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Title: Young Woman Seeks Comedian with Bipolar Disorder for Imagined Friendship

by Daisy-Kate | in writing, non-fiction, articles

It’s terribly difficult to befriend a dead celebrity.

Spike Milligan and I would have been best friends, you see. If only he were still alive. I would adore him for his grandfatherly mischief. He’d find my clumsy femininity charming. We would sit side by side in armchairs, tatty velvet thrones. We’d speak in riddles, sing in harmony and laugh into the silence. We would write skits, Spike and I, to fill the space between depression and ourselves.

I only discovered Spike in the last few months. I stumbled across his name on the internet; a chance meeting. The more I read about him the stronger my belief became that we should be buddies. His family came to Australia from the UK, he had Celtic roots. He wrote sketch comedy and dabbled in nonsensical poetry. He had Bipolar Disorder. So do I, so do I, so do I.

By the time I knew he existed, he’d been gone a good six years. I felt an odd sort of grief; post-mortem celebrity worship. My hopes of friendship with this famous lark were slashed before I could even youtube The Goons. My fingers hovered over the letters on my keyboard, wishing I could find a hyperlink somewhere on Google to befriend deceased comedians I felt a special affinity with.

If Spike – may his funny, funny soul rest in peace – cannot be my partner-in-comedy, I will have to find another celebrity to befriend from afar. I’m not looking for hollow hero-worship. I will not be seen screaming like a banshee at a concert and I will not loiter around the red carpet. What I’m looking for is a much deeper, albeit fictional, connection. I need someone to look up to. Someone who can prove to me that bipolar disorder is not a curse and that humour can be a salvation.

More specific criteria for this pretend-friend of mine include spontaneity, an uncouth sense of humour and peculiar body language. They will be wildly talented. They will be brave in their career choices. They will not appear in gossip magazines.
The candidates - bless them - will never even know if they make the cut.

Robin Williams, John Cleese, Ben Stiller, Jim Carey and Stephen Fry are on my shortlist. Some of these men have been open about their illness, some have not. For my purposes, it doesn’t matter. Their absurd and frenzied performances remind me of mania. They echo the rushing, thrashing, unstoppable highs I’ve felt. If someone knows what it’s like be in emotional freefall, flailing about in manic confusion, they can draw on that for performance. If they cannot call upon mania itself, they can recreate its rollicking energy. Audiences love it. Think of Robin Williams doing stand-up, he leaps from idea to idea like a toddler on speed. Think of Jim Carey’s malleable face, his expression can be happy and terrifying at once.

These prestigious larrikins have struggled as I have, darted like I have between elation and devastation. Therefore I feel I’m more qualified to consider these men my allies than ordinary, chemically balanced folk. We are comrades in mania. It’s easy for me to fabricate a friendship based on common mental illness, not mere fandom.

It is comforting to be in such good company but it’s also a hefty promise that madness brings great success. It’s a promise made again and again in literature on mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder. A curious fellow by the name of Arnold Ludwig, who I can only imagine wears tweed and wiry bifocals, wrote a book on the subject called The Price of Greatness. He claims to be able to predict the ‘greatness’ of someone based on their early experiences and their mental state. Effectively he encourages a strange sort of elitism where depression is a prerequisite for creative success.
Ludwig agrees with me that ‘mental disturbances may serve as inspiration for people and provide them with the raw material for what they later choose to express’. How useful, to have a stash of bleak and euphoric moments to draw on for entertainment. How noble, how admirable, these people who channel their woes into creativity. In a manic state, people may feel as godly as this, but it’s transitory. What goes up must come down, Mr Ludwig. In a depressed state, there is only gloom. The energy or creativity bipolar brings with it are but consolation prizes for a life of emotional uncertainty.

It’s a consolation prize that can mean professional success, but only if you can market your madness effectively. The performer who can translate the chaos of mania into safe and acceptable images for public consumption will make a good living. A comedian provides people with a glimpse – no more, no less – into mental disarray.

Katy-Sara Culling says that ‘bipolar disorder is not linked with comedy; the actions of some people with it are – and that’s different. Many people just suffer’. She is a psychiatrist and author from Oxford. She works for the Equilibrium Bipolar Foundation, for which Stephen Fry is ambassador. She says that ‘mania brings with it courage and self-assurance, but those attributes may actually be lacking’. It is this tricksy union of great confidence and crippling insecurity that can make mania terrifying and lonely.

Another way to envisage this is in the comedy/tragedy mask, the symbol for theatre. The performing arts have long tried to encompass the extremes of human emotion, but the comic and the tragic are more entwined than ever in the bipolar entertainer.

I spoke to Australian comedian Rick Moon* about his manic inspiration. His stand-up routines are as volatile as his moods and his level of disdain for the audience depends very much on which night you see him perform. His material can get very dark, very absurd, very disjointed. There’s something captivating and awkwardly hilarious about watching someone writhe about in precarious angst – because he’s invited you to. He is at once vulnerable, confronting and wild. His despondency is almost vulgar, his material both alienating and comforting. His manic-depressive behaviour is almost immediately identifiable to a fellow bipolar sufferer, and I become fascinated with his skewed comedy.

Comedians have licence to talk about all sorts of taboo subjects, because anything offensive is under the auspice of humour. Fat jokes, anti-Semitic jokes and vagina jokes only really work when delivered by fatties, Jews and women respectively. The same rule seems to apply to cracks about mental illness; it’s self deprecation at its rawest. Rick Moon’s manic routines sometimes end with him sobbing. Sometimes he drinks his way through the night. Sometimes he accosts audience members. This kind of behaviour can be really appealing to anyone who can recognise an element of their own disillusionment in Rick. He gets away with joking about mental illness, death and pain because it genuinely occupies his mind; it’s honest and it’s the blend of comedy and tragedy people want in a comedian.

The self-described anti-hero of his own life, Rick’s career depends very much on his chemicals. Mania brings frenzied productivity, fantastic ideas and boundless enthusiasm. Depression brings listless monotony, painful self-doubt and morbidity. Entertainers are in an unstable profession as it is, without the impulsive forays between happy and sad. Rick is in a dry spell when we meet, he’s fossicking about for ideas but he just can’t write anything. He waits for the mania to come; he knows it will bring creativity with it. When it finally does he writes to me saying ‘Woo! I love it when it (the mania) comes and kisses you on the forehead and you break open’.

As I write this Rick has locked himself in his room transcribing the past four months of gigs. He is as prolific now as he was uninspired before. He writes pages and pages, some of it incoherent as his scribbling hand tries to keep up with his thoughts. ‘I guess before I was running on a horizontal line but now I’m all spread out like an irregular cobweb stretching off in multiple directions’, he says. His mind is in high speed and he’s running with it, grasping at ideas when he can. He needs less sleep, he imagines things that aren’t there; he’s frenzied. But he’s writing. And for someone whose livelihood and passion relies entirely on his comedy and his creativity, that’s lucky.

Together Rick and I have just about written a manifesto on manic creativity. We’ve had a rally of 23 epic emails, sharing some of our most private hypotheses on mental illness. It’s really the first time I’ve spoken to someone else with bipolar disorder. We build on each other’s revelations, like Jenga blocks, he says. And suddenly Spike Milligan is just Spike Milligan. He’s a wonderful performer, but I don’t need to project my desire for companionship in my illness onto him. Misery does love company, but it’s so much more constructive to find that in someone who is alive.

Communicating with someone else with bipolar disorder is very funny. We ebb in and out of mania and depression, we’re vague and incredibly abstract. We speak in lyrics and jokes; we construct our immediate friendship like an absurdist sketch. One day Rick says to me ‘my head’s been humming a ghostly tune that I need to snatch out of the air before it evaporates’. I often speak about bipolar in a mythical, ethereal way like this. There’s something very calming about describing an intangible feeling poetically. If that ghostly tune can be filtered into a joke or a gimmick or a story, it’s like defeating it. To give depression a punch line is to spit in the face of Despair.

Sometimes I think maybe mania is a superpower, and we're able to have these lucid insights into the way the world actually is or should be, without the congestion of all our mediocrity. I can't tell if it's an offshoot of manic thinking, an overactive imagination or a way to deal with something that could otherwise be shameful. What other illnesses are ever given credit for enabling genius? What if someone with bipolar wants their life to be mundane and they never aspire to be Edgar Alan Poe or Virginia Woolf or Spike Milligan?

Ah, Spike. Lovely, lurid, musical Spike. Clever Spike. Funny Spike. Spike the Manic. Spike the Tortured Soul. Spike the Funny Man. He will be my bygone hero, enshrined in film and print. Like my own darling grandfather, I will respect and admire him though mortality keeps us apart. In the interests of real friendship, I will stop chasing celebrities to keep me company in bipolar.

Mania is the smallest Babushka, screaming from inside layers of wooden doll. It is for me, anyway. I’ve written an absurd sketch in which Russian women of decreasing size try to climb inside one another.

Mania is a date with a pineapple. It is to Rick, anyway. He has the beginnings of a sketch scrawled on paper in which he woos a pineapple; the most hostile of the fruits. We write sketches we write routines we write jokes, Rick and I, to fill the space between depression and ourselves.

*Name has been changed. Please note that this is not because he is ashamed of having bipolar disorder; it is more because the candid, serious insights he makes here may undermine his comedic persona. In his profession, you can’t afford to risk being taken too seriously.

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A personal essay about using sketch comedy to manage Bipolar Disorder. Starting with an imagined friendship with Spike Milligan, ending in a genuine connection with a manic contemporary, the article charts my clumsy introspective wisdom in dealing with mental illness.

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