Chris Gethard and the oxymoron of depressed comedians

Studio 360
Chris Gethard (Smallz & Raskind / Getty)

Chris Gethard

Smallz & Raskind/Getty

Laughing almost always makes us feel better, and some research suggests it might have long-term health benefits, too. So why are there so many well-known cases of comedians suffering from depression and other mental illnesses?

Chris Gethard, the host of “The Chris Gethard Show” on Fusion and the podcast Beautiful/Anonymous, talks a lot on his shows and in his standup about his own struggles with addiction and depression.

“I didn't go to a shrink until I was 22,” Gethard says. “And I started doing comedy in New York when I was 20. So laughter and sadness and depression, they all mixed together for me.”

The comedian says there’s a myth out there for artists and comedians that you have to suffer to produce good work. 

“There are so many notable examples of depressed comics,” Gethard says. “I think it was one of the reasons I resisted actually getting help for so long because I think I was really buying into that myth of you have to be tortured or you won't be funny anymore.

"Like, part of what's interesting about me and part of what gives me so much to say ... is that I'm driven by these dark times… I will often times have younger comedians approach me and say, ‘I don't want to go on pills. I think they'll take away my edge,’ or something. And, like, well, good luck with that. I hope it works out, but I think that's a really dangerous myth, and I wish people didn't perpetuate it.” 

Gethard has a theory about why comedians might be so susceptible to depression and mental illness. 

“I kind of think that the skill set of a comedian in many ways might overlap with someone who is really emotional to a maybe out-of-control degree,” Gerhard says. “A good standup comic doesn't just have good jokes, they know how to go into a room and say those jokes and sense how the crowd's responding to them and send the crowd in a certain direction for their reaction … It makes sense to me that people who train their instincts to just completely sense how other people are affected by things are people who in their own right might be prone to be highly affected by things.”

Still, he says, in his personal experience with mental illness, he found that getting the right help and medication only made him better at what he does.  

“I actually got funnier,” Gethard says. “My career didn't really do anything until I was on medication for a few years … As interesting as it might be to be a loose cannon, once I was medicated and once I was in therapy it was like, ‘Oh, now I can organize my thoughts. I can do second drafts. I can take meetings and not be just wracked by anxiety and nervousness.’ All these skills you need to be able to have to have a career are things that only set in once I actually straightened my head out.”

Gethard now uses his experiences with depression to reach out to others through his comedy. In one episode of his show Gethard had people call in, and he, along with actress Ellie Kemper from ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,’ asked the callers if they were OK, and then got them to laugh a little at their problems. 

“What I've come to realize is that I have a platform,” Gethard says. “I really sat and thought about, like, what would what would have been useful to me when I was 14 or 15 and really scared and feeling really broken and feeling like I wasn't allowed to talk about it.”

No surprise, the best thing Gethard thinks he as a comedian can do is not take it all too seriously. 

“We're not on solving all these problems yet,” Gethard says. “It doesn't have to be this big life moment. To just say, ‘Hey I get sad sometimes.’ And that to me feels like, well, if I can provide that and still make it something that comedically I'm proud of, it would almost be wrong to not try to touch in with the viewers and see how they're doing.” 

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.