Comics Talk Mental Health Struggles, Seeking Therapy at Just For Laughs Festival

Byron Bowers-Getty-H 2019
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"I don't go to therapy. I fill a room full of people and talk about things," 'The Chi' star Byron Bowers told a panel on the link between comedy and depression.

Hollywood's biggest stand-up talent on Friday got off the therapist couch to tell a Just For Laughs Festival panel how they cope with depression and anxiety disorders and turn their mental health struggles into one-liners.

"I don't go to therapy. I fill a room with people and talk about these things, and sometimes its funny and sometimes it's fearful," Byron Bowers, who plays Meldrick on Showtime's The Chi and stars in the upcoming feature Honey Boy, said of turning the pain of life with a paranoid schizophrenic father into one-liners.

There's nothing new in stand-up comics dishing on their mental health struggles, but only recently have they begun to talk openly about seeking therapy and inner peace, rather than give in to thoughts of despair and even suicide.

Comedy writers and actors Keith and Kenny Lucas, known for their Netflix stand-up special The Lucas Bros: On Drugs and as recurring characters on the Lady Dynamite series, recounted being in a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol addiction before finally sitting down for therapy sessions, together.

"We didn't want to pay twice for the same story," Keith Lucas said of sharing the therapist couch with his twin.

U.K.-based comic and actress Felicity Ward, a regular on BBC radio and TV shows and who struggles with anxiety and depression, said the stand-up comedy business is surprisingly accommodating to those with mental health issues. "With lots of regular jobs, if you turn up and say, 'I'm off my meds today,' they'll say we don't want to know or we don't have a plan for that. If you turn up to a gig and say, 'I'm off my meds,' they're cool, and say you're on in three minutes," Ward told the Just For Laughs panel.

But in an entertainment industry where the connection between comedy and depression is recognized, the suicides of successful stars like Freddie Prinze, Robin Williams, Richard Jeni and Brody Stevens after mental health struggles in silence still surprises.

Courtney Gilmour, whose breakout performance at the 2017 Just For Laughs festival won her the homegrown comics competition that year, told the panel stand-up comics like herself often hide insecurity, depression and even suicidal thoughts while at the height of success, even as they reveal all else onstage.

"I had crippling anxiety and depression during times I felt I was doing really well. I felt so guilty. Who am I, to get what I've wanted my whole life, and I feel sad?" Gilmour said of her inner struggles with mental health issues.

For other stand-up talent, healing calls for shedding the industry's sad-clown paradox to being more honest, and accepting, with the issues they face.

Solomon Georgio, who appeared on HBO’s Two Dope Queens and was a finalist of NBC’s Stand Up for Diversity, said struggling with anxiety and other identity issues is a "mental juggling act" that needn't end in calamity. "If I drop the ball, I don't say fuck anymore. You don't have to take it all on. You can set something down and be okay," Georgio told the panel.