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Comic mania can mask darkness with joy

Robin Williams in 2006.

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Robin Williams in 2006.

The job of a comedian is to weave ups and downs into art, to fill a dimly lit room with colorful anecdotes and banish silence with laughter.

When it’s done well, jokes spin from the tongue into venues too raucous for anyone in the audience to think of the performer’s life off-stage. But the suicide of Robin Williams has stopped the comedy world like a broken glass in a barroom, spawning uncomfortable questions about the connection between the business of humor and mental illness.

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“It’s hard to pin down what is mania and what is creative genius, and what is the line between those two things,” said Mike Daisey, a monologist and Maine native who has struggled with depression. “I don’t know myself. I don’t know if anyone does.”

Williams, 63, suffered from severe depression before his death, according to his publicist. When in full entertainment mode, he displayed traits in his acting, television interviews, and stand-up routines that seemed manic, causing some psychologists to speculate that he had bipolar disorder, which brings exuberant, frenetic highs along with dark, paralyzing lows.

“People may be shocked by how a person like Williams can elicit such joy in others while besieged by such torment and pain,” said a Boston psychologist, Monica O’Neal.

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Whether having a gift for humor makes a person particularly prone to mood instabilities remains a matter of debate.

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in January examined 523 American, British, and Australian comedians’ personality self-assessment tests and found that the comics scored significantly higher than the general population — and even slightly higher than a group of actors — for psychotic traits such as magical thinking, difficulty focusing, reduced ability to experience social and physical pleasure, and impulsivity.

Such a combination of manic and depressive personality traits could explain comedic talents, the authors concluded, but might also suggest a tendency toward bipolar disorder.

“There is a question of whether the entertainment world rewards some level of behavior that’s not normal,” said Peter McGraw, a psychology and marketing professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and coauthor of “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.”

“I marvel at the level of energy needed by performers — especially in comedy — to make it, including travel demands, long work hours, competition, and the pressure to stay on top,” he said.

Rob Crean, who runs the Boston sketch-and-promotion group Anderson Comedy, said that in some cases “the illness is necessary for the art.”

“This type of work kind of draws people who maybe don’t fit into the normal way that you’re supposed to interact with society,” Crean said.

Other gifted comedians have spoken about their struggles with bipolar disorder, including Jonathan Winters, one of Williams’s closest friends.

In a post on the website Time.com, comedian Jim Norton wrote: “The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.”

Artists with bipolar disorder may find that their mania can help them perform creatively and accomplish all their work demands, at least up to a point, said Dr. Gary Sachs, founding director of the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Very few people feel great at a high level of mania,” he said. Instead, he said, they feel irritable, trapped, angry, and out of control.

Daisey, the monologist, said society is too quick to categorize people as either happy or sad, sick or well, to easily reconcile mental illness with celebrity success. But Williams’s death shows that those talents “actually come from the same well that darkness comes from.”

“If you loved Robin’s work, then you loved something that was inextricably bound to what ended his life,” Daisey said.

Some psychologists speculate that an unhappy childhood is the thread connecting comedians with depression, that many cultivated their humor skills early in life to cope with life’s tragic events and help mask their mental anguish.

Williams had said in interviews that he was bullied by his peers for being overweight and often played by himself; his classmates voted him funniest but least likely to succeed.

“Comedians often were placed in a special niche in their childhood, and they used humor as a tool to come out of that, likely as a vehicle to more popularity,” said Gil Greengross, an anthropologist at Concordia University in Montreal.

While medications and a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can provide successful long-term management for about 90 percent of bipolar disorder patients, many stop treatment once their symptoms subside, which can cause a relapse.

Regardless of mental health, stand-up comedy forces performers to manage difficult emotional swings, said Wes Hazard, a Boston comic. They can be in a room full of people who are laughing one minute, he said, only to find themselves in a quiet car on a long ride home soon after.

“When comedy’s going really well onstage it’s fantastic, and there are few things more thrilling than that,” Hazard said.

“But of course that ends very quickly.”

Zachary T. Sampson
can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZackSampson. Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

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