Sad part of playing a happy man
Robin Williamsí death has once again brought the spotlight on entertainers who bring laughter into our lives but struggle to beat the blues. They often hide their misery behind a veneer of gaiety
Aruti Nayar

Mrs Doubtfire demonstrated Williamsí comic timing
Mrs Doubtfire demonstrated Williamsí comic timing

A teenaged fan spontaneously burst out on getting the news of Robin Williamís death, "But he was so happy, so cheerful, he made everyone laugh." She was voicing the popular sentiment: Those who make us laugh are bound to be happy themselves. There is a popular anecdote about a person who goes to a therapist and tells him how he is feeling so sad and the world, to him, seems cruel and harsh. The therapist tells him, to and go and see Ferrini, the clown's show, since he was coming to town and "You will feel better." "But I am Ferrini", says the man! It is not necessary that the people who make us laugh do the same themselves.

Why is it that those in the business of entertainment are more susceptible to the lows than others? More often than not, the comic act is a defence mechanism or a compensatory tool to overcome personal crises, childhood trauma or a sense of deprivation and hurt. By overcoming the personal sense of loss, by making people laugh they manage to push back their own fears and insecurities. Besides, the analogy of being lonely in a crowd applies more than other performers to comedians. The applause gives them such a high. Greater the applause, more deafening the silence after the applause and more the hollowness that seeps into the being.

Simulated emotions

Another factor that is a driver of an actor's emotions is the constant need to simulate emotions required to deliver power-packed performances. The peaks and troughs are wrought by the constant simulation of emotions. Often, actors learn to mask their real feelings. These "reel" or stage feelings often lead to the actors suppressing their real or normal feelings, which can be painful. The darker the moods, the more is the effort required to deliver a humourous performance. As it goes, "The greater the pit, more the humour required to come out of it." Some psychologists speculate that an unhappy childhood is a thread connecting comedians with depression. Many cultivated their skills early in life to cope with lifeís tragic events and as an aid to mask their anguish. It is also the need to be loved, admired and feel wanted that drives many comic performers to keep up the act. Once the comic actors start evoking a response from the listeners/audience, it goads them to do one better.

Charlie Chaplin used humour to counter his inner loneliness
Charlie Chaplin used humour to counter his inner loneliness
Raj Kapoorís Mera Naam Joker epitomised the sad clown who made the world laugh
Raj Kapoorís Mera Naam Joker epitomised the sad clown who made the world laugh

Often substance abuse results from the need to get a kick and deliver with unflagging energy levels. Anyone for a flair for comedy has a tangential way of looking at themselves and the world. They can even poke fun at themselves be it their weight, personal struggles, failure and being ridiculed. Williams recounted in many interviews how he was bullied by his peers for being overweight and often played alone; his classmates voted him the funniest but least likely to succeed. The success of comic actors and stand-up comedians gives them approval and validation. They feel loved and wanted and, therefore, want the show to never end.

Man and the mask

The man becomes the mask and an all-out effort is made not to let the mask slip. As if acknowledgement of a vulnerability would rob the sheen of the persona of the performer. So the man becomes the mask and the distinctions between the persona and the person are blurred ó often to the detriment of the human being who dons the mask. We, the audience, love the persona and rarely know or even need to know about the painful real-life traumas of actors. Even if we do get to know about problems that beset the people who bring so much of sunshine into our lives, we are rarely interested. It would spoil the party. Perhaps, it is the mundane lives most of us lead that a comic figure on the stage on the screen lightens the burden of our being and helps us to get a breather from our own stresses and strains. Is it that comedians, stars and those who bring a smile to others' faces are blighted in the pursuit of happiness themselves? The premium on top of it is to not admit to any human frailty and weaknesses. The yearning to be perceived as someone who is genial and fun-loving and exuberant is overriding. There is very often a shadow between the man who suffers and the persona of the performer who makes everyone laugh. The desire to be loved and admired transcends the need to let the defences down and cry or show the inner hurt even in real life.

Kapilís comedy show evokes laughter but he has often hidden his own loss
Kapilís comedy show evokes laughter but he has often hidden his own loss

Show must go on

Madhubala led a turbulent personal life but her perfect comic timing clicked with the viewers
Madhubala led a turbulent personal life but her perfect comic timing clicked with the viewers

Besides donning the mask of laughter, for entertainers it is also a necessity to be professional and ensure that the show must go on, whatever the personal, and psychological cost it extracts from the performer. And there is always a tremendous cost to be paid. It is not easy to deliver in a routine manner without as it were, "emptying oneself out." Probably it is this desire to be always perceived as a performer with a hail-fellow-well-met brand of geniality that thwarts attempts at reaching out for help.

As W. H. Auden, the famous war poet said, "Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh." Remember, the poignant portrayal of the different phases of the life of a clown coming to terms with his inner demons in Raj Kapoor's magnum opus Mera Naam Joker? The sad clown made the world laugh. The antics and the tomfoolery hid the inner anguish and cauldron of simmering emotions. He used humour as a mask that shielded both the viewers and those around him from the underlying pain. Empty chairs become the metaphor for the emptiness both within and without. Though not a commercial success, the film was close to the veteran director-actorís own heart and had a biographical resonance to it. The iconic actor Charlie Chaplin spent his life in orphanages and used humour to counter his inner loneliness. As the famous stand-up comedian Kapil says those who express their inner feelings become poets and those who do not become comedians. He, too, overcame personal loss, that is his fatherís death, to struggle and carve out a niche for himself. Perhaps all comic actors adhere to the adage, "Laugh, and the world laughs with you;/Weep, and you weep alone./For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth/ But has trouble enough of its own."

Creativity at a cost

Despite his personal trauma, singer Kishore Kumar was also a great comic actor
Despite his personal trauma, singer Kishore Kumar was also a great comic actor

Robin Williamsí suicide has raised uncomfortable questions about the connection between the business of humour and mental illness. The jury is out on whether a gift for humour makes a person specially prone to mood instabilities. It's hard to pin down what is mania and what is creative genius. According to Dr Rajiv Gupta, a Ludhiana-based psychiatrist, president of Manas Foundation, "Those who make others laugh often try to make up some loss or deprivation themselves and use their gift of humour as a compensatory or defence mechanism."

Dr Samir Parikh, Director, Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, says, "The comic actors have extreme highs and lows and their entire life is like in the public domain, they are treated more as objects by society and less as humans."

Derek Bose, author of Kishore Kumar: Method in Madness, biography of the famous singer-actor, says one cannot generalise. Johnny Walker was a fun person, while both Asrani and Johnny Lever are serious comedians. It is a fact that though Kishore Kumar and Madhubala led turbulent personal lives individually as well as together, their comic timing was perfect. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in January examined 523 American, British and Australian comediansí personality self-assessment tests and found that the comics scored significantly higher than the general population and other actors, for psychotic traits such as magical thinking, difficulty in focusing, reduced ability to experience social and physical pleasure, and impulsivity. Such a combination of manic and depressive personality traits could explain comedic talents, the authors concluded, but might also suggest a tendency toward bipolar disorder.





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