CNN series explores mental struggles of comedians
CNN series explores minds and struggles of legendary comedians
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.