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Comedians use humor to heal at Mental Health Comedy Hour

on October 1, 2019

Oakland comedian Kelly Anneken says she identifies as a “triple A”— alcoholic, anorexic and anxious. 

“Stand-up comedy,” she said in a performance last week, “is everybody’s last resort before suicide or grad school.” 

Suicide, of course, isn’t everybody’s idea of comedy, but Anneken’s audience, there for the Mental Health Comedy Hour, laughed. Founded earlier this year by two local comedians struggling with depression and anxiety, the monthly show is the only one of its kind in the Bay Area, and is part of a larger phenomenon of comedians using personal mental health experiences as comedy material. Experts like Pepperdine University professor and clinical psychologist Steven M. Sultanoff say humor can be healing, and Comedy Hour pairs stand-up routines with talks from mental health professionals to help drive that message home.

Local comedians and Mental Health Comedy Hour co-founders Wonder Dave and Kristee Ono launched their first show at Oakland’s All Out Comedy Theater in January. Now, they host monthly performances there, as well as quarterly ones at DNA’s Comedy Lab in Santa Cruz. Guest comedians with bipolar disorder, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bulimia and other conditions perform along with the hosts. The show is modeled after late-night talk shows—albeit with ground rules and personal confessions.

Comedy show co-founders, one woman and one man, sit at a table onstage sharing news.
Kristee Ono and Wonder Dave joke about current mental health news at the top of the show. Photo by Anne Daugherty

“We’re not okay. We’re telling you now, not okay,” Wonder Dave said at the top of a recent show. “We didn’t start the Mental Health Comedy Hour without a reason. And that’s okay.”

The show’s opener brings to mind comedian Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast, which he describes as a place for honesty “about all the battles in our heads” and something “like a waiting room, that doesn’t suck.” Gilmartin debuted the show in 2011 and listeners from all over the world tune in to hear him speak frankly about his own mental health issues. Wonder Dave and Ono said they were inspired by comedian Maria Bamford, who uses her experiences with bipolar depression and hospitalization as material for her stand-up routines. Bamford encourages others to find humor in their pain and talks openly about her own experiences and what worked for her.

Ono does the same.

“As a kid, I was a cutter,” Ono said to the audience. “I was a teenage girl in the ‘90s: It was the law.”

Woman sitting in chair onstage interviewing guest comedians.
How’s your mental health? The show’s hosts begin each interview with that question.
Photo by Anne Daugherty

Wonder Dave is just as unapologetic. “Did you not want to hear jokes about suicidal ideation and depression and stress and anxiety? Then, I’m so sorry. Mistakes have been made,” he said.

Humor, of course, is subjective, and it’s hard to measure its effects on mental health. But studies suggest laughter does ease the pain of some mental illnesses. Sultanoff said there are two components of humor which influence mental health: “mirth” lifts emotions, while “wit” defines how the brain processes thoughts. Together, they can help reduce negative thinking associated with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.

At this show, Anneken performed alongside comedian Tirumari Jothi, a self-defined “nerd” who joked about his social anxiety and the complexity that cultural barriers add. Jothi said that when he took a depression diagnostic survey and scored 29 out of 30, he couldn’t tell his parents.

“I know what they’d say: They’d be like, ‘[you scored] 29 out of 30? You should be thinking about suicide four to five times a day!” Jothi said.

Wonder Dave and Ono interviewed Oakland-based mental health patient advocates and authors L.D. Green and Kelechi Ubozoh. The pair edited the recently published We’ve Been Too Patient: Voices from Radical Mental Health—Stories and Research Challenging the Biomedical Model, a collection of personal accounts and research about traumatic psychiatric experiences.

Author Chris Anastasia writes, in one chapter, about their treatment as a teen under a Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist in the 1990s. They write that their medical records show from ages 12 to 16 they were on 16 different medications. Their psychiatrist was later disciplined for accepting large sums from pharmaceutical companies, they wrote.

Ubozoh said “the system is the problem, not the people,” during the onstage interview.

Ubozoh and Green worked closely with the book’s contributors to help them share their experiences“They’ve been patient with a broken system for too long,” Green said.

Anneken’s routine included jokes about battling eating disorders for most of her life. When asked, as a child, what she wanted to be when she grew up, Anneken deadpanned, “anorexic!”

Her mother’s response? “Kelly, sweetheart, you don’t have that kind of willpower.”

The audience groaned. “She was right. She was right,” Anneken said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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