Friday, April 23, 2010

British comedy show takes on mental health issues

From The Guardian in the UK:

It's not the done thing to laugh at mental health issues. Just ask Steve Penk. Strange, as most comedians react to taboos like bulls to a matador's cape. As John Ryan (pictured), standup comic and compere of Cracking Up!, says, "You hear comedians doing jokes about paedophilia, rape, child abuse, murder ... no one's making jokes about mental health."

Cracking Up! is about to change that, helping to reduce stigma by normalising mental health problems. It's a variety night – a mix of comedy, sketches and poetry based on research and featuring contributions from people who have experienced mental health difficulties. Developed by NHS Surrey, the show has had a successful local run (including tough gigs such as Woking Football Club), selling out in its two-days in London, and could be coming to a club, theatre, school or business seminar near you.

One of the reasons people can laugh at jokes dealing with the taboos Ryan describes is they are relatively rare. It's unlikely that someone in a comedy show audience has been directly affected by child abuse (although Jim Jeffries was famously confronted by a member of the audience who felt the comic's bad-uncle gag was too close to home); one in four people are directly affected by mental illness. Monday's sold-out theatre, if not quite the hard evidence needed to back up that figure, at least proved that many people are curious. Questioning revealed that a number of charity workers and mental health service users were among the audience.

It's all very worthy, this desire to improve empathy. But is it funny? When I went along to find out, I realised I'd never seen anything like it before – and judging by the nervous atmosphere during the first half, neither had the rest of the audience. But any anxieties were assuaged by the compere: Ryan was personable and accessible, yet mischievous and willing to push boundaries. Once the audience realised what was going on, second-half laughs came easily and heartily. It felt inclusive and empowering.

Gareth Berliner has Crohn's disease, and appears on stage with what must surely be a comedy first: a backpack containing a pump, which is connected directly to his heart. Undoing the valve, Berliner cheerfully related, would result in his swift and bloody death. He then told us about his botched suicide attempt. While fascinating in a morbid way, this is hardly a laughing matter. But on Monday night, delivered in Berliner's twinkling style, it was a killer gag. In fact, it's a good example of the obstacles the show faces: while mental health is still a hard sell, it needs to be pricked, laughed at, normalised – and ultimately accepted.

Cracking Up! proves that a comedy show about mental health can be hilarious. It's a relief to see an agenda-led project, which mixes arts with education, deliver its message without preaching. But once it has raised its issues, the question is whether people are willing to face them head-on.