You've gotta laugh!

Hello, it's All in the Mind on RN, Lynne Malcolm with you. Today, as part of the ABC's Mental As campaign, we begin with a few laughs.

Stand-up comedian: With all the great street drugs out there, I would have to be an idiot to choose antidepressants as my high. I can just see going to my dealer, 'Um, yeah, I'm looking for something that takes 4 to 6 weeks to kick in, and no, I don't need to get high, I'll just settle for dry mouth and sexual side-effects.

Lynne Malcolm: From the Stand Up for Mental Health comedy night last year.

Living with a mental illness is no laughing matter, but many people, like the participants in this stand-up comedy show, find that a twist in perspective, just enough to find a funny side to the darkness, can be enormously therapeutic for performers and audiences alike.

David Granirer: My name is David Granirer, I am a counsellor and a stand-up comic, and I also have depression, and I am the founder of WISE Stand Up for Mental Health. Not too long ago there was a new mental health clinic put in in our neighbourhood, and there was a group of residents that were outraged, they did not want this clinic. So they were parading around with signs, you know, 'These crazy people, these crazy people, they are going to come into our neighbourhood!' And I'm thinking, you know, and do what? Art therapy? You know, I can just see them attacking pedestrians with macaroni and glue sticks and they'd have public service announcements, you know, 'Stay in your homes, there's been an outbreak of collage!'

And so I was joking around with these people, they're like, 'Oh, you think you're so funny Mr Stand-Up Comic, sure it all starts with finger painting, but pretty soon they'll be killing people with chainsaws.' And I'm, like, 'Do you realise how much coordination it takes to use a chainsaw? When I'm medicated, I can barely use a mop, okay?'

Lynne Malcolm: David Granirer from Vancouver teaches stand-up comedy to people like himself, who have mental health issues.

To most people it would be terrifying to do stand-up comedy, you're so raw and out there. How do people who have mental health issues, for example anxiety, cope with that?

David Granirer: Here's the way it works therapeutically. As someone with a mental illness, there's a lot of shame that goes with it. And in Stand Up for Mental Health, rather than seeing those things as bad things, we see them as great comedy material. So that completely changes the way they sit inside of you. It's like a cognitive shift, and now you go, oh, so that time I thought I was Jesus and went to the shopping mall and told everyone I was the Messiah, that's hilarious. I can't wait to put that into my act. And then you tell it to a theatre full of people and they laugh and applaud and you've told them one of your deepest, darkest secrets, and all of a sudden you think, you know something, I'm actually pretty good person, these people can totally relate to me. And I have people coming to my shows or our shows and I hear them say stuff like, oh man, that guy on stage, he has schizophrenia, and man, was he ever hilarious! And how often do you hear 'hilarious' and 'schizophrenia' in the same sentence?

So there was a 21-year-old who took the class, his name is Robbie, and he had just been released from a psych hospital when he started the class, so at this point he was stable, he had schizophrenia. And previous to being in the psych hospital he thought he had to drink his own blood, he heard demons, so he was really, really ill. So he came out and he was stable, which was great, but he had nothing in his life, so his mother, she brought him to one of our shows, and it's like it sort of captured his imagination.

Now, as someone with schizophrenia, at least his kind, he had failed at everything in his life. So anyway, he was convinced he would fail and he was convinced that people would hate him and all that kind of stuff. So he got on stage for the first show and he did a fabulous job. People loved him, and he became one of our stars. So he went from a person who was convinced that he was worthless and would always fail, to a person who felt really proud of themselves and very positive about talking about his mental health issues because he had such a good response from our audiences.

Lynne Malcolm: Do you believe that there's something about having a mental illness that makes you perhaps more potentially inclined to be good at comedy?

David Granirer: That's an interesting one because I've read just some stuff in the media over the years that indicates that people who are somewhat unbalanced tend to have a perspective on the world that lends itself to stand-up comedy.

Lynne Malcolm: And does that ring true for you?

David Granirer: [laughs] Well, put it this way, a lot of my act is about my depression and what I've gone through, and really, if I didn't have all that, I wouldn't have an act. So it's given me a tremendous amount of material, and I think it's given me a viewpoint that someone who hadn't been through my experiences wouldn't necessarily have.

Lynne Malcolm: So you've lived with depression for many years, how did you make that transition into comedy from those dark times that you had on your own?

David Granirer: So my depression began when I was 17, and I attempted suicide in a psych ward. But it was actually not diagnosed until I was in my 30s. So I went around for almost 20 years with untreated depression. And during that time I went from being one of these obnoxious, loudmouth class-clown kids to basically disappearing for 20 years. And when I started to feel better I thought, for some reason, it's like this thing came up inside me saying, I want to do stand-up comedy.

Lynne Malcolm: So how do you turn someone's real desire to do stand-up comedy but they are completely nervous, how do you turn that into a good performance?

David Granirer: First of all I think the secret of good stand-up comedy is preparation. So in the class we look at some videos of comics, I teach the comics some basic comedy and joke writing techniques, and then we spend about eight weeks working on their act. So they bring jokes into class, we brainstorm them, and so by the time they get on stage they have an act they know is going to work, and they've rehearsed and timed and practised it. So basically the deck is stacked in their favour.

Lynne Malcolm: So what are the elements that you know really work? Is it the more personal and honest, the funnier they are?

David Granirer: Well, my opinion is that the best stand-up comedy comes from the truth of your life. So the way you see things, what you've experienced, often taking painful situations and looking at them in a comedic light is a really powerful element of stand-up comedy. Plus there's the technical angle of having the jokes written in a really well edited play, short setups, using techniques like misdirection and things like that. So it's technically good and it's got an emotional truth to it that really resonates.

Lynne Malcolm: And how do comedians know when they go a bit too far for the audience, when it's just too raw or too disturbing?

David Granirer: That's a good question, and that's something that we talk about a lot in class, like someone will bring in a joke and we'll sort of look at it and go that's kind of…I think that's too black. And I would say that it is more about certain topics. For example, suicide is really…it's a really difficult issue to talk about, and some of my comics, including myself actually, we do some material about our own experiences with attempting or thinking about suicide, and I think as long as we keep them to ourselves, that the focus is on me and what happened to me, as opposing to making fun of people who might be attempting, usually that works. Another topic I found that just doesn't work is anything concerning child abuse or sexual abuse of children, I just don't think there's anything funny about it.

Lynne Malcolm: Yes, it's a very fine balance, isn't it, it's a fine line.

David Granirer: Absolutely.

Lynne Malcolm: So how would you describe the overall impact that you've seen as a result of your work in this area?

David Granirer: Well, in terms of the comics, what I've seen is people who start out not being able to make eye contact and sort of mumbling, and all of a sudden as they go through the course looking at their confidence develop, watching them start to have opinions about things. I remember there was this guy who was 84, and when he first came in he was wearing one of those baseball caps that shielded his face and he never looked up and he mumbled, and after 12 weeks he was on stage getting applause breaks and smiling, it was like a completely different person. And that happens all the time.

And in terms of the audiences, I always have people come up to me and say things like, wow, I never realised this stuff. I remember we were doing a show once and a friend of mine attended, and one of the comics did something about borderline personality disorder, and my friend came up to me after the show and she said, you know something, I totally related to that woman. I think I've got that too, I need to get that checked out. Now, she could have had the same information in a three-hour workshop. She got it in a five-minute comedy act.

Lynne Malcolm: David Granirer, founder of Stand Up for Mental Health, speaking to me via Skype.

MC: Folks, your next comic, please give it up for LuLu Joy!


LuLu Joy: LuLu Joy, depressive!

Every time I perform my five minutes I start with 'LuLu Joy, depressive!' Hands in the air, victory sign, and then I collapse, rounded shoulders. I've tried everything to beat my black dog, but I wouldn't even hurt a butterfly. I even officially changed my last name to Joy. My original surname is Bitmead. And the kids at school would call me Bite Me, Bit Head, Beat Men. Ah, but the one that stuck: Bit Mad. Was it that obvious that early?

Lynne Malcolm: LuLu Joy, now in her 50s, has lived with depression for most of her life. She grew very fast as a teenager, and was considered too tall for a girl, so she was put on hormones. From that time she struggled with her identity and sank into depression.

LuLu did the Stand Up for Mental Health course last year with David Granirer.

LuLu Joy: Before I started the 12-week Stand Up for Mental Health course I hadn't in my whole life ever told one single joke, Lynne. I believed that telling jokes would hurt somebody. Yes, I had a strict churchy family, and there was no black humour or blue jokes. Anything funny was read from the Good Book. But I could go on and on about my religious upbringing, but a way of summarising it is that I just couldn't beat fundamentalism because there was no fun and there was a whole lot of mentalism.

Lynne Malcolm: Before LuLu Joy started the Stand Up for Mental Health program, she joined Toastmasters, to help her speak out.

LuLu Joy: What I realised was that most people who go and do Toastmasters, their greatest fear is public speaking, and apparently, according to Jerry Seinfeld's research and it's my research as well, it's even a greater fear than the fear of death for most people. And to Jerry Seinfeld's take on that is, you know, most people if they go to a funeral would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy. And I quoted this, and then I said, but I am a little bit different than that, my greatest fear is that I don't stand up before I die and speak out. So my Jerry Seinfeld take on that is not only would I want to give the eulogy, but I'd knock on the casket and say, 'Move over, it's my turn now.'

Lynne Malcolm: So let's now go to the course. What did David get you to do and how did you first start?

LuLu Joy: After checking in about how we had been for the last week, he would then ask each one of us in turn, 'What you want to talk about?' And they were just these open questions. And everyone else seemed to have prepared already some setups and punchlines. LuLu though, all I did was tell long elongated stories, true stories about my background, all sad, really, really sad and tragic stuff.

Then what David would do and other comedian colleagues would then take something I'd say and make something funny out of it, except that for me, it was sort of like violent to me because they were trivialising my pain. I couldn't see anything funny in it at all. And then we started to learn about basic stand-up theory, and one of the things was you lead the audience in one direction, then you misdirect them into another, and that twist is where the funny is, right? And I'm thinking, but my whole life has just been all series of misdirections and there's no funny at all in it. So I was struggling, to say the least.

Lynne Malcolm: LuLu then went back to one of her friends from toastmasters to help her out.

LuLu Joy: So we spent many, many an hour work between classes, and I'd be telling him my stories, and he'd go, 'That's funny!' And I'd go, 'What's funny?' And he'd tell me my story back to me, and for the first time I would belly-laugh. And I was belly-laughing about me. And this was completely a new experience for me, it was the first time I'd laughed about anything in my past. And so I'd go back to class and I'd have a funny little take on something, and so I could very much more receive what was coming back and still loosely have my story and the follow-through which was so important to me.

Lynne Malcolm: As her first job LuLu joined the police force, and she's drawn on this experience for one of her comedy acts:

LuLu Joy: At 21 I wanted a calling, not just a career. I wanted to serve the community with justice and fairness and honour. So I joined the Victorian police force, in the 1980s. I'm in the police academy, and the drill sergeant is not happy. He's angry because women recruits are now allowed to work on the frontline, so he makes us girls train as hard as the boys. But it's really difficult to drink a case of VB in under three minutes.

So I've graduated top of the class. Well, in the photo anyway. My first undercover assignment and I'm standing on the street corner in the red light district, impersonating a sex worker. But it's really difficult when you are wearing ugg boots and trackie dacks. But finally a man does come up to me and he says, 'How much for oral?' And I said, 'I'm sorry sir, I don't do oral, I do verbals.' So we arrest him and take him to court. 'Constable Joy, in your experience, do you believe the defendant is telling the truth when he says he has never done this before?' 'I don't know, Your Honour, it was my first time too.'

Lynne, all of that is true.

Lynne Malcolm: Really?

LuLu Joy: Yes, all of that is true.

Lynne Malcolm: And so this has enabled you to be able to laugh at what you could never laugh at before.

LuLu Joy: Absolutely. What I actually came to during the course was that by definition there is no good in bad. So it was actually impossible for me to find the good in all of the bad in the past. But what was doable was to find the funny in the bad. And what I found was that comedy is not a bone, it is not a funny bone, it's a muscle, and what the course did was actually begin that comedic muscle for me. So I decided that I would practice trying to find something funny every day. What I realised was my whole life is an absolute reference for me being able to be funny for the rest of my life. I had so much material, half a century's worth at my disposal that I could find the funny in.

Lynne Malcolm: LuLu Joy.

You're with All in the Mind on RN, Radio Australia, and online as part of the ABC's Mental As campaign. I'm Lynne Malcolm. Today, we're standing up for mental health awareness with a few laughs.

Felicity Ward: I actually recently found out that a very common symptom of anxiety is the fear of losing control of your bowel or your bladder. I'm lucky enough to have both, double winner, don't be jealous. And what happens is the bowel is often referred to…I know this is a sexy subject…the bowel is often referred to as the second brain because it has over 100 million neurons on it, which is as many as there are in the head of a cat, which is obviously incredibly relevant. So what happens is when I'm having an attack, my first brain says, 'Oh, I think I'm about to fill my pants!' Whereas my second brain says, 'I am definitely about to fill my pants!' So…

Lynne Malcolm: Felicity Ward, an Australian stand-up comedian based in London. You may remember the documentary she did last year called Felicity's Mental Mission. The doco investigated the link between stand-up comedy and mental illness. Her depression and anxiety was not officially diagnosed until she was 30 years old.

Felicity Ward: My anxiety started initially as a panic that I was going to lose control of my bladder or bowel when I was on the bus when I was 13 years old, and that sounds like a really grim thing to open with, but the only reason I talk about it is because I was so embarrassed about it for so long and then I found out that that's a really common symptom of anxiety. So the anxiety existed anyway, but what my brain did was try and make sense of the anxiety, and so it would say, oh, you're going to wet yourself or you are going to lose control of yourself. And so then that became what I needed to solve. Rather than me thinking I had an anxiety disorder and I have to treat the anxiety, I thought all I need to do is treat this feeling of needing to go to the toilet, which then turns into compulsive behaviour.

Lynne Malcolm: And you started to use that in your stand-up comedy acts. How did you make that transition and I guess get the courage to turn that into something that people would laugh at?

Felicity Ward: Well, the thing that I've always had on my side is that…I don't want to say that I'm fearless because that sounds very courageous…I don't have a filter, I suppose is a much easier way to say it, I don't really have a filter, and honesty has always been a weapon that I suppose that I've had in my arsenal. It was something that I'd never seen talked about before on stage, so that's exciting, going, okay, I haven't seen people talk about compulsively going to the toilet on stage before, so at least I'm original.

Lynne Malcolm: And have you ever had an anxiety attack on stage in the middle of your performance?

Felicity Ward: Yes, that's when it got really bad, that's why I ended up going to the doctors, is because I was having panic attacks for the first 15 minutes of every show during 2010 Edinburgh Fringe, and that was terrifying. And when it started to jeopardise my career but also the thing that gave me so much joy, it started to taint that, and I considered stopping stand-up, which is such an easier way to deal with a mental illness; I don't have a mental illness, I've just got a stressful job.

Lynne Malcolm: So how did you come to be able to manage your anxiety better than?

Felicity Ward: It's an ongoing process. Firstly I went to a doctor and we did the mental health plan, which is a series of questions that they ask you…and I'm trying not to use jokes from my show. As I talk to you I'm like, don't be cheap Felicity, just talk mate, just talk!

Lynne Malcolm: Give us some jokes, we want jokes!

Felicity Ward: The joke that I say on the show is that they get you to fill out a questionnaire they ask you questions like 'how many times did you listen to Jeff Buckley this week', and 'do you feel sad when you get to the end of a sandwich'. And then I went to a counsellor, and the counsellor was terrible. You've got to find someone that works for you and you've got to find someone who's smarter than you, because inevitably when you go and see a therapist you will try to convince them that you don't need to see a therapist; 'Yeah, nah, look, I mean there was some childhood issues but altogether things are fine…', and then two weeks later you're like, 'And then when I was 12 years old…'

Lynne Malcolm: Felicity Ward has just done a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival called What if there's no toilet?, and she's bringing it to Australia this month. How does she turn this really uncomfortable anxiety into something for everyone to laugh at?

Felicity Ward: It took time just to tell people about it, because you feel like a freak, you think that no one else has it and you're doing these strange compulsive behaviours, or even the thoughts, you feel crazy, and even though it is insane it's actually common. So it took a while, four years, so it still took a little bit of…you know, they say that time plus tragedy equals comedy. But the other thing is, the only thing that separates crazy behaviour from being funny and shameful is talking about it or not talking about it. If I'm not talking about it then I feel shame about it, but if I'm talking about it and I take all the air out of the tyres, then it's up to me whether I decide whether it's funny or not.

Lynne Malcolm: So your humour is often very self-deprecating. Why does that work so well, do you think, for an audience?

Felicity Ward: For me it's just I can't hurt anyone else, because I can be pretty vicious, and if I'm being vicious about myself then at least I know that no one else is going to be hurt.

Lynne Malcolm: Do you ever feel that you just go too far with the rawness and the honesty and the upfrontness?

Felicity Ward: Yes, there's definitely been those nights. I think that this show in particular I had to work very, very hard on making it funny because if you don't live with a mental illness or if you haven't experienced it, then some of the ideas that I propose in the show could be very confronting. So there's a lot of things about mental health that are very funny, and I think, handled delicately enough, that it's actually really joyful and a great relief to be able to laugh at the insanity because that's where the shame comes is you go, oh, people think it's really heavy or people don't talk about it at all.

Once we know that it's safe to talk about it, we can say, you know, I walked out of the toilet cubicle and then someone else went into the toilet cubicle next to me so I pretended I was washing my hands, and then when I was sure they were in there I went over to the door and opened it to make it sound like I was leaving, and then I pretended I was someone else and went into another toilet cubicle. That's something I've done before and that is mental. I know that that is mental. But it's a real belief if you've experienced that to go, oh my God, I've done that as well and to create a space where people can laugh at insane behaviour.

It's really…for me it is so exciting and so liberating, and I know that…there were people who came to the show and they still weren't…afterwards I have these two pyramids of toilet paper on stage, and they get knocked over over the course of the show. So I'd have this massive cardboard box and I'd be packing up toilet paper rolls, and every now and again someone would just come and help me put a toilet paper roll away, and I think probably for 20% of those people it was them saying, thank you, I know what you're doing, I have the same thing, I can't say thank you verbally so I'll just put this little toilet paper away. It was just beautiful. And then there was plenty of nights where there was just a girl in the front row crying when everyone else had left.

There was one night and it was towards the end of the festival and I was really tired, and I got home one night and…I might not be a talk about this without crying. I was really tired and I went onto Facebook and I went onto the group page and there was a private message, and a woman was saying…she said, 'I saw your show two nights ago, and I had been ignoring the fact that I had crippling anxiety and I couldn't really leave the house, and I just wanted to say thank you because it brought to mine to the forefront and I'm writing this from a doctor's surgery now and I'm going to talk to someone.' So that stuff is kind of amazing. Pretty magical.

Ultimately I think that I'm making people laugh. I hope that I'm making people laugh! Sometimes I'm not. But I feel like there is much more pressing issues to do with mental health than what I am talking about. And when I was doing the documentary there are extraordinary statistics, like 50% of teenagers will have an experience with a mental illness. 50%! And if you change that word to 'cancer', I imagine that our reaction as a nation would be slightly different, and yet the same amount of people are affected by cancer as mental illness in Australia, and cancer receives three times the funding that mental health does, even though 50% of all teenagers go through it. I'm considering trying to do a show about statistics next on mental health, but we'll see if I can make that funny, I don't know.

Lynne Malcolm: That's a challenge.

Felicity Ward: Yeah, dry, it is dry in here!

Lynne Malcolm: Felicity Ward. Head to the All in the Mind website for details about her coming Australian shows and about Stand Up for Mental Health.

The ABC's Mental As programming this week can be found at, where you can also learn how to support mental health research.

Production today is by Diane Dean and Simon Branthwaite. I'm Lynne Malcolm, thanks for your company, catch you next time.

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation