In late February, Japan appointed a Minister of Loneliness to their Cabinet in response to a spike in suicide rates—especially among women—during the pandemic. Ever since, I’ve wondered about the fact that it took a pandemic and a spate of suicides for us (well, only the UK and Japan so far) to acknowledge the idea that perhaps there is more to a country than the sum total of the goods and services it produces in a year. Maybe, the measure of development should also account for the mental well-being of a country’s citizens, not just their economic productivity.
Of course, increasing the GDP is a more tangible and practicable goal for a country’s bureaucracy and political class than intangibles like happiness and mental health. Thankfully, comedians are there to pick up the slack. Throughout the history of standup comedy, we’ve had artists willing to break the taboo and speak openly and honestly about their mental health struggles, right from Richard Pryor and Robin Williams to Dave Chappelle, Michael Che, Maria Bamford and many others.
Performing comedy, as Robin Williams once put it, “is cheaper than therapy”. The public admission and dissection of personal unhappiness and dissatisfaction hopefully becomes a starting point for change that catalyses our ideas about mental health and well-being. And it is their honesty and willingness to express their authentic situations that makes these five comedians excellent ambassadors of mental health, or Ministers of Happiness.
1. Biswa Kalyan Rath
The Odiya comedian who gave us the classic phrase, ‘Aye tatti tera naam kya hai?’ is actually one of India’s most outspoken comics when it comes to depression and mental health. As he says in the Scoopwhoop Townhall below, “the main problem is that people don’t talk about it and so you feel left out and that’s one leading cause of depression.” In another article he wrote for Youth Ki Awaaz, he makes the incisive comment that “[depression] is a very natural outcome of the kind of society we live in.” The fact is that a lot of our distress comes from being in a world that we sometimes can’t see eye to eye with, and that if we normalised these feelings of sadness, we wouldn’t feel so alienated or ashamed all the time. Biswa gets this instinctively, and that makes him a worthy candidate. Vote for Biswa Mast Aadmi!
2. Bill Hader
Bill Hader spent eight successful years on Saturday Night Live, one of the biggest sketch comedy shows in the world. He even got four Emmy nominations and won a Peabody Award. But throughout that run, Hader suffered from anxiety so intense that he got flu symptoms every time he got on stage. An incredibly talented comedian, Hader’s adorable honesty about his fear of messing up his lines or getting fired make him an anxious but nonetheless very entertaining candidate for a Minister of Happiness.
3. Aparna Nancherla
Aparna Nancherla is an interesting addition to this list because it was actually her anxiety and depression that led her to become a standup comedian. When she spoke about her mental health issues in front of an audience, people responded in a way that made her realise that her experiences were more universal than she’d thought. As a comedian, her jokes on anxiety are very insightfully crafted to give a very accurate and yet irreverent perspective on life as an anxious person. Given how taboo mental health discussions are in Indian and Indian-American communities even today, Nancherla’s open, public and unashamed examination of her own struggles is incredibly powerful.
4. Rainn Wilson
“I’ve been going through a really hard time recently, on a number of different levels and I have been feeling a little bit low, a little bit depressed and humbled and lost these days, and I’m the guy who played Dwight… I’m supposed to be funny… but coming here in this state and pretending to be entertaining and upbeat, well that would be a lie.”
This is how Rainn Wilson decided to begin his commencement speech at the University of Southern California’s Baccalaureate ceremony in 2014. The comedian and actor, who famously portrayed Dwight from The Office, decided to keep it real and funny. Throughout the speech, he drew from a plethora of religious leaders, philosophers, scientists and psychologists in order to offer the students a few tools to flourish in life. His advice was practical—he spoke about appreciating simple things, mindfulness, gratitude and service. Good principles for a Minister of Happiness to live by.
5. Wayne Brady
Remember the iconic line delivered by Wayne Brady for a sketch on the Chappelle Show, “Is Wayne Brady going to have to choke a bitch?”
Yep, that guy has also been very vocal about his struggles with depression. Professionally known for his impeccable improvisation skill on Whose Line Is It Anyway, Wayne Brady decided to be honest about his situation after the suicide of his biggest influence Robin Williams. Ever since, he’s been one of comedy’s biggest supporters of mental health. Watch the singer, actor and comedian dissect his lowest moments in the emotional and inspirational interview below.
Of course, there’s quite a few other comedians who have also been vocal in this space. Locally, Neville Shah and Daniel Fernandes deserve a special mention, as do Patton Oswalt, Gary Gulman and Stephen Fry. Are there any other comics who helped you on your mental health journey? Tell us on Twitter and Instagram.