By Gerrit Bos

    Comedian Carol Burnett is quoted as saying, ‘the line between tragedy and comedy is time’, but can laughter heal pain?

    A quick google search for ‘mental health and humour’ returns over 50 million results, which intrigued Westsider contributor, Gerrit Bos. To find out more he spoke to PhD researcher and sometime comedian Carol-Anne Croker to find out more about her and her work.

    In your opinion is laughter the best medicine, if it is a medicine at all?

    It’s pretty close to it, however, as a person with Bipolar and Anxiety Disorder, it cannot nor will ever replace the correct tailored combination of prescription medicine. Laughter has an important impact; it triggers the release of the useful hormone serotonin. However, it cannot on its own be a simple magic bullet, no matter how much we would like it to be. Even prescription medication alone is not enough to ensure wellness. There are the other factors contributing to wellness, the less ‘exciting bits in the equation’; biochemistry of gut biome with relation to diet, plus the other big one, exercise. These are the necessary components needed as the basis for wellness. It is not about the search for happiness or inner peace per se, it is the quest to stay, in my case, in balance, away from the mood state extremes of clinical depression and mania.

    So, is laughter a medicine? 

    I would prefer to describe it as a single component in my mental wellness toolkit. This may sound a little ‘new age’, but laughter belongs within tools such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or mindfulness. For me the thought processes are very similar. To sit with my own emotions and thoughts. Then to be present and separate the thinking and the reaction, my emotions. Once separated I am able to identify what is in my power to change or adjust. Usually, for me it is my thinking. When my thinking is slightly off or slanted, usually as a defence mechanism, my emotions are no longer well regulated. My emotions drive my thinking and action and set up a feedback loop which is not a happy or calm place to be. So, I need to find that peace and quiet to unpack everything, crowding my thinking and stirring up both justifiable emotions and those that are excessive. This is where comedy comes in, in precisely the same way as any other wellness strategy. For me if I can poke fun at something or see how ludicrous the thinking is behind words and actions, then I am no longer controlled by the emotions. I am outside them, and can write them to induce a laugh or a reflective pause. The main thing is I am in control. I have power. So, yes for me comedy particularly is a most important tool, as I cannot be depressed when everything seems quite ludicrous and out of proportion. It is how I coped with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison and yes even COVID.

    What inspired you to begin your career as a comedian?

    It really is a one off-thing; a strange, yet seemingly linear progression. It was a long time coming.

    I have always loved comedy as a genre, be it literary or in performance. My preferred comedy has always been satire, beginning with Dame Edna Everage, Aunty Jack and many more Australian iconic programs and performers. But I also cannot deny a love of slapstick, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Monty Python, The Goons. The list is extensive and global. I guess the US only gets a look in here with Marx Brothers and my all- time favourite, The Who’s on First Routine of Abbot and Costello. I am of the era where Australian produced arts received a much-needed renaissance in the 1970s; the rise of the Second Wave in Australian Cinema, the explosion of Australian plays mostly out of the Carlton/Fitzroy Pram Factory and La Mama writers, such as David Williamson, Jack Hibberd and more. This was when at age 19 I made my professional debut on stage. It was a revival of a hit Music Theatre show, Godspell. Two of the cast of ten, one male and one female were selected to play the roles of apostles but through the eyes of child-like openness and naivety. These were the two comic players in the ensemble. I was one of the two. This was my training in theatre and performance with its inherent ability to change gears from laughter to tears in a matter of minutes and for audiences it was real emotional connection every performance. It was powerful, not in the way Jesus Christ Superstar was impactful within its scope as epic storytelling. The comedy here was used as a tiny break in dramatic tension for emotional release before barrelling back into the sheer dramatic. Godspell was gentler, and as such often derided within the comparisons.

    But the one thing the seventies did was prove to producers, networks, publishers, and advertisers that Australian culture was marketable. Imagine the seventies without Graeme Blundell’s Alvin Purple, basically the entire oeuvre of director Tim Burstil. There was Barry Crocker as Bazza McKenzie, Jack Thomson’s Petersen. Then on the small screen we meet Norman Gunstan from Wollongong taking a Spike Milligan inspired craziness to the role of an on-camera News Reporter and Tonight Show Host. How could I not be drawn to Comedy with all this excitement and sense of Australian Arts being propelled back onto the world stages and screens. I wanted to do this on stage before Kath and Kim were ever thought of? For me comedy became the most effective and efficient tool for breaking stereotyping and discrimination. We could all break stigma wherever we found it. By this time, I worked in academia in lecturing, creative industries research and yes performance. I was also given the opportunity to learn the skills of radio live broadcasting and reviewing for an anonymous diverse audience.

    What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a comedian?

    It all comes down to self-esteem, and self-perception. I found myself being ‘too needy’. I felt I needed validation from a crowd of strangers, I needed the anonymity and warmth of a spotlight and audience of indistinguishable faces. Those laughs. They were (and remain) the best medicine on the planet. But my goal was to tell people it was okay to be ‘crazy. I learned that at an academic conference in France, that Comedy was educative. Thank you, That’s Just Crazy Talk playwright and comic, Victoria Maxwell from Canada, and Professor Erin Michalek with her research for CREST.BD. My biggest problem was that I found the masculist ‘locker room’ banter and comic and audience acceptance of pre-pubescent adolescent sexual humour completely intolerable. Male jokes were being used along with slang and crude language to shock audiences, which was such a tired and passe trend. It did not work. But still the prevailing humour from the hecklers to the stage when women comics appeared remained “show us your tits”! I kid you not, this was in the second decade of the twenty-first century. My biggest problem I realised was not performing, it was that I had no idea how to write powerful satire which would be funny yet silence these individuals. In a five-minute slot, just how often was it necessary to have an “adlib” zinger back to the heckler belittling them into silence. Too much energy and too little pay-off for me. Were someone to offer me a gig or role where I am given a comic script and then be allowed to explore the nuances with a director and writing, I would be back in the rehearsal room tomorrow. The art and skill of the comedy writer is woefully under-appreciated in Australia, and therefore I think so much of our screen work fails, the credit and resourcing is just not given to writers.

    On a lighter note, who is your favourite comedian? Why?

    Oh, after my answers I think this is almost predictable. I like Aussies and Brits best. I like satire and activism. So, Tim Minchin and Ross Noble (with a special mention to the USA’s Randy Rainbow on YouTube). Hannah Gadsby of course and Catherine Tate, plus the AbFab cast. 

    To conclude, is there anything you would like to leave aspiring comedians with?

    • Do your homework. See everybody you can get to.
    • Keep notes for yourself.
    • What do you admire or hate with a comic?
    • What style of comedy works best in your opinion?
    • Learn the craft at the feet of working professionals. Learn the skills in the writing, including things like the refer back or call back, as well as the more common unexpected twist or diversion.
    • You are writing a narrative in the end. Watch structure.
    • And practise in front of other comics, develop trusted friends from the sector who can be objective and constructive.
    • Watch delivery pace, (don’t rush to fill silences).
    • Watch vocal pitch. Mid-to lower register is always better for clarity. Beware the nerves driving each consecutive line in upward pitch towards high and breathless. It kills the laughs.
    • Be patient. The audience is on your side.

    Those laughs. They were (and remain) the best medicine on the planet.

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