“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.
As one of the head guys at Cracked.com, I’m surrounded by literally hundreds of comedy writers…(S)uicidal 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…
If you know a really funny person who isn’t tortured and broken inside, I’d say:
A) They’ve just successfully hidden it from you,
B) They’re in deep denial about it, or
C) They’re just some kind of a mystical 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 from the room…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 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 and 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 — come from inside you, dug painfully out of your own guts. Imagine the the clown described above as feeding on…your insecurities, flaws, fears — all of that stuff, unfortunately, makes 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.
I haven’t thought about suicide…since high school, when a guy talked me out of it…Ironically…I’ve lived on to wind up with a job where one of my tasks is to ban people who…comment…that someone is not funny and should kill himself. 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. You were rich and accomplished and respected and beloved by friends and family — and in the end, it didn’t mean jack.