The darker side of comedy

Behind the scenes depression and what to do about it

Sometimes a hidden sadness can lurk behind the happiest of faces. Vera Anderson/Getty Images

Sometimes the people who are the best at bringing smiles to others' faces are actually suffering inside. It is well known that countless comedians over the years have struggled with addiction, depression, and other forms of mental illness. Just think of two of the funniest stars from Saturday Night Live: John Belushi and Chris Farley, whose lives ended too early because of their own battles with addiction.

Robin Williams is another comedian whose life ended in suicide. His outward joy and laughter was unable to outweigh his internal suffering.

Don't forget the funny people who aren't famous

Many people exist who happen to be exceptionally funny even if they are not comedians. Depression, addiction and other forms of mental illness do not discriminate and only touch the lives of celebrities. Though we frequently see the spotlight shining on the celebrities whose lives tragically end from overdoses or suicide, they are a representation of countless others who struggle in silence, often behind laughter and smiles.

Dr. Deborah Serani is a clinical psychologist who has experienced depression herself and works with performers with mental illness. She notes that comedy is a "counter-phobic" response to the tragic depression that many funny people experience. Behind the smile is someone who is coping with dark sadness.

While not all funny people are depressed, many more may be struggling than you realize. Think of funny people in your life: You never know what their experience might be within.

When depression is hidden

Obvious signs of depression include staying in bed all day, crying, and generally seeming sad. Depression, however, is not always obvious.

Many people suffer with their depression in silence, often hiding behind smiles and laughter. Depression can cause people to withdraw and isolate themselves. Despite the pains of loneliness, depression can make a compelling case against truly connecting to others.

Depression can also be masked by addiction. Addiction is one way that many people use to cope with depression. Whether the addiction is a substance, food, work, or something else, it takes center stage in someone's life. The addiction may temporarily help someone feel that they are escaping depression, but it the depression is always lurking in the background, and is often only exacerbated by the addiction. 

Someone who is depressed may also seem angry and irritable, and may be written off as a jerk. This person may not even be aware that he is depressed, but is suffering on some level.

The bottom line is to never judge a person by appearances. Sometimes those who seem to be the least likely candidates for depression are the ones suffering in silence.

Depression is serious

It has been said that the strongest risk factor of suicide is depression, with fifteen percent of lives touched by clinical depression ending in suicide. While everyone has experienced a sad mood or perhaps even have claimed to feel "depressed" at times, clinical depression is a chronic illness that not only impacts one's mood, but one's thoughts and physiology as well. It is extremely difficult to understand the depths of pain of one who experiences severe depression without going through it directly or indirectly through a close connection with someone.   

What to do if you suspect a loved may be facing depression in silence?

Stay close to them. Offer some empathy, as this may help someone feel more comfortable to divulge more information about his or her experience. It is crucial to remain non-judgmental. Someone who is depressed typically already judges themselves harshly, and will not open up to someone who is judgmental. Remain genuinely curious, caring and patient. Be a good listener, and help your loved one shed the destructive mask that depression so frequently has people put on.


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a confidential free hotline that is run by trained and skilled crisis counselors and operates 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It is not only for people who are considering suicide, but is available to anyone who is in crisis of any kind, ranging from economic problems to loneliness.

Psychotherapy and sometimes psychotropic medication are also options that have helped many people cope with depression and sometimes overcome it. 


Serani, D. (2011). Living with depression: Why biology and biography matter along the path to healing. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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