfold she performs an hour of comedy; climbs up and down the ladder; interacts with the audience. She only removes the blindfold at the show’s conclusion, when she turns her back on the audience and asks one person to come and talk to her, face-to-face.
Davis says the blindfold puts responsibility onto the audience. It shifts pressure away from her as a performer – she can’t tell who is in the room, how they are behaving, whether they decide to walk out.
The blindfold makes audiences confront the voyeurism of comedy. As a fan of Davis’s work, this was especially confronting for me as an audience member. Every year I come to see her shows, to listen to her lay herself bare. But the blindfold made me vulnerable. By creating a separation between her audience and herself, Davis highlights the closeness that comedy often fosters between comic and audience, while also asking us to question what purpose that closeness is serving.
‘The cruel handicap of stand-up is that if you’re doing it really well, it should look like you are not doing anything at all.’
‘If you had plays that made people feel the deep level of emotions that a lot of stand-ups achieve in an hour, those plays would be considered fucking incredible plays,’ she says. ‘But the cruel handicap of stand-up is that if you’re doing it really well… it should look like you are not doing anything at all. The whole game is to make it look like you are not working very hard. And so people go, “Oh, they just told that really sad story very well and served up a little portion of their psyche on a plate to strangers, I’m sure they found that easy to do”.’
Even the less personal types of comedy ask for a high degree of disclosure from performers. It is expected that comics will mine their own lives, their own experiences. Even more so than other art forms, comedy asks performers to market themselves. ‘Sometimes I feel like I fall into being a product rather than a person,’ Davis says. ‘And that’s why [performing in] festivals ha[s] upset me in previous years; it’s a month of being someone else, just a product.’
It is easy to forget that comedians behave differently while performing than they do in their everyday lives. Unlike actors or authors, where there is a level of disconnect between the performer and their work, in comedy it can be difficult to separate the real person from the parts of themselves they present on the stage. Comedians must trust their audience to construct a personality from these building blocks; when writing a full-length festival show, they will inhabit this version of themselves for the duration of the run. For many, this process, which Davis describes as ‘[sculpting] your personality into a nice package-able thing’, is a way to deal with issues in their own lives – to create a version of themselves that is somehow better than the way they perceive themselves.
‘I started performing because I had quite high anxiety through uni,’ she says. ‘I would get on the bus and buy a ticket, and that would be the last thing that I said that day. When you look at it, stand-up is actually a really good thing for people with that level of anxiety, particularly social anxiety. You’re able to have a conversation that you have complete control over and that is scripted. You control the way that people see you, perceive you, respond to you.’
The danger comes when the person you are presenting on stage is not a constructive version of yourself. Davis says that sometimes she allows performing to pull her down, rather than up. ‘Stand-up is quite a good barometer for your mental health, actually, because you have to do it every night. So they’ll be months where all my stuff will be real bleak… That was last winter. I got Seasonal Affective Disorder real bad. And all my shows were so dark.’
The worst case of this, for Davis, was the storytelling show she wrote in 2012, which loosely described her experience performing comedy the previous year. Davis says that from the first performance, she hated the show.
‘I wrote [it] when I was desperately sad. And then realised that I would have to be sad on stage every time I performed it. I’d be re-enacting that horrible time that I had. My parents hated watching that one because they hated that I was that miserable.’
The biggest risk in praising art that deals with damage and misery, is glorifying the experience of damage and misery in the process.
Davis is careful when writing and performing material about mental illness. While she admits pain and unhappiness can often provide material for comedy, it is important to her to present these experiences in a way that doesn’t simplify how difficult mental illnesses can be for those who suffer from them. Davis intentionally never uses the word depression on stage because it ‘has a proper medical meaning’, which she doesn’t want to risk trivialising. ‘If I’m making fun of it while rolling in it, that’s fucked. Even if I said, “well I’ve stopped taking my antidepressants”, that’s wrong. Because you can’t just stop.’
It is vital not to fetishise mental illness or exaggerate mental disorders. The biggest risk in praising art that deals with damage and misery, is glorifying the experience of damage and misery in the process. Both creators and consumers of art about suffering can draw power from these works, but they must be placed within their context.
Voyeurism is present in all aspects of art; the trope of the tragic artist stems, ultimately, from the audience. It has its roots in our expectation that art must be authentic – for pain to have validity in fiction, it must also be present in reality. As audiences it’s our responsibility to ask ourselves why these sorts of works affect us, why we seek them out, what purpose they serve – for us and for the creators.
As Davis says: ‘Everyone is damaged. That’s why they come to see the show. You just happen to be the most articulate damaged person. You’re just a damaged person with a poster.’