The idea of the sad clown was put on stage in the famous depiction of Pagliaccio in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera of the same name. It’s probably the operatic image that most non-opera-goers might know — imagining Pavoratti in clown make up singing the famous aria:
Laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!
Turn your distress and tears into jest,
your pain and sobbing into a funny face — Ah!
It’s the kind of thing that you might see on the Loony Tunes while growing up even if you never saw it in your adult life. And because of that formative image, the idea of a tragically depressed but outwardly comical clown has shaped how we see comedians and the relationship between laughter and mental health. There’s an unspoken, maybe only half-realized assumption: comedians are supposed to be tragic and slightly depressed, and their “neuroticism” (there’s a word!) is what allows them to be funny!
We’re slowly disassembling this set of assumptions from our world view, but mental health remains one of the things that is most difficult to talk about. And with comedians, it seems to be even more difficult.
So, it was such a welcome moment this morning to see this trailer from the extraordinary website Soulpancake (created by Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight Schrute in The Office) taking on exactly this topic. You can watch the trailer for yourself below, but I look forward to the discussion this generates. We all need to talk about it more.