Still joking through dark times, Seattle comedians put community, mental health over competition


Seattle comedian Chris Mejia has a bit about a time he felt suicidal and called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It may not sound very funny, but it gets laughs every time. After the show, audience members often find Mejia and thank him for being so vulnerable onstage.

Mejia is part of a trend in Seattle of comedians who are getting more personal onstage and not shying away from the seemingly unfunny topics of depression, anxiety and mental health. Getting personal, even about things like depression, can be healing for both the audience and the comedian, says Mejia.

“The more people share their experiences about [difficult] things, the more normalized it becomes,” he said. “When people come up to me … I can see by the looks on their faces that they’ve gone through this or are going through this and they’re relieved to know someone else is.”

warning signs of suicide

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community.

The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide.

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

This trend, according to Dave and Angela Dennison, owners of Laughs Comedy Club, ramped up after the pandemic saw comedy clubs shut down, leaving many comedians without a stage and some struggling with mental health. But the link between comedians and depression isn’t something new or isolated to the pandemic.

Many prominent comedians have struggled with mental health, including Robin Williams, who died by suicide in 2014, and, more recently, Seattle-born comedian Jak Knight, who died by suicide last month. Theories about the links between comedy and depression abound, but right now everyone is navigating a particularly challenging times — an ongoing pandemic, political division, war, regular mass shootings.

Charged with finding the laughter in it or making audiences forget about it all for a 30-minute set, local comedians are looking out for their own mental health too by supporting each other, by dialing back on substance and alcohol use, and by getting real (and real funny) about mental health onstage.

The challenges of the industry

Although comedy is all about the laughter, the industry itself can present scenarios ripe for mental health difficulties.

Seattle comedian Andrew Frank describes long hours driving alone to get to faraway gigs, sleeping in their car, living paycheck to paycheck. Late nights, low pay, lonely days in hotels. Some comics turn to alcohol and substances to cope or just to sleep.

Frank, too, used to struggle with alcohol to try to “come down” after sets.

“You’re in front of a whole crowd, your body is filling with all these endorphins and adrenaline, and then the show ends and you’re back in a hotel room in a place that you don’t know,” Frank said.

But “making it” isn’t the end all be all. Even when money is coming in and the tours are paid for, challenges remain.

“In order to actually get up and do stand-up comedy, think about what that takes,” said actor and comedian T. Murph, best known for his role as Clovis on the Hulu comedy series “Woke.”

“It’s literally a person going onstage in front of … 10 to 10,000 people and talking about things that most people wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about with a therapist,” Murph said. “Comedy does, a lot of the time, come from a dark place — the things that we have to research, the things that we have to express on stage in order to be able to get other people to laugh. It can take a toll on you.”

And then, of course, there are the times the crowd doesn’t laugh.

“When I go onstage and do well, it is the highest high I could ever feel in my entire life,” Mejia said. “On the flip side, being onstage and bombing is the absolute lowest you could ever feel in your entire life.”

That low has sent Seattle comedian Jamal Dean Siddiqui — who has bipolar II disorder, in which a person experiences periods of depression and hypomania — into depressive episodes. But comedy is also what often brings him out of depression.

“It helps my depression because it gives me something to get out of bed [for],” he said. “I have certain triggers that make me depressed and what helped is talking about those triggers onstage and making light of the situation and creating a punchline. … It helps me because that means I’m not the only one.”

Of course, comedy is neither all cure nor all to blame.

Comedy: the strongest antidote to fear

The night that Russia attacked Ukraine, Russian American Seattle comedian Nikita Oster was in a comedy club with his wife. Oster was supposed to perform that night, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the news.

It was a month before he was able to perform. His friends encouraged him to get back onstage by taking him to a show. When he decided he was ready, he wrote five minutes of material on the war and Frank, his friend and fellow comedian, shared a stage with him for support.

Oster, whose father was born in Ukraine, was afraid of how his material would be received given his clear Russian accent. Sure enough, he had a heckler who shouted, “What should we do about you!” But Oster says most Seattle audiences understand how the Russian people are different from the Russian government.

Still, Oster ditched his material on the war, largely because it doesn’t reflect how he feels.

“I was angry and shocked, and now my mental state is more just sort of tired,” he said. “The biggest difficulty is the repeating of the material. When it comes to something as viscerally personal and emotionally disturbing as this, the idea of ​​repeating it over and over again …,” he said, trailing off.

Oster does not regret the jokes. In fact, he plans to take on other difficult topics now that he has US citizenship (as of a month ago) and is less afraid of retaliation. He hopes to write more about parallels he sees between his new home country and social oppression in Russia.

“Comedy is the strongest and most available antidote for fear. Whenever I’m dealing with something difficult and scary, finding comedic structure in it and finding a way to laugh about it is the greatest source of hope that I know to look for,” Oster said. “You haven’t run away from the thing and into a joke, but the joke provides a different angle. Whatever sharp edges a thing has, it’s not defined by the fear it elicits. It’s not just a monster attacking you. … [Comedy] has a way of humanizing anything, even the scariest thing.”

That’s the comedian’s responsibility, says T. Murph: to talk about the things we can’t ignore but may not know how to approach. Comedy, he says, find ways to talk about what people don’t want to talk about.

He can’t remember if it was the night that Trayvon Martin was killed or the day his shooter, George Zimmerman, received a “not guilty” verdict, but Murph does remember that his instinct was to find the nearest stage.

“I don’t even remember what I talked about,” he said. “Just how do we continue to go through this? When I finished, the audience enjoyed it because it was coming from an honest place.

“As a country, as a people in general, we’re all going through the same thing,” he said. “We’re all dealing with the same issues.”

While some of the processing happens live, Murphy says a support network outside comedy is vital, too. Comedians like Frank and Mejia agree, but they’re also part of the trend of local comedians looking to foster a more mentally healthy environment in the industry itself.

“For five seconds, you feel OK”

During the pandemic, Laughs Comedy Club held socially distanced workshops where comedians and budding comedians could gather six feet apart and workshop material.

“They treated it like therapy,” said Angela Dennison. “Comics brought in dark material and tried to find the humor in it. It was dark. …These were really depressed people.”

A lot of comedians were depressed by the loss of their work and quit during the pandemic shutdown, said David Dennison. Others came back with fresh perspectives on changes needed in the industry.

When they reopened their doors, the Dennisons noticed comedians weren’t drinking as much or doing drugs anymore.

“Comedy is basically a bar with a stage. Just think about how absurd it is as a comedian,” said Frank. “You put all this thought into these jokes and time, and people are paying you in drink tickets. Of course, that’s going to lead to abuse problems.”

Now, Angela Dennison says she’d be hard-pressed to think of a Seattle comic who drinks heavily.

“But I can name five in AA,” she said, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous.

More comedians have been talking about mental health, too, and David Dennison can tell audience members are connecting with it.

“You see they’re engaged when they’re not distracted, they go up to the comics afterwards, order another drink, tip well,” he said. “Their body language is more open.”

Comedians, they said, are also creating support networks, checking on each other and eliminating the old spirit of competition.

“Now Comedian A and Comedian B go to lunch together,” he said.

The Dennisons, too, are making changes. They’ve brightened up the club decor with murals and flowers and they’ve scrapped their open mic in favor of auditions to prevent what they saw as a trend of hate speech in the open-mic venue.

For Chris Mejia, that safety is part of what makes comedy important.

When he first moved to Seattle from Florida, Mejia, who has anxiety and depression, found a welcoming community of people where everyone was open about sharing personal things and going to therapy. It normalized it for him, and now he aims to do the same for others — but with a laugh, especially in difficult times.

“One way of processing trauma is with humor,” he said. “We cope with humour. … It becomes a shared relief with the crowd. For five seconds we’re finding the funny in this.

“Yes, there’s still the terribleness of the world, but for five seconds, you feel OK.”

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