CNN se­ries ex­plores men­tal strug­gles of co­me­di­ans

CNN se­ries ex­plores minds and strug­gles of leg­endary co­me­di­ans

Windsor Star - - FRONT PAGE - LAU­REN LA ROSE The Cana­dian Press

The His­tory of Com­edy Sun­day, CNN

Standup is the ul­ti­mate high-wire act for co­me­di­ans as they bal­ance the thrills and fears of live per­for­mance. But the roller-coaster of emo­tions doesn’t slow down once they step off­stage, says Amer­i­can comic W. Ka­mau Bell.

“A lot of times af­ter a show — if it goes well, es­pe­cially — you have all this ex­tra en­ergy you’re try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with it. … Where do you de­posit all of that good feel­ing, or where do you de­posit all of that bad feel­ing?” says the Emmy-nom­i­nated host of the CNN docu-se­ries United Shades of Amer­ica.

“Ev­ery­body else leaves the com­edy club, and the comics are still geeked about the show — whether it was good or bad. … Some­times, I put that en­ergy into too much ice cream.”

Bell par­tic­i­pated in a panel dis­cus­sion at the Just For Laughs Fes­ti­val in Mon­treal on Thurs­day about the minds of co­me­di­ans. The con­ver­sa­tion fol­lowed a screen­ing of the Spark of Mad­ness episode of the CNN docu-se­ries The His­tory of Com­edy.

“We’ll never truly ex­plain where some­one’s com­edy comes from, but at least we can help il­lu­mi­nate why a co­me­dian was as funny as they were,” says se­ries ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mark Her­zog, also part of the panel.

Air­ing Sun­day on CNN, Spark of Mad­ness looks back to the 1960s as a sea change for com­edy, when neu­roses were be­ing in­cluded into rou­tines.

It high­lights the emer­gence of com­edy leg­ends like the late Richard Pryor, Jonathan Win­ters and Robin Wil­liams.

The episode also fea­tures co­me­di­ans Maria Bam­ford, Richard Lewis, Pat­ton Oswalt and Sarah Sil­ver­man speak­ing can­didly about men­tal health and how they’ve chan­nelled their own strug­gles into en­ter­tain­ing au­di­ences.

“There’s some­thing en­demic to com­edy where your highs are su­per high and your lows are su­per low be­cause it all de­pends on the at­ten­tion of other peo­ple,” says Bell.

Spark of Mad­ness of­fers a glimpse at the darker side of some of the com­edy world’s bright­est lights, look­ing at stars who have suc­cumbed to ad­dic­tion.

“All per­form­ers and artists get an in­jec­tion of en­dor­phins from hav­ing an au­di­ence re­spond to their mu­sic or the play that they’re in, or their com­edy,” says Her­zog.

“I think that’s why a lot of cre­ative artists have found them­selves bat­tling ad­dic­tions, be­cause maybe they’ve been drink­ing too much af­ter a show — but that’s not just com­edy.”

The un­con­ven­tional work­ing hours for co­me­di­ans and the emo­tional highs and lows of life on and away from the stage can take its toll, which is why Bell em­pha­sizes the im­por­tance of self-care.

“We’re up late, our jobs are at night, we get to stay up late, and we have free ac­cess to booze most of the time. We’re al­ways at the party,” he says.

“Peo­ple come to the com­edy club maybe once or twice a year. Co­me­di­ans are al­ways at the com­edy club. It’s a con­stant evo­lu­tion of how you deal with this stuff. You have to know peo­ple you can call,” Bell adds. “You have to have that per­son who will take a 3 a.m. call. …

“I’m mar­ried and I have two daugh­ters, and I don’t do any­thing that jeop­ar­dizes any of that. But it’s not a code that I’ve cracked, or I know that any­one else has cracked, either.”

We’ll never truly ex­plain where some­one’s com­edy comes from, but at least we can help il­lu­mi­nate why a co­me­dian was as funny as they were.


Robin Wil­liams is fea­tured in the Spark of Mad­ness episode of CNN’s The His­tory of Com­edy on Sun­day.

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