When I first started performing, I began in musical theater. While I loved every dazzling moment I spent onstage, I dreaded the downtime spent backstage, in dressing rooms, or on lunch breaks. As easy as it was for me to sing or dance passionately in front of an audience, building real social connections didn’t come quite so naturally.
Rehearsals for my middle school production of “Beauty and the Beast” had been underway for a month, and I still hadn’t made any friends in the cast. I was 11 years old and I rarely spoke to anyone. Instead, I kept to myself and appeared uncomfortable when people did try to make conversation. I struggled to feel like I was worth anybody’s time.
Chris was one of the more popular boys. I’ll never forget the day he approached me in rehearsal, looked me in the eyes, gently took my hand and kissed it softly. I probably blushed a little. And then he immediately pulled away and smirked.
“They dared me to kiss you because you’re so depressed,” he asserted matter-of-factly, before scurrying back to his friends.
At the time, I was more annoyed than hurt — but it stuck with me nonetheless and raised questions in me about how I could present myself so confidently onstage and with so much self-doubt once I stepped off.
Though I conquered much of my shyness, I carried this same dissonance with me throughout nearly my entire performing career, even when I started performing improv comedy in high school. Nonetheless, comedy was easy to fall in love with — on the days when I felt the absolute worst about myself, making people laugh lifted me back up.
Comedy became a cornerstone I could cling to when nothing else in my life made sense. It didn’t matter what I wanted to be when I grew up, or if anyone liked me; if I was introverted or extroverted, or if I believed in myself — I was always funny. Early on, my sense of humor gave me a sense of clarity about who I was.
There’s disagreement within the comedy community about whether performing comedy relieves a comic’s emotional pain or exacerbates it. Many see the high-risk, high-reward art form as too stressful and inconsistent to placate feelings of sadness, insecurity or turmoil. For others, speaking openly about difficult, personal or taboo topics onstage — framed, of course, in a funny light — is a chance to align these topics with more positive forces. But any way you slice it, it’s clear that comedy plays a role in the story of mental health.
There’s a vast number of articles that aim to articulate the apparent connections between the comically inclined and mental health issues. One of the most prominent theories is that of the manic creative genius, whose unfocused, impulsive thoughts lend themselves to outside-the-box observations and connections. Another is that of the sad clown — they can effortlessly turn others’ sadness, anger or fear into joy, but they don’t possess the ability to do the same for themselves.
Both of these theories are painted in bold colors and broad strokes, but both can have far more nuanced underpinnings. It’s in these details that many comedians may find themselves, even if they don’t always recognize it — at least, that’s what happened to me. I don’t have a mental illness, but I do understand what it’s like to find mental catharsis in comedy.
As of late, uncontrollable, nearly all-consuming self-doubt has been my modus operandi. The fear that I’m not doing enough — or worse, that I’ll never be able to do enough — is liable to seize me at any moment. I’m terrified that I won’t be a good leader, that I don’t have what it takes to succeed in school and that I’m letting down the people I love. I’ve wanted to quit the things I love to do, drop out of college and put up walls between me and my friends.
But never once did I think about wanting to quit improv.
According to an article from CNN, a psychologist retired from the University of Oxford suggested that comedians often struggle with internal conflict between two aspects of their personalities — one, an excitable, extroverted nature and two, an “introverted anhedonia,” which is an inability to feel pleasure. Performing comedy forces a comic to reject their tendencies to withdraw, but in a socially distant (and therefore safe) situation.
Improv has allowed me to embrace the side of myself that thrives off the energy of others. More importantly, it’s allowed me to put my feelings of self-doubt aside. After all, by the time you have a chance to wonder if you’re about to say the right thing, you’ve already had to say it, and people are already laughing.
I’m not always sure if I’m smart, or if I’m kind, or if I’m motivated. I usually don’t know what I want, or why someone else might want me to be a part of their life. It can be paralyzing. But when I try to navigate through the world, absolutely terrified because I don’t know where I’m headed, I know that if I follow the funny, I’ll never be too far from home.
“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.
Shannon O’Hara covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected].