“Wow, how could a wacky guy like (insert famous dead comedian here) just (insert method of early self-destruction here)? He was always joking around and having a great time!”
When I hear some naive soul say that, my only response is a blank stare.
If you know a really funny person who isn’t tortured and broken inside, he has either just successfully hidden it from you, is in deep denial about it, or just some kind of a creature I can’t begin to understand.
Find a comedian, and you’ll usually find somebody who had a crappy childhood.
1. At an early age, you started hating yourself. Often it’s because you were abused, or just grew up in a broken home, or were rejected socially, or maybe you were just weird or fat or whatever. You’re not like the other kids and the other kids don’t seem to like you, which you can usually detect by age 5 or so.
2. At some point, you made a joke or fell down or farted, got a laugh, and realized you could get a positive reaction that way. Not genuine love or affection, mind you, just a reaction that is a step up from hatred, a thousand steps up from invisibility — and is something that you can control.
3. You learn that being funny builds a perfect, impenetrable wall around you — a buffer that keeps anyone from getting too close and realizing how much you suck. The more you hate yourself, the stronger you need to make the barrier, the further you have to push people away — and the better you have to be at comedy.
4. You wind up creating a second, false you — a clown that can go out and represent you, outside the barrier. The clown is always joking, always “on,” always drawing all of the attention in order to prevent anyone from poking away at the barrier and finding the real person behind it. The clown is the life of the party, the classroom joker, the guy up on stage — as different from the “real” you as possible.
5. The jokes that keep the crowd happy — and keep the people around you at bay — must come from inside you, dug painfully out of your own guts. Imagine the the clown described above as feeding on your insecurities, flaws, fears — which, unfortunately, make for the best fuel.
Robin Williams joked about addiction — the same addiction that pretty much killed him. Chris Farley’s whole act was based on how fat he was — the thing that had tortured and humiliated him since childhood.
As one of the head guys at Cracked.com, I’m surrounded by literally hundreds of comedy writers. Suicidal thoughts are so common among our readers and writers that our message board has a hidden section where moderators can coordinate responses to suicide threats. And in case you’re wondering, no, that’s not a joke.
Anyway, rest in peace, Robin: you’ve given us a chance to talk about this, and to prove that it has nothing to do with life circumstances.