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I myself have seen dark times. At the age of 10 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, at 11 I was mentally hospitalized for 6 months. At 16 I was expelled for acting out. Put in a behavioral school, and then hospitalized again, this time in isolation. Being bipolar, and having had a dark past allowed me to use my craft to express my frustrations and feelings to the world, and I believe myself to be a better person because of it. That is why I connect so deeply to these stories. I hope people can see the small piece of my pain expressed in my craft. I hope they are able to use these films to spark something inside them into a fire. Igniting a passion, and healing through it.”
I watched Rene Smith take quick short breaths as she recalled the catastrophe that had come to her family. Fighting her emotions, she told of her husband promising he wouldn’t commit suicide as his own father had just done—but then ultimately betraying that vow.
On its own, this scene could belong to a short film on grief or the challenges faced by rural America. Instead, it’s part of a portrait of a comedian, Billy Bonnell, and the ways in which depression have impacted his life and career.
The image of a depressed comedian is nothing new, but it is increasingly familiar in our culture. Chris Gethard mines for humor in the darker moments of his life, including contemplating suicide, in a new HBO special. Last year, the podcast, "The Hilarious World of Depression" debuted, interviewing comedians about their experiences with depression, and offering “a chance to gain some insight, have a few laughs, and realize that people with depression are not alone.” One of our most iconic and celebrated comedians, Robin Williams, took his own life after a long battle with depression.
TRAGICOMIC HOPE, ACCORDING TO WEST, IS THE ABILITY TO LAUGH AND RETAIN A SENSE OF LIFE’S JOY—TO PRESERVE HOPE, EVEN WHILE STARING THE FACE OF HATE AND HYPOCRISY.
Some of the world’s greatest minds have pondered humor’s relationship to our mental health. Freud wrote twice on the subject in his 1905 book "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious" and then again 22 years later in the essay, Humor. “Humor is not resigned; it is rebellious,” Freud wrote in Humor. “It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able to assert itself against the unkindness of real circumstances.” Freud suggested that humor was a contribution of the superego, speaking “kindly words of encouragement to the intimidated ego,” and called it “among the great series of methods which the human mind has constructed in order to evade the compulsion to suffer.”
Around the same time that Freud was contemplating humor and the human mind, the struggle of newly freed slaves was giving birth to the blues—music’s dark humor, or “tragicomic hope” as Cornel West calls it. Tragicomic hope, according to West, is the “ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy—to preserve hope, even while staring the face of hate and hypocrisy—as against falling into the nihilism of despair.” Blues is the ultimate incarnation of tragicomic hope according to Dr. West:
Blues said, “Here’s the truth about your wounds. Here’s the truth about your bruises. Here’s the truth about your scars. Are you going to come up with new energy? With a new name? With a new song?” And most importantly, what’s at the center of the blues? Finding your voice...right now everybody is dealing with catastrophe: the catastrophe of the environment and nature, the catastrophe of the greed on Wall Street, the catastrophe of cowardly brothers coming home and beating their wives, the catastrophe of being spit on because you’re gay, lesbian, or transsexual, or bisexual. It’s the catastrophe of being poor and nobody giving a damn in power. That’s a catastrophe. Everybody’s got to come to terms with the blues.
At a time when catastrophe seems to come to us in new and inventive forms every single morning and then continues berating us throughout the day, tragicomic hope becomes one of our most precious tools. It creates a space for us to honestly take a look at our bruises and our scars; to sit with them, to consider them, to tend to them—and then to rise from the places in which they were created.
OVER TIME HUMAN BEINGS BECAME AWARE OF CATASTROPHE ALL AROUND THEM, OR CHAOS, AS HE IDENTIFIES IT, AND THUS DEVELOPED THE HUMAN SPIRIT
We see tragicomic hope coming to life in many forms today. Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” is an anthem of optimism despite the hard times that became a chant for Black Lives Matter activists. Amazon’s award-winning series Transparent and Netflix’s award-winning series Master of None artfully amplify unheard voices of transgender, female, and people of color with an honest, sometimes sad, humor. People like Billy Bonnell get on stage in comedy clubs around the country and rebelliously stare down the hardest of circumstances with new energy.
The surgeon and writer, Sherwin Nuland, believed that over time human beings became aware of catastrophe all around them, or chaos, as he identifies it, and thus developed the human spirit—the search for balance, integrity, and moral order. During a 2014 interview with Krista Tippett on the radio program," On Being," Nuland said, “When you recognize that pain and response to pain is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself.” If the prevalence of blues mentality, of dark comedy, is a reflection of catastrophic times, then the argument could be made that it is also a reflection of the human spirit.
As such, there’s a certain spirituality to dark humor, this tragicomic hope. We are beaten down by the catastrophes around us, maybe even to the point of some sort of death, but we can be hopeful because resurrection will come.