Too Taboo…or just too Difficult – things you maybe shouldn’t joke about

Are there some topics you shouldn’t joke about or that you shouldn’t want to joke about? is suicide one of them?

A couple of years ago, I was talking to an ex-headteacher in a hotel bar after a gig. There were a few us around the table, as well as a stranger on a business trip who was lonely so joined in the drinking and olive eating. As I lent in to pick up my beer, the ex-headteacher grabbed my arm and said, “you comedians need to do more routines about suicide.”
In a matter of fact manner, she told me that her daughter had killed herself and she believed that it would help if talk of suicide did not seem such a taboo. As George Carlin probably said (I remember him saying it, but can find no trace of it), “stand up is a low art, but it’s a potent art.”
As I haven’t created much new stand up for a couple of years, I decided I should try to honour the ex-headteacher’s request. It is not easy.
How do I approach this subject tactfully, stupidly, insightfully and/or pointlessly?
Should I try to perform stand up about this at all?
George Carlin was there before me in 2005 show. Straight after his routine on cornholing, he asks, “do you realise that right this second, right now, somewhere around the world, some guy is getting ready to kill himself…do you ever stop to think about this stuff? I do. It’s fun. It’s interesting and it’s true.” He then spends five minutes approaching the subject with the dark, facetious nihilism that marked out his later HBO specials.
It’s an approach that won’t suit me. I don’t have the gravitas.
Where do I start?
Do I talk about the first time that I thought about suicide when I was nine years old, brought on by a fear of rabies from endlessly repeated, paranoia fuelling public information films and an episode of Terry Nation’s Survivors?
Do I talk about the story I was told about why suicide was made a sin by the church?
Apparently, it was nothing to do with Judas Iscariot and everything to do with life being so pustule and plague ridden and bloody awful that the priests worried their serfs would just kill themselves as a shortcut to heaven rather than go through the relentless rickets and burial of young loved ones.
Do I talk about poor Lupe Velez whose tragic suicide was retold by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon. According to Anger, feeling her career was ebbing, she decided to drink her favourite wine, eat her favourite chilli con carné and then take some pills and lie on her ornate bed, her chihuahuas resting at her feet. She would be found like a serene god. Sadly, the combination of pills, wine and carné led to an upset stomach. She went to vomit, then slid in her vomit, cracked he head and was found splayed, dead and in disarray. I have since (today) found out this story is a myth. Obviously, the bleak laughs of this guillotine humour sells more books.
One friend who was depressed and had suicidal thoughts for weeks was persuaded against taking action when a friend said, “but you’d look so silly.”

One of the most peculiar and haunting sounds I have heard was the scream of a mother as her teenage child through themselves in front of a train. I was on the train at the time so was not aware of the cause of this alien noise. Remarkably, the child’s leap was perfectly timed for him to land under the train and survive unscathed. Hopefully this drive that led to him leaping is no longer with him now.
People on platforms say it is a selfish act, others tell me that it is a loss of self that leads to killing yourself. Some people are unable to imagine their worth or those who preferred a world with them rather than without.
I have been careful to speak to therapists who have dealt with suicidal people.
One told me darkly, “a suicide note is a positive thing, that person has started to talk, unfortunately, they have started too late.”
Another advised me, “I tend to feel you can be as dark as you need to be as long as everyone can hear you’re coming from the right place” and reminded me to avoid mawkishness and sentimentality.
I read Al Alvarez’s The Savage God, a study of suicide. He was a friend of Sylvia Plath and writes of how they would talk of suicide. Both tried to kill themselves, Alvarez survived his attempt.
It worries me that this might mean talking about it is not as useful as I hoped.
I tried something at a preview last night, it might just have been silly, silly and true. Maybe silly is enough to open up communication.
I might fail.
I might be told it is not worth the attempt.
I never thought it would be easy, but I think I’d prefer to try and write about this rather than cornholing.

Here is CALM, a charity that specifically aims to aid young men, The Samaritans and MIND in case you want to find out more on these issues or wish to contact someone.

Some sort of routine about this may or may not end up in this Edinburgh show at Stand 2. I am interested to know what you think.

A while back, on a day where I was heavily delayed on a train due to a suicide, I wrote this

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15 Responses to Too Taboo…or just too Difficult – things you maybe shouldn’t joke about

  1. Andy Aitken says:

    A difficult topic but one that does need bringing out into the light. Mental health issues are rife with pitfalls, but I think you could make inroads into the subject avoiding most of them. I wish you the best of luck in this endeavour and without sounding too mawkish am proud of you for even thinking about it.

  2. doreenmilne says:

    The Lupe Velez story is also a good example of things not working out the way you wanted them to. (According to Roz in an episode of Frasier, first time I’d heard the story)
    I worked on a helpline for some years and heard many humourous stories from folk about their thinking, botched attempt(s), friends or families comments. There is humour in most aspects of life and death. imho

  3. Iain says:

    Robin to back up our twitter conversation this is a very interesting piece and thank you for putting this up. It is really important for this to be discussed and whilst I will find this difficult myself should you tackle it in Edinburgh I know you will take it on with your usual considered approach and it will help. It does need to be less taboo that is part of the problem. Comedy is a really important tool in tackling taboos.

  4. liliannberg says:

    An artist friend of mine made a suicide pact with his beloved wife who had terminal cancer. They both took the pills at the same time, she died, but he survived. This was due to the fact that because he was a healthy man, his body rejected the poison, which killed his sick and weakened wife. His doctor found him unconscious, but alive in a pool of vomit and informed the coroner and the police. He was interrogated but never accused of any wrongdoing. Despite this, most of his friends and family accused him of tricking his wife into taking the poison and that he had induced his own vomiting. It became a huge scandal which effectively destroyed whatever was left of his reputation. He died alone some years later, a grief stricken man who felt he had betrayed the woman he loved more than his own life, by not dying with her.
    In my mind, humour about suicide, especially failed ones, would be a very difficult thing to handle well. But then again I’m not a comedian…

  5. spider34 says:

    The subject does need more conversations and a comedian tackling it needs to balance the sensitivity of the subject matter with humour and intelligence. I think that you are an intelligent comedian and if you feel strongly about the subject you should absolutely try to work up something in your show.

    You have probably come across this in your research but are you familiar with the ALGEE mnemonic? It is a 5 step action plan for responding to issues of mental ill health.

  6. Do try. It’s something we’ve been considering. My daughter who is now 20 has attempted suicide in a “cry for help” sort of way. She realised that the only way she was going to get up the waiting list was to present as an urgent case. It worked. She was given counselling and medication. She’s still battling but she’s a bit better. As a consequence of her illness the whole family has had their own dark thoughts, I think that’s inevitable when you’ve spent an evening picking out and counting the paracetamol tablets from a sieve full of someone else’s vomit to check you’ve got them all.

  7. Wendy says:

    Very tricky subject. I went to see Andrew Lawrence’s tour in 2015 “Reasons to Kill yourself.” He wrote a book with the same title too. I enjoy an evening of comedy but seriously left this event so depressed I almost felt suicidal myself and vowed never to see another of his shows again! He certainly missed the mark as far as I was concerned so how you would keep this subject “light” I find hard to imagine. I expect it’s possible but wouldn’t even then necessarily have your desired result! Perhaps his book would give some incites on what not to say!

  8. Rachel says:

    My gut feeling is that if you are authentic and honest and grounded in your own experience, then it will be helpful… I think that it is definitely a topic that needs talking about- (so many issues of mental health are still taboo and misunderstood) but definitely needs very sensitive approach as you obviously already know… It’s the ability to laugh at ourselves in the face of the pain- doesn’t belittle it- but in my mind is part of wrestling with human condition- that makes it universal and accessible… The “Pragmatic Insanity” title to your show concept seems a broad enough to encompass dialogue about suicide and suggests that mental health and your own story is very much the basis for the show… Depression and comedy do often seem to go hand in hand when seen through the filter of the lives of Hancock/ Milligan/Fry/ Williams (Robin and Kenneth) and many more etc sets a precedent as far as the lives of comedians and the juxtaposition of the the comedy itself… have you seen “Wrist Cutters- A Love Story” dark comedy/ indie film?…. (with Tom Waits cameo and great Gorgol Bordello soundtrack moment)

  9. Richard Williamson says:

    This and the attached article are an inspiring read in their own right. Succinctly describing an all encompassing bleakness that touches all of us at some point, to a greater or lesser extent. But, whilst bleak it may be as a subject, I don’t believe it’s too taboo for comedy. Just, as you say, very difficult. The Lupe Velez story seems like the ideal way to start to me. Because it broaches the topic in an absurb and almost slapstick way, but would allow you to then take it in different directions. The obvious question everyone’s asking is, how to keep it light/funny. I think if was me (and I’m not a comedian, so forgive the presumption) I would underscore the whole piece with frequent reminders of how riddiculous it is for people to assume they have ‘no worth’. I mean, Americans can sell their blood twice a week, for $25-$35 a pop! And that’s just for starters. Good luck anyway. I’m sure you’ll strike the right balance.

  10. Rocket Bob says:

    “It’s my belief this is art, even if it’s low art, stand-up comedy. The writing certainly does have elements of art in it. And I believe an artist has an obligation to go somewhere and not just stand still. That is what I do. And, that is what records are for, to listen to that old stuff. Most people that see me know that I have grown, that I have nine HBO shows and 17 albums under my belt and that doesn’t happen sitting around doing the old ‘wonderful wino.”

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