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What Do You Call 15 Comics Sitting in a Circle?

By Jeff Kraemer
Network, Spring-Summer 2007

The patter, mixed with compliments on new haircuts, starts slowly and builds as the comics gather and take their seats on plastic chairs arranged in a circle.

It’s been a month since the last meeting of this group, and it seems the members are getting reacquainted and getting warmed up at the same time.

Carmine adjusts the microphone in its stand, and Beamer (‘as in Moonbeam’) seizes the opening: ‘Another person not well-adjusted!’

On this evening, there’s also a television news crew preparing a feature on the group, which uses a small meeting room at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario offices in Toronto. As the reporter attaches a microphone to Michael Cole, the facilitator, one of the group members, Stephen, asks, ‘Will that give him a jolt if he tells a bad joke?’

This is the graduate group of Stand Up for Mental Health, a program that teaches people to use stand-up comedy as part of their recovery from mood disorders. Stand Up for Mental Health is the brainchild of David Granirer, a Vancouver counsellor and comic and author of The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst Can Lead to Happiness and Success. Michael read an article about Granirer’s west coast program and proposed a pilot project in Toronto. Michael has written comedy all his life – he wrote a humour column for an Orillia newspaper, ran a comedy festival, created satirical roasts – and considers himself a humour coach. He started at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario as a client and became a facilitator and, incidentally, bears some resemblance to Peter Fonda. With support from the association, the first group met in 2005. It was a success, and another group followed, then another. The latest group will have its second meeting the day after this gathering of the graduate group, which includes alumni from all the previous classes.

Michael has the brisk-but-good-humoured air of someone seasoned at corralling 15 wisecrackers. To get the evening underway, he asks them to talk about how they’ve been since they met last month, and – what’s something funny to riff on? – what they’d do if they were prime minister for a day.

They each take a turn, rising from their seats in the circle to speak into the microphone in the corner, while the cameraman crouches in front of the mic for low-angle shots. There’s Carmine, Stephen, and Lee, who were part of the first class in 2005; there are some middle-aged women, including Sarah, who chats with me during a break about attending the University of Toronto; Linda, with her purposely mismatched shoes and purple-streaked hair; and Cathy, who walks in a bit late and asks the cameraman who he is. There’s white-bearded and bespectacled Beamer, who talks more than John and Ralph put together, and several younger women, Melissa, Gisela, Sari, and Lisa.

Beamer says that he just learned the consumer/survivor organization he works for will be closing. Gisela talks about celebrating an anniversary. Sarah declares that if she were prime minister for a day, she’d put all the people with bipolar disorder in charge. That draws an ovation.

Next, Michael walks them through a joke biology class, dissecting laugh lines. Perhaps as much for my benefit and that of the TV crew as for the class, he explains that a lot of jokes change the expectations of the audience. He pulls a cue card from his hard-backed brown briefcase and asks what’s funny about, say, this joke:

‘When driving to Buffalo last week, I really panicked waiting in the lineup to cross the border. Is that what they mean by borderline personality disorder?’

The group laughs, and Stephen and Beamer are first off the mark: ‘That just bordered on a joke,’ says Stephen, to which Beamer adds, ‘I was bored by that joke.’

‘So why’s that funny?’ Michael asks (referring to his joke, not the post-joke quips), and several group members point out the joke-crafting technique they learned in class, the play on words.

Michael tries another one:

‘In the phone book, there are 20 pages listing massage parlors and only one of psychiatrists. Maybe the psychiatrists are rubbing people the wrong way.’

The group members hoot, and Michael leads another serious discussion of how the joke functions, something like the way chefs talk about spices.

It’s time to test drive the new jokes. About half of the comics have one to run by the group, and Sari appears the most eager to go first. Michael suggests that her joke about a woman getting dental surgery – Dentist: ‘Don’t worry. It’s my first time too!’ – could stand to have its set-up trimmed to get to the punchline faster. (Beamer adds, ‘He’s turning her into a dental case,’ a joke that, based on its reception, might be what the group calls ‘a groaner.’)

Lee makes a joke about being a suicide blonde – ‘dyed by my own hand!’ – which gets a big laugh. And Carmine asks how you can tell the difference between the doctors and the patients at a mental hospital. ‘The patients are the ones who get better and go home.’

Beamer has three, but the biggest laugh is for his second: ‘My psychiatrist is cheap. For shock therapy he rubs his feet on the carpet and sticks his fingers in my ears.’ As he hits the laugh line, he rubs his feet on the floor and pokes his fingers into the air on either side of the mic, then shakes a little to drive it home. The group roars, and someone cries, ‘Love it! Love it!’

Completing the 14-week Stand Up for Mental Health course requires ‘a commitment,’ according to Stephen, one of the first graduates. ‘And when you’re not feeling well, it’s hard to make a commitment.’

Stephen has gone from being a working doctor to a non-working patient, a transition he calls ‘a very big pill to swallow.’ Along with the challenges that came along with his role change, he ran into ‘other bits of tragedy.’ He says he was withdrawing socially, and found that Stand Up for Mental Health helped him emerge in ‘a very good, healthy, safe way, in a peer group that’s non-competitive and encouraging.’ He calls the group part of his therapy, his ‘laughter therapy,’ and recalls the words of King Solomon: Laughter doeth good like a medicine. ‘There’s real wisdom in that,’ he adds.

While he’s soft-spoken and thoughtful in a one-on-one interview, Stephen acknowledges that he feeds off the energy of the group, and he clearly loves making a room full of people laugh. More importantly, he says, he feels useful fighting the stigma around mental illness.

Stephen saw an advertisement for the program in the waiting room of his psychotherapist’s office. The others say they heard about it here and there – some through the Mood Disorders office, others in a consumer/survivor newsletter. Stand Up for Mental Health is also promoted in hospitals, psychiatric wards, doctor’s offices and day treatment centres. ‘And we post in washrooms,’ Michael adds. ”If you’re not feeling well mentally, for a good time, call Michael.”

While the TV crew interviews a couple of members in the hallway, I conduct a group interview, waving the recorder toward whoever’s talking. It goes as smoothly as simultaneously interviewing 15 comics can go:

How do you feel when you get offstage?

‘Like you’ve been on a Disney ride,’ one says. ‘You want to get right back in line again.’

‘You enjoyed that you’ve shared something with someone else that might’ve lifted their spirits.’

‘I head straight for the bathroom.’ (Laughter)

‘Cause your jokes were in the toilet?’ (Even more laughter)

‘I’m feeling a little flushed about that.’

How do you come up with new material?

Melissa, one of the younger group members, says, ‘Once you get the hang of the structure of making a joke – taking facts and thinking of a twist that’s funny – you can take any fact and make a joke about it, and the more traumatic or depressing it is the funnier it can be, right?’

How did you feel the first time you had to make a joke about your experiences with mental illness?

It’s easy and hard at the same time, says Beamer, ‘because there’s a lot of suffering involved in this. I mean, this isn’t fun to start with; we’re making it fun because we gotta make it fun. ‘Cause if you don’t laugh you’re going to cry…. What we have all been through, it’s all different – every person in the room and all the other people [in the group] who didn’t make it here tonight for whatever reason, all have their own unique response. It might be the same diagnosis but their use of it, so to speak, their experience of it, they’re all completely different and there are a lot of tears involved.’ Mental illness isn’t funny, he says – but it’s hilarious.

Michael, who’s been leaning back in his chair, taking in the group’s high energy, adds, ‘They say that endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. When you laugh, it releases endorphins. In fact, I just released one right now.’ BA-DUMP!

How do audiences respond to this?

‘They love it.’

‘Of course, they’re nuts.’

Another group member says that they performed at the Whitby Mental Health Centre in front of staff and patients – they usually perform in front of staff – ‘and the patients related so much and they laughed so much. For them it was therapeutic to laugh about their own situations.’

Michael notes that they’ve been doing shows in front of somewhat supportive audiences, but his long-term goal is to take the group to a wider audience, maybe even take it on the road and do shows across Ontario. They’re always looking for new bookings.

‘I just wish that the whole general public could see this,’ says Melissa, ‘because there is a myth that someone who has a mental illness looks a certain way. With the diversity in this room alone, and to see us capable of doing this and being genuinely funny, it would be a great way to break down a lot of prejudice.’

Later, as people gather their coats and chat with each other about their lives and whether or not their material worked that night, Linda will tell me, ‘When you’re down, when you’re depressed and you just can’t even get out, being involved in this course gets you up and gets you out. You can be really depressed when you get here, but you’re in with a good lot. We’re together like a family. We all make jokes – it’s amazing how it just comes spontaneously – and it takes you out of your depression. And then it gives you self-esteem and confidence. And doing stand-up comedy for other people gives them hope – that if we can do it, they can do it too. I think that’s a really valuable message to give to people: let’s turn this around and fight the stigma with laughter.’

As the evening winds down and the TV crew wraps up, Michael sorts out who will take part in two upcoming showcases in Toronto – one at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, another at a Parkdale community centre. He names the dates and times and people check their schedules. Some, clearly disappointed, can’t make it. Michael reminds everyone that there are only so many spaces on a billing; those who get the places should let him know as soon as possible if something comes up so one of the other comics can take the gig. Of those who can make it, Michael writes their names on paper scraps to draw from Beamer’s hat. There are only a few spots, and everyone wants to get in on the act.

To book Stand Up for Mental Health in Ontario, contact Michael Cole atmichaeldavidcole@sympatico.ca or 416-285-7125. For more information on David Granirer and the program he created, seewww.standupformentalhealth.com.

Jeff Kraemer is the e-content developer for CMHA Ontario.


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