Famous People


Funny people are often depressed. Vonnegut is a case study.

by John McManamy


OLD JOKE: A guy with severe depression seeks out a therapist. He’s lonely, feels hopeless, and views life as cruelly unfair. He has no idea how others cope. The therapist has the perfect solution. She advises her patient that the great stand-up comic, the Laughmeister, is in town. Just laughing to the Laughmeister, she explains, can work wonders.

The man bursts into tears. “But doctor,” he says. “I am the Laughmeister.”

A version of this joke leads off an article in The Huffington Post, Do You Have to Be Depressed to Be Funny? The author, comic Bruce Clark, writes:

Intuitive comedians see the world through their very own looking glass. We have an innate ability for spotting the absurdities, the injustices, and the futilities of the world and crafting them into humor.

He also serves up this sobering observation: “I personally know half a dozen comics who have committed suicide in the last several years.”

A Wikipedia list of famous people with depression lists 23 comedians, including Jim Carrey, Conan O’Brien, and the late Robin Williams. This does not include writers who are funny and one US President.

Joshua Shenk, in his 2005 book Lincoln’s Melancholy, notes that the 16th President used humor as a way to cope with his unremitting depression, often interrupting meetings to read something he found hilarious. Lincoln was also a master of his own brand of humor. Here’s a gem cited by Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker:

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln replied, referencing his homeliness, “Honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?”

In 2012, I self-published a memoir with this back-cover blurb: “When you’re both depressed and crazy, life has a way of becoming hilarious.”  For instance:

Life, unfortunately, doesn't come with a manual, and the tech support is a joke. Seriously, when has God—or St Aloysius, even—ever gotten back to you? Is it too much for God to stop what He is doing for just one second and tell me that the vital piece of hardware I dropped on the floor—the one I desperately need to assemble my counter extender from IKEA—rolled under the refrigerator?


Yes, some of my funny side comes from being crazy (what psychiatrists refer to as the manic side of bipolar), but what really drives my humor is depression. I’m an outsider, the world makes absolutely no sense to me, and somehow this is funny. 

Take the way most people deal with the DMV: They breathe through it. They move on. Nothing funny whatsoever. For me, a simple visit brings on an existentialist crisis. There is no such thing as routine. I know this for a fact. I am in recovery from yesterday’s visit.

Depression, when it overwhelms us, is not funny. Life, when it overwhelms us, is not funny. Too often, I find myself on the verge of tears just trying to cope with the ordinary. When I’m really down, I often find myself saying, “One day I’ll laugh at this.” 

Crazy thing, that one day comes along, and there I am, laughing.

Which brings us to our main character ...

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."  - Kurt Vonnegut.

For practically all my adult life, Vonnegut was the writer I tried to pretend to be. The literary snobs ignored him and tried to put him down. But that’s because they didn’t know what to do with a pure original, someone with way too much imagination and wisdom and humanity for his own good, with a dark and wicked sense of humor who, incidentally, could write rings around the best of them.

Like many in my generation, I first came across Vonnegut while in college. Despite what conservative commentators would like us to think, this was an era of unprecedented social change and enlightenment. The sixties and early seventies was a time of some of our worst stupidities – such as the Vietnam war, the drug culture, crass materialism, and bad guitar solos – along with our greatest accomplishments, including civil rights, women’s rights, the moon landing, environmentalism, and spiritual awakening.

It was an era driven by youth who were at once disaffected and visionary, and by their enlightened parents. For one brief shining moment, many of us saw the world as it could be, united in an indefinable sense of higher purpose. How stupid was that? Naturally, the forces of darkness prevailed.  

So it goes.

But not without a few major concessions.

Vonnegut spoke to us, spoke to me in particular.

He wrote about the end of the world, the extinction of the human race, the horrors of war, the consequences of greed, the insufferable pain of life, and the folly of pretending that we control our own fate. In Vonnegut’s world, man was a helpless creature, caught up in events not of his own making, immobilized and skewered in crazy and bizarre paradoxes and ironies that only some cosmic Machiavelli could have masterminded.

And somehow he managed to chronicle his dark side while being incredibly funny. In one short story, he wrote about purple-roofed suicide parlors located right next to orange-roofed Howard Johnsons.

But no true cynic is a cynic through-and-through. Scratch down deep enough and you will find a boundless optimist. Cynics are only the way they are because they have been to the mountain and have seen the Promised Land. They are frustrated because they are at the mercy of idiotic people who are homesick for slavery in Egypt and are too stupid to navigate their way out of the desert.

Vonnegut once suggested carving the following message for flying saucers flying over our doomed planet: "We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard... and too damned cheap."

So it goes.

Vonnegut was depressed throughout his life. Despite the great fame he would achieve, in 1984 he attempted suicide, then joked how he botched the attempt. Mental illness was a constant in his family. His mother committed suicide, his father was depressed, and his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Vonnegut’s defining moment occurred when, as a prisoner of the Germans in World War II, British bombers leveled Dresden in a firestorm that resulted in more deaths (at least immediately) than Hiroshima. Shut up in an underground meat locker with other POWs as the bombs fell, Vonnegut literally felt the world tremble. He and his fellow prisoners emerged into an alien moonscape, devoid of life.

So it goes.

It was the kind of sight no young man should have to see, that no one should have to see. The young POW would not let the world forget. He would write.

We often outgrow our young loves. Because Vonnegut was so easy to read, I thought that I would eventually dismiss him as the kind of unlettered hack his critics made him out to be. But just the opposite occurred. As I grew older, Vonnegut grew better. With each re-reading, his works proved as provocatively delightful as my first encounters, with new meanings and deeper levels of appreciation.

There are two novels that are masterpieces of war, and by extension secular holy books. One is Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The other is Vonnegut’s “Slaughter-house Five.”

The first would be too heavy to take aboard as carry-on luggage. The second is nearly as short as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. All three – Tolstoy, Vonnegut, and Lincoln – were true saints, whose incredible humanity imbued them with a transcendence that never rang false. But Vonnegut would be the first to dispute this honor, so perhaps we should simply refer to him as a heroic grouch. I think he would be happy with that.

God bless you, Mr Vonnegut.

First published as a two blogs, 2007 and 2013, reworked into an article Jan 27, 2016.


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