We've all heard about comedians who have suffered with deep depression and taken their own lives, such as Freddie Prinze, Richard Jeni, and the extraordinarily brilliant Robin Williams.
But is it essential to suffer such extreme torment in order to be funny? And just what does it take to be a successful comedian?
I chatted about this with professional stand-up comic, Graham Kay. "I think it starts when we're kids," he speculates. "It has to be somebody who's smart but has to deal with adversity...you deal with stress by using humour as a safety valve."
He hastens to add, "You don't have to be miserable to be funny. I write some of my best jokes when everything's going well and I'm happy. But you had to have been unhappy in the past, or gone through something in your formative years because that forms your personality."
As an amateur comedian, I can definitely relate to that. I grew up in a hostile, toxic environment, doing my best to be "a good girl" and was painfully shy.
Until I turned 13 and suddenly became the mouthy class clown.
It wasn't a decision; it just sort of happened. I guess something in me knew it was the best way to keep my crazy family secrets and to make sure no one could see my bottomless pit of pain and insecurity.
For decades, my life continued to spin out of control and eventually, I found my way to the comedy stage where I could poke fun at myself and my biggest challenges.
Kay, a multi-award-winning Canadian stand-up comic now living in L.A., notes another key ingredient to becoming a successful comedian. "You have to know what it is to be on the outside looking in. I think that's why Jewish people dominate comedy, and black people dominate, and why American comedy is dominated by Canadians. We can all speak the same language, but some of us are out of the club."
One aspect of the comedy scene that Kay finds frustrating, particularly in L.A., is that there are "...a lot of rules about how many white males you can have on your show." He estimates that 85% of comedians are white males so it can be tough for anyone in that category to get those coveted spots.
"Sometimes the rules are too strict," he remarks. "You're only allowed to have, like, one white male on a show with six people, and the rest are women and black guys - which I like, don't get me wrong. I would hate to see a show with all straight white guys. It would be boring; it's one perspective over and over again. But I just mean they're going too far the other way."
The result? "It's an interesting phase we're going through where they're pushing really hard to include people, and discriminating at the same time...[On the west coast] their mentality is very different from the east coast...I notice this about Vancouver. No one has black friends but they're so over-the-top worried about race problems, they won't hold a door open for an old white lady but they will for a 20-year-old black man just to prove to themselves and everyone around them that they're not racist.
"I think political correctness is good," he continues. "But I think it can morph into racism when you start treating another race differently than you treat your own race."
I've only dabbled in doing stand-up as an amateur but for decades have held onto a secret dream of doing it professionally. Aware that it takes a concerted effort and many years of hard work, I tell Kay that I figure I've missed that boat because I'm older than dirt (well, maybe not quite).
"In comedy, it doesn't matter how old you are," he replies. "There are lots of mature comedians. And it makes you better. You have more to talk about. You have more life experience. All the 20-year-old comics talk about their dicks. Who cares? You have actual things to talk about. You have five kids. You've dealt with teen pregnancy [and much more]. That's the shit people need to know about; people are going through it themselves. Misery loves company."
So what "misery" has Kay experienced to help shape his work and success as a comedian? "Nothing crazy," he smiles. "I had really good parents...I had learning disabilities that I didn't understand. I had really bad OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] that my parents didn't understand...I had an autistic brother...my only sibling. That's the major factor that shaped my personality...taking care of him, worrying about him all the time, being embarrassed a lot by him in public and learning how to deal with it."
Kay acknowledges, "The crippling OCD never goes away. When I'm tired, it'll creep up...it doesn't affect me day-to-day. For all intents and purposes, it's gone. But I know that if I don't keep an eye on it, it'll come back."
Kay has managed to keep this powerful anxiety disorder at bay without the use of drugs. "I have to use my brain to suppress it so I'm constantly tending to that. A little part of my brain energy every day is devoted to keeping my foot on its neck."
On-stage, Kay is witty, opinionated, and obviously tuned into what matters in life and in the world. He is quick, clever, deliciously sarcastic and brilliantly funny, yet it never feels like I'm listening to a well-crafted act. It's more like Graham just being Graham - the mark of a polished professional.
Off-stage, the unassuming Kay is quiet and kind, a true gentleman, his heart, compassion and humanity evident in both word and manner. "I love that I can...tell a joke...and I can make [people] see my light and make them laugh."
Yes, indeed. His radiant light is shining brightly and he is definitely making us laugh.
For more about Graham Kay, visit comedybythegraham.com