Despite their demeanors on stage and seemingly light-hearted career paths, it’s no secret that many comedians struggle with depression. Sarah Silverman (stand-up), Nat Towsen (UCB, CollegeHumor), Wayne Brady (Who’s Line is it Anyway), and the late Robin Williams have highlighted the frequency of depression in the comedy world, namely by speaking out about their own experiences. Their candor on mental health comes in an era of television that is perhaps blunter and more willing to discuss strife and unhappiness than the picturesque sitcoms of comedy past.
Take Bojack Horseman, Netflix’s anthropomorphic cartoon about a horse whose run on a 90’s sitcom has left him craving meaning and relevance. Although he wants to be remembered, he’s deeply afraid of his own success and has a damaged self-worth that was chiseled down to nothing by an abusive childhood and the demands of his career. Each season offers a new chance for BoJack to carve a place for himself separate from his breakout role, and each season he sabotages himself with increasingly drastic, harmful behavior. Although BoJack is perhaps the most conflicted character in the series, the show offers a wide range of mental health experiences upon which the audience can project. Princess Caroline, BoJack’s fast-paced, ambitious agent finds herself the subject of codependency- too frequently she takes care of those around her so much that her own needs are neglected. Diane, BoJack’s ghost writer and, in the most recent season, the social media staffer for Princess Caroline’s agency. Unlike BoJack, she’s objectively a functional adult with a stable marriage and career. At the same time, she’s open about feeling scared, insecure, and unhappy. Other characters face drug addiction, depression, suicidal ideations, feelings of hopelessness, and loneliness in storylines so blunt that it would difficult to describe the series as a comedy if not for the anthropomorphism and nonsensical cameos by individuals like JD Salinger.
Another modern comedy that champions the depressed comic is Dan Harmon’s Rick and Morty, which follows teenage Morty and his alcoholic grandfather’s wacky (for lack of a better term) adventures in space. The show is vulgar, insensitive, and occasionally tone deaf- as matters of mental health and familial strife often are. Rick is an alcoholic and depressed. His daughter, Beth, is in a loveless marriage with the incompetent and unlikable Jerry. Morty likely has PTSD from some of his and Rick’s darker encounters. Characters are frequently confronted with the futility of existence and the meaninglessness of carrying on- from a robot who finds out that its only purpose is to carry butter to Beth and Jerry discovering that they end up unhappy and together even in an alternate timeline where Beth didn’t get pregnant with Morty’s older sister as a teenager. The show is intense and at times shocking- such as when Rick attempted suicide on screen. Occasionally there’s a hint at a message about familial love and support, but even if it goes unqualified, it’s hard to hold on to the warmth when the characters feel so cold.
Cartoons don’t have a monopoly on depression comedy, and the anti-romcom You’re the Worst proves it. You’re the Worst follows four people who are, well, the worst. Gretchen is aimless and immature. Jimmy is narcissistic and pretentious. Lindsay is selfish and irreverent. Edgar has PTSD and an addiction to heroin. They’re chaotic and mean and also in love with one another. Gretchen and Jimmy are trying to date despite their hangups. Edgar is trying to recover from his addiction and cope with the trauma he endured in Iraq. Lindsay is- well Lindsay can’t decide whether to decimate or revive her marriage to the soft-spoken and timid Paul. Although the first season featured the effects of PTSD, self-medication, and dysfunctional relationships, it’s the second season that drives the lessons on mental health home. In season two, Gretchen reveals that she’s clinically depressed, and has been since high school. She has difficulty getting out of bed, she loses interest in things she loves, she drives late at night to give herself space to cry alone. And that’s totally okay. Although Jimmy attempts to “fix” her, the season answers his attempts with a resounding, “That’s not how this works.” Gretchen is given space to be depressed, and Jimmy is forced to accept that that’s how her brain works. He learns that while he can’t fix her, he can build her pillow forts and ease her wariness of medication.
Comedy has an important place in coping with and understanding depression and mental health. Audiences find language for their struggles, and comics find an outlet. Popular culture can reframe how we look at mental health, thus destigmatizing conversations that are crucial to treating illnesses like depression. Sometimes to laugh you have to give space to cry.