Crack­ing up

Mel­bourne Com­edy Fes­ti­val stars talk men­tal health and the se­ri­ous side of funny busi­ness

Time Out (Melbourne) - - FRONT PAGE -

IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, April might just be the most emo­tional time of the year for the Mel­bourne Town Hall. Each night, ev­ery one of its rooms – some grand and el­e­gant, oth­ers makeshift and cramped – will host a per­son open­ing up to strangers. Some will fire out peppy one-lin­ers; oth­ers will go deeper, pulling out sto­ries from their lives, spin­ning them into com­edy, and hop­ing that peo­ple will laugh – and maybe even re­late.

Co­me­di­ans have the power to break down bar­ri­ers around is­sues that we find dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss, re­mind­ing us that we’re not alone. And in­creas­ingly, co­me­di­ans are open­ing up about dif­fi­cult pe­ri­ods of their lives and their ex­pe­ri­ences of men­tal ill­ness. On tele­vi­sion, co­me­dian Maria Bam­ford sen­si­tively por­trays liv­ing with bipo­lar dis­or­der in Lady Dy­na­mite, and in 2014, Ed­die Per­fect per­formed a song ti­tled ‘Don’t Kill Your­self’ for a men­tal health-themed ABC com­edy panel show

(mak­ing the point that you’d miss out on Game of Thrones).

On stage, co­me­di­ans like Felic­ity Ward speak can­didly about anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. The Aus­tralia-born, Uk-based co­me­dian be­came a men­tal health ad­vo­cate in 2014, when she cre­ated Felic­ity’s Men­tal Mission, an ABC documentary in which she re­vealed her own strug­gle with anx­i­ety, and in­ter­ro­gated the stigma around men­tal ill­ness. As part of the documentary she also be­gan work on her 2015 stand-up show What if There Is No Toi­let? –a can­did (and hi­lar­i­ous) jour­ney through her bat­tles with ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome and anx­i­ety. “I started think­ing about my IBS and writ­ing jokes about that, and writ­ing jokes about men­tal health, and it was ex­cit­ing be­cause you’ve got to work ex­tra hard to make it funny,” she says. “I just wanted to make peo­ple laugh… but the re­sponse has been in­cred­i­ble. I’ve had peo­ple write to me and say, ‘I’m at the doc­tor’s surgery, I saw your show last night. I’ve been pre­tend­ing I haven’t had anx­i­ety for six months.’ It high­lights that there’s not enough re­sources out there; they feel like a co­me­dian is the only per­son they can talk to.”

Her lat­est show – which re­ceived rave re­views at the Syd­ney Fes­ti­val and Perth Fringe­world – is called 50% More Likely

to Die, re­fer­ring to an alarm­ing statis­tic about peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness. “Peo­ple have come to the show who have men­tal ill­ness, and for an hour, they don’t feel like a weirdo,” Ward says. “Men­tal ill­ness doesn’t get joked about pub­licly by the peo­ple who have it… and when I make jokes about men­tal health, it’s like we’ve got a club, and we’re ac­tu­ally the cool kids rather than the out­siders.” That said, Ward is adamant that if we’re go­ing to ad­dress Aus­tralia’s men­tal health cri­sis prop­erly, com­edy can’t be the limit. “I’m in­ter­ested in how the gov­ern­ment is go­ing to pro­vide sup­port. This is my life­long dream: I would love to have free men­tal health treat­ment for Aus­tralians.”

Ward isn’t bring­ing 50% to MICF this time around, as she’s de­cided to cut down on her tour­ing sched­ule for her own well­be­ing. Which begs the ques­tions: does delv­ing into the darker sides of your­self have any side ef­fects? What im­pact does a ca­reer in the cut­throat com­edy in­dus­try have on men­tal health? And can see­ing the world from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive make it eas­ier to find the hu­mour in painful sit­u­a­tions? Join us as we meet six co­me­di­ans who are un­afraid to go dark and deep – and find out how they look af­ter them­selves in the process.

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