In the nervous minutes before the curtains opened at Old Sacramento’s Laughs Unlimited comedy club this spring, the comedians on deck did a brief check-in.
Carlos Rodriguez was feeling a little groggy, but Sydney Stigerts was raring to go. The group inquired about her smoking habits, she said she’d quit. Mostly. Steph Garcia was hyped after a good night of sleep, a dose of caffeine and a therapy session.
“I’m in a great place right now,” she said, a bit surprised at herself.
The four performers in the lineup that night all struggle with mental illness. They’re part of a new group called 1 Degree of Separation: A Funny Look At Depression and Suicide.
They started putting on shows around the area earlier this year, under the direction of fellow comedian Brad Bonar Jr. The goal is to give the comedians an outlet to talk about their challenges and successes, while also educating audiences about mental health.
Bonar Jr designs the shows for two types of audience members: people who struggle with depression, and people who love people who struggle with depression.
Approximately 7 percent of Americans had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to a 2017 survey from the National Institutes of Health. Some research indicates that comedians are particularly prone to depression and other mental health conditions.
He says joking about the heavy subject can open the door to real and necessary conversations.
“Who better than comics to take something that’s so taboo, that nobody wants to talk about, and get people to laugh?” he said. “Every show we do we get personal messages, private messages. ‘You saved a life tonight.’ ‘I’ve never, ever talked about my depression before and tonight I felt OK to talk about it.’”
Each comedian has a different story, but they all put themselves in vulnerable positions onstage. Their sets dig into marital issues, substance abuse, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts.
Stigerts talks a lot about her sexuality onstage, but she said this show helped her realize that a lot of her depression comes from years of not accepting her own identity as a lesbian. She called it “a healing experience.”
“It’s good for other people to hear it, but it’s made me learn a lot about myself,” she said. “I can go up in front of a room full of strangers and be funny, but it’s different sitting up there in front of a room full of strangers talking about how I’ve wanted to end my life several times before.”
After everyone has finished their sets, the entire company — which changes from show to show — takes the stage as a panel to answer five questions:
- What does your depression physically feel like?
- What do others do that helps you?
- What can I do that helps you?
- What do others do that makes it worse?
- What do you do that makes it worse?
Bonar Jr came up with the questions after informally interviewing medical professionals and mental health advocates. He says the exercise is a way to demonstrate to audiences how to have similar conversations with people in their own lives. The local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness on hand whenever possible for audience members who are looking for resources.
He hopes to take the show to schools, hospitals and other educational venues in the future.
“When you can take tragedies and laugh at them, they become less than,” he said.