In her recent movie I Smile Back, emmy-winning comedian Sarah Silverman goes dark, starring as a depressed wife and mother who goes off her meds and down a path of self-destruction.
In a Fresh Air interview and an essay for Glamour Magazine, Silverman talked openly about her own struggles with depression—dropping what has been, until now, a near iron-clad persona as the shallow, adorable Jewish girl who says hair-curling, terrible things.
Remarkably, Silverman made no jokes when describing her depression to Terry Gross: “It feels like I’m terribly homesick, but I’m home. There’s no way to satiate it… That’s the first thing you think, you know, is, like, you just want to go home.”
We’re often shocked to find those who make us laugh do so from places of deep pain and suffering, though the link between comedy and depression is well-established. (The Laugh Factory in LA even offers weekly therapy sessions for comedians).
The suicide of Robin Williams generated an onslaught of media coverage of depression and an outcry for more awareness of the disease. Stephen Colbert has discussed how his life was shaped by grief after his father and brothers died in a plane crash. Silverman’s own infant brother smothered in his crib while their parents were on vacation. The list of comedians who have numbed their pain, grief, or sensitivities with alcohol and/or drugs is long and historic. For many of us, humor is another defense mechanism and a coping strategy.
“Maybe laughter is not just a cathartic purge of angst and depression but a way of dragging our darkness into the light—and minimizing its power over us.”
Even the Old Testament writers—not generally thought of as a funny lot—knew the healing power of humor: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” Research shows that merriness doeth good in very specific ways. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins that reduce pain; stimulates the production of T-cells and immune proteins that strengthen immune function; and decreases stress by lowering our cortisol levels, Studies show that humor has similar effects on the brain as drug-induced euphoria. MRI scans indicate that humor stimulates the reward centers of the brain, triggering the release of dopamine. A depressed brain—dopamine starved and flooded with cortisol—badly needs a good belly laugh.
But what about a bad laugh? Can raunchy, tasteless humor—the kind Silverman often delivers with innocent, childlike oblivion—possibly be considered healthy? (It’s been noted—by Silverman herself—that she never misses an opportunity to say the word vagina.) Should I confess that during a dark night of the soul I’ve spent an entire evening binge watching Amy Schumer clips—and felt much better for it?
“I do enjoy and feel compelled to talk about things that are taboo,” Silverman told Gross. “One, because I think I’m a troublemaker inside. If someone says don’t say that, it’s all I want to say, you know? And also, you know, something I learned in therapy, which is just something simple and beautiful my therapist said, which is darkness can’t exist in the light.”
Sounds familiar (John 1:5).
“People say I’m a nice girl saying terrible things,” Silverman said in the New Yorker. “I think I’ve been called edgy — but in all honestly, there is a safety in what I do because I’m always the idiot,” she says. “Unless you’re just listening to buzz words and not taking into account the context of the situation, you see I’m always the ignoramus. So no matter what I talk about or what tragic event, off-color, dark scenario is evoked in my material, I’m always the idiot in it.”
She highlights our tendency to accept almost any offense or evil that comes cloaked in niceness or ignorance.
“…no matter what I talk about or what off-color, dark scenario is evoked in my material, I’m always the idiot in it.”
If Silverman’s bawdy comedy makes us uncomfortable, it also invites us to laugh at our discomfort. And at our politics, our prejudices, our darkest, nastiest thoughts and secrets and struggles, the weirdest impulses of our bodies and wills, our mounting frustration with an insanely puritanical and thought-policing culture, our tendency to treat silly things as sacred. Maybe laughter is not just a cathartic purge of angst and depression but a way of dragging our various darknesses into the light—and minimizing their power over us.
“God does not treat us as if we were spirit and nothing else,” wrote Frank Sheed, one of the foremost Catholic apologists of the 20th century. In his book Theology and Sanity, Sheed emphasized the bodiliness of Christ and the bodiliness of man, and argued that the sacraments, by “continually reminding man of his body… keep his feet firmly planted upon the ground and destroy pride in its strongest root.”
“The existence of our bodies is not due to a slip of the hand, which God has ever regretted and prefers to ignore,” Sheed writes. “But it is hard to see it is as sacred. The body seems to go out of its way to remind us of its ignominiousness—what with pus and mucus and all the things it expels from itself….”
Christ is not shocked by this ignominiousness—the humiliating, disgraceful, and often hilarious aspects of our bodies, the secret thoughts we dare not speak aloud (though Silverman usually does). Christ touched lepers and rubbed spit in a blind man’s eyes and spoke casually to a woman about her long list of ex-lovers while getting a drink of water. We are easily shocked and disgusted. He is not.
Do I take an enormous leap from Christ and Frank Sheed to Silverman and Shumer? Probably. But there is an appealing humility in comedy that wears the body lightly, and acknowledges the ridiculous disgrace of the human condition, which is only ridiculous because it seems so contrary to what we sense is our inherent dignity.
Christ is not shocked by this ignominiousness—the humiliating, disgraceful, and often hilarious aspects of our bodies…
Humor writer Jenny Lawson, who has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and a slew of other maladies cataloged in the DSM-V, says that her sharp sense of the absurd helps her to cope. But she started writing about her depression because, “on a very selfish level, it is so reassuring to me to have other people say, ‘You’re not alone.’ I’m sometimes stuck at home and cannot force myself to leave the house, or I’m at a hotel room and I cannot leave the hotel room even to eat, and I know I can always go out on Twitter and say, “I’m stuck. I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like a failure.” And a thousand people are going to say, ‘I’m right there with you. I’m hiding in the bathroom myself.’”
When Lawson tweeted an embarrassing exchange she had with an airport cashier, her followers chimed in with their own hysterically awkward moments, and the whole party went viral via Buzzfeed. Reading the tweets, I laughed so hard I broke a sweat. Even now, thinking of the woman who texted her boss instead of her boyfriend at the end of her first day of work at a new job: “Heading out. Love you;” or the guy who tried to order his lunch in a drive-through only to be informed he’d been talking to the trash can, I smile. My heart softens. My shoulders relax. I feel a genuine fondness for humanity. We’re so often clueless and inappropriate, whether we like it or not. We are adorable.
Sheed thought the sacraments were the genius of the church, material substances—water, wine, bread, oil—that deliver divine healing to us in our bodiliness. Meanwhile, the secular Silverman says, “I think comedy is the greatest way to open minds or change minds or get information out.” While sharing the truth of her depression offers companionship and encouragement to those who are similarly struggling, laughing at her jokes and understanding the source of her raunch may help all of us to see each other better in the dark.