Comedy and Coping: Personal Reflections on Laughter and Mental Health

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”
— George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma


This is one of my favorite quotes ever since I first heard it at the Shaw Festival one summer a couple decades ago. After my dad died, I went through the grieving process and subsequent years of depression, and carried a tremendous amount of guilt with me. For the first couple of years after his death, I would feel guilty any time life managed to bring me a little joy. This guilt no doubt contributed to my failure to move on, my depression (which has never fully “gone away”), and my inability to make real connections with people. I was “supposed” to be sad, I was “supposed” to be withdrawn, and so if I had a good day, there must have been something terribly wrong with me. Of course things improved over time, but it was not until I heard the line from The Doctor’s Dilemma that it really dawned on me how wrong 13-year-old John Kernodle had been. Sometimes in the face of immense grief, laughter is the only medicine that keeps us hanging on. It does not demean the depths of our sorrow, nor does it mean our terrible feelings are inauthentic.

A few years before starting at Wake Div, I was feeling incredibly stuck. I felt guilty for feeling stuck, and in that guilt I began to sense my old friend depression sniffing around the darker corners of my mind. Unlike my early teenage years, I immediately went to laughter for refuge. I started listening to comedy-centered podcasts, and noticed more and more that I was gravitating toward those comedians who were using their own personal struggles as the material for their work. The most honest of these comedians convinced me that risking vulnerability and transparency could be an act of survival. I made that commitment, and in so doing began to have conversations with people I respected about how to move forward in my life. Those conversations brought me here.

In the years since, I’ve come to see the ways in which stand-up comedy can be a subversive and life-giving form of ministry. Specials from comedians like Chris Gethard and Hannah Gadsby have gone a step beyond mere transparency and upended conventional expectations of the genre. Comedians tend to be troubled souls, many of the best feed on the dark parts of their lives to bring laughter to others. In Zen Buddhism we might call that “using our tendencies.” One of my favorite definitions of comedy comes out of those troubled reaches; I can’t remember where I first heard it or who first said it, but the definition goes like this: “Comedy is what is survived.”

At the end of the semester, as the days draw shorter and we face exhaustion and anxiety, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and to let our minds drift back into bad habits. My invitation for us all is to find the laughter. Laugh at how ridiculous you are, laugh at how crazy stress is, laugh with your friends. And, if the laughter helps – even for a little – take a little time to think about where laughter is missing in your work of ministry. Go with transparency, be (safely) vulnerable, and laugh. It doesn’t mean you’re not taking things seriously.

John Kernodle

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