IN Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey attributes the following to writer W.H Auden: “The Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.” At first I questioned this idea — I mean, sure, sometimes I get up late and go to the beach, so I’m forced to write when I come home. I don’t think that makes me a “Hitler of the world,” though — merely a sun-kissed beach bunny who capitalizes on the meaning of freelance. Yet, considering the number of artists the book claims work at night — Toulouse Lautrec, for example — I realized that maybe Auden wasn’t talking so much about the beach-bum procrastinators and time managers, but more about the self-medicators. Robin Williams’ suicide was a loss that affected the whole world — the loss of a true artist of the night. I don’t think anyone would consider the light he shone on the world as Hitler-esque, though. That is, until I started to think of all the other comedians who have passed away from depression and addiction-related issues, until I realized how the gift of comedy comes at a price of the giver and that W.H Auden may be right. After all, any artistry that has to be performed in a dark bar or club, night after night, has little room for any light other than the one glaring on stage.
Artists have always been characterized as the most sensitive types of people — it is emotionally exhausting to bare your soul as a profession, but for someone who feels that calling, there’s nothing in the world they’d rather do. Nothing in the world they can do. And stand-up comedy is one of the most vulnerable expressions an artist can make: personally written material from personal observations or experiences, shared with a crowd of strangers, in a one-way conversation, with an immediate approval rating — laughter. Unlike regular artists, stand-up comedians have to be raw night after night, in public, in order to improve and be successful at the same time. It’s not surprising that comedians grapple with addiction — predominantly alcoholism — and depression, because it is those very personality traits and habits that the comedy stage invites. Every comedian will say that being successful requires going on stage, more than once if possible, every single night — it’s imperative to be obsessive, to be obsessive about being seen. And that kind of pressure, that kind of imperative to be successful at any and all costs, it has to go somewhere. So it goes inward, where it becomes fuel for the comedian’s material but also fuel for other, darker processes, too.
Three comedians that talked or talk about this struggle openly are Robin Williams, Maria Bamford, and Marc Maron. Understanding these struggles makes it easier to understand how their personalities nurture their professional success. Over the last forty years, Robin Williams became a comedic icon due to his hilarious but slightly manic impersonations and voices. In a 2010 interview with March Maron, he did a humorous impression of his internal monologue: “We’re moody little motherf**kers, too. We’ll be like ‘Godd**n it, man. I love you. I’ll f**king kill you! Step outside, I’ll kick my ass. Godd**n it, let’s do this! Poor me. Godd**n poor me. Poor me… another drink.’” Williams, you see, had struggled with alcoholism, and had been to rehab twice after falling off the wagon after twenty years of sobriety. Later in the podcast, he confesses that comedy is what saves him: “Going on stage is the one salvation. It’s the sober alternative.” And not by surprise. Instead of going to drink every night alone, why don’t you go on stage alone instead? After all, the euphoria from making the audience laugh is warm, just like the feeling of a good drink coursing through the bloodstream.
Maria Bamford has been working as a comedian for twenty years. She has also openly suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder and depression—in fact, it’s often the subject of her comedy routine. In a recent article in the New York Times, the writer reflects on one of Bambford’s bits: “’Is anyone thinking of suicide?’ [sounding merry]. ‘Well, don’t do it, it’s not the season for it.’ She then crinkled her face into a childish pout. ‘And people will be so mad at you if you do that.’” I think there’s something relieving to confess those thoughts on stage in front of hundreds of people, because saying them out loud and subsequently making everyone laugh means those strangers are telling you it’s okay to have those thoughts and that maybe they sometimes have them, too. Isn’t that best feeling when you’re low? Knowing you’re not alone? In this same article, she goes on to say, “It’s the thoughts that are weird and scary, not the person.” I think that’s the ideology that help people empathize with and understand Williams, and why he might have thought that he had no other alternatives.
Bamford isn’t the only one trying to shine light on the inner lives of comedians. Marc Maron has been a comedian since the 1980s and has lived what feels like nine lives throughout the process. Open about his depression and alcoholism on his podcast, “WTF with Marc Maron,” he discusses his internal struggles to his audience in a one-way conversation (much like stand-up) every week: his struggle with alcoholism and depression through the 90s and his subsequent avid membership of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a Slate interview, Maron reveals that “alcoholics are hypersensitive, selfish people who are prone to self-pity and resentment, so very little things can send them spiraling into chaotic anger and despair.” I think that’s exactly how I would describe his monologues before every podcast episode, too—heavy, sensitive, and a tad self-absorbed. Yet, his honesty around the tendencies of alcoholics is probably what has created such success for him now, because his podcast feels like such an open and inviting forum for comedians just like him to talk about their inner demons.
In that same Slate interview, Maron talks about how people often romanticize the artists of the past who have struggled with substance abuse and addiction by perpetuating notions that they did their best work while under some influence. Maron challenges that mindset, claiming: “Those artists were probably geniuses—so to give that much credence to a substance is romanticizing and unfair. Would we not have that art if it wasn’t for drugs? I don’t know. But I guarantee you that at that moment in time, most of them weren’t thinking that way. They weren’t thinking, ‘I’m a genius. If I take this medicine or if I get strung out on this sh*t, that’s when I’m doing to do my best work.’ These were people who were sick and they couldn’t help themselves. Whatever the relationship was between their mental health and their addiction, you can speculate all you want, but it’s not a system built to generate brilliant things.”
So yes, artists, specifically comedians, might experience darkness when it comes to fulfilling what can feel like a compulsive desire for self-expression, but perhaps now is the time to be more forgiving about the consequences, more than Auden seemed to be. Because, really, it seems like Maron, Williams, and Bamford all have it right: dark work may certainly be done at night, but it’s not Hitler’s work, and it’s not the artist who is dishonest, it’s the thoughts themselves that are. And perhaps the only salvation is just going back on stage.