COMEDY AND THERAPY: Mirrored art forms

Last year, I was reading an article called Psychotherapy and Comedy as Mirroring Art Forms written by a mentor of mine. In essence, he argued that a stand up comedy set and a therapy session are the same thing based on their form and structure. They’re “mirrored art forms”.

Below, the character of the therapist is interchangeable with that of the comedian.

In the opening phase the interviewer warms up the patient, establishes rapport, and prepares the patient for the main task of the interview

In the middle phase, they perform the bulk of the work; therefore it takes the longest time.

In the end phase the interviewer prepares the patient for closure. Therapist avoids highly emotional topics, summarizes for the patient what has been learned and provides an outlook for the future. [1]

This is an idea I’ve tried to work with while doing my own work as a comedian. The idea that comedy is a form of therapy is not completely new to me — all things you love doing are a form of therapy.

However, I began to see this idea a little bit differently. Comedy isn’t therapy in the sense of doing what you love to make yourself feel better. It’s therapy in the sense that you’re coming to terms with your identity. However, in this case, making people laugh throughout the process is considered a by-product.

Over the last year while performing in clubs in China, New York and London, I’ve come to understand comedy as a tool people use to make sense of their own world — the things that are the most confusing or bizarre parts of their identity or view of the world.

When I perform, a lot of my jokes center on the fact that I have immigrant parents, or that I’m an African American expat. Other subjects I’ve joked about have been relationships gone awry, being a poor college student, and the state of politics in America.

Interestingly enough, if I had to write down on a piece of paper the things in my life that create the most tension, those three things would be nearer to the top of the list — my African heritage, money, and girls.

These are the things I’ve built my five minute sets around, and through making other people laugh at the absurdity in these aspects of my life, I’ve come to understand my own life a lot better, and accept its imperfections. If I ever went to therapy, these things would be the same exact subjects of conversation.

This happened with my parents. This happened with my girlfriend. I had this racially charged interaction, etc.

What I find more interesting however, is taking the work of more critically acclaimed comics, and getting to the deeper and self therapeutic meaning of their comedy. Three great examples of this are Dave Chappelle, Neal Brennan, and Bo Burnham.

DAVE CHAPPELLE

One of the best examples of comedy as a form of therapy is seen through the work of Dave Chappelle.

In the early 2000’s, Dave Chappelle seemingly vanished from the popular culture scene. His show “The Chappelle Show” was a smash hit on Comedy Central. He would sell out arenas all over the country, and he was writing and directing his own movies. But, all of a sudden, he abandoned season 5 of his production, and did what he describes as profound soul searching.

In several candid interviews, most notably his episode of 60 Minutes, he explained that the racial tension he felt during many projects led him to lose passion and become frustrated with is work.

In one telling moment, he explained that he felt like people were laughing “at him” rather than “with him”, as he sought to discuss the atmosphere of the time. When he made his return to comedy, he took the opportunity to work through the issues that drove him away from his first love.

In Chappelle’s most recent stand up specials, this juxtaposition comes across brilliantly. No longer does he rely on cheap laughs revolving around the over used premise of him being black. Rather, his new jokes focus on Bill Cosby, and whether the good he’s done outweighs the bad. Or whether or not he should still be friends with OJ Simpson. Or, how he felt as a result of finding out that Emmet Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant Donham, lied about what happened in 1955.

Rather than making a spectacle of being black Chappelle has used comedy to discuss what it truly means to be black.

BO BURNHAM

One comedian who challenges the form in the most extreme way is Bo Burnham. Rather than focus on gaffs that serve only to make people laugh, he focuses on leaving his audience with a message, or something to think about. Sometimes after watching Bo Burnham, I grapple with the meaning of his material for several days.

One great example of this is in Bo Burnham’s latest comedy special, Make Happy. Towards the end, it takes on a darker tone in which he discusses the peril of overabundance in life, specifically in regards to fame. In a complex display of the inner turmoil he experiences, he compares his life to being at a Chipotle and being given a burrito that can’t hold its contents. “I wouldn’t have ordered half of this if I knew it wouldn’t fit”. He complicates his delivery of the joke by singing, “come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself”, hence the title (make happy). Bo seemingly uses comedy to talk through his evident chronic depressive mood.

In Bo’s first comedy special “what.”, he ends with a song about how agents, old friends, and fans claim to know him better than they really do. “We think we know you”, a chorus sings, as he paces around the stage.

From this, it becomes evident that Bo Burnham is troubled by fame, and how people perceive him. This challenge of identity makes up the bulk of his jokes, serving as both his greatest source of trouble and his comedic muse.

NEAL BRENNAN

One final comic who fits the comedy as therapy model exceedingly well is Neal Brennan. In his comedy special “3 Mics”, he uses one microphone to perform one-liners, another to speak about the dark things that have happened to him in his life, and another to perform regular stand up.

On the microphone where he’s supposed to speak about more serious issues, he tells the story of the time his father was dying, and left him out of his will and made him beg to be placed back on it.

Later, he speaks about his battles with depression and the alternative types of treatment he’s relied on in order to treat himself.

In some moments, the crowd is dead silent, captivated as he tells of the trials and tribulations that brought him to where he is. In other moments, the crowd is roaring with laughter.

In the moments when Brennan has the audience captive, he finds his redemption from the truly dark moments he speaks of, and through his unorthodox approach, he shows that comedy truly is a form of therapy.

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Culture writer featured in Noteworthy, The Writing Cooperative, USA Today & Olustories. Comedian & Musician. Thinker. ramanmcreates@gmail.com linktr.ee/airraman