Funny things happen when David Granirer’s stand-up comedy students get in front of the mic to deliver the routines they’ve spent weeks honing — not just laughter but a shift in the way those on the stage and in the audience view mental illness.
That’s because all the participants in the comedian’s Stand Up for Mental Health workshops are dealing with mental health diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, and they learn to draw upon their experiences to craft their comedy routines. The result is humor and healing.
“It really seems to benefit them in terms of their confidence, in their ability to take risks, in how they feel about themselves, and in getting rid of the shame that a lot of people who have mental health conditions carry,” said Granirer, a stand-up comic and a mental health counselor.
The audience earns insights as well. “We present to them people with mental health diagnoses who are funny and likable and intelligent, and that completely goes against the media stereotype that they’ve been given, which is either people with mental health conditions are hopeless basket cases who hit you up for spare change or are these dangerous ax murderers. This makes them see them in a whole different light.”
Changing Lives With Comedy
Granirer got the idea of offering stand-up comedy classes to those with mental illnesses while teaching a comedy course at a community college in his native Vancouver, Canada. “I would see people come through and have life-changing experiences getting up on stage in front of 200 people and doing comedy and talking about themselves really honestly. And I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be a great idea to put this in a format that would benefit people who wanted the comedy but who also wanted the life-changing experience?’” In 2004, Stand Up for Mental Health was born.
His decision to reach out to those with mental illnesses was, in part, a personal one. Not only is he a mental health counselor, he lives with depression that led him to a suicide attempt in his teens. In the award-winning documentary Cracking Up, which followed one of his Stand Up for Mental Health groups for a year, Granirer spoke of his illness and of the connection he feels with those he helps. “For years, I just felt this crippling sense of shame and inadequacy and feeling flawed and embarrassed and horrible about what I’d done. So I’ve been there. I’ve walked that walk.”
Stand Up for Mental Health workshops have now been run in more than 35 cities in the U.S., Canada and Australia. These days, it offers its six-week or 12-week classes via Skype. “So it’s me in front of my computer wherever I am, whether in Vancouver or on the road somewhere, and a room full of people say in Austin or Tacoma or Louisville,” Granirer explained. “And as we go through the class, I teach them how to write stand-up comedy, and I give them some techniques and they do homework and bring in jokes. We try them, we look at what works, what didn’t. I also spend time with them individually, coaching them outside of class via phone and email.” By the end of the workshop, each participant has an act of about five minutes. “And that’s when I fly in and perform with them.”
The final show is the payoff for everyone’s hard work. “One of the things I’m really, really good at is making other people into the stars. And I love that process of watching a group right from the beginning when they’re scared and they think they’re going to fail and they have no confidence, to the show at the end where they’re at a theater in front of 300 people and they’re getting these great laughs and feeling amazing about themselves. I just love seeing that.”
Transformed by Humor
The transformations he sees are sometimes extraordinary, Granirer said. He tells the story of a young man named Robbie, whose schizophrenia caused him to hear demons telling him to drink his own blood and who spent five months in a psychiatric hospital before being brought by his mother to see one of the Stand Up for Mental Health shows.
“He was entranced,” Granirer said. “And so he joined the program the following year, convinced he would fail, because he had failed up to then at pretty much everything in his life. And he succeeded, and then he succeeded again and again and again. And it completely changed his life. He went from someone who expects to fail to someone who is confident and expects to succeed.”
Robbie stayed in the program for about seven years, Granirer noted, becoming one of the organization’s star comics. “We took him along when we did shows on university and college campuses because he was the perfect age to reach that demographic. And since then he’s become a rapper and has a couple of albums out, and he’s doing great.”
Fighting Stigma With Laughter
Such community shows are another way for Stand Up for Mental Health to spread awareness of the stigma that those with mental illnesses so often face. “Since 2004, we’ve probably done about 500,” Granirer said. “We’ve played on military bases, for correctional facilities, governments, corporations. We’ve been on university and college campuses. And we’re part of the med school curriculum of a couple of universities. So there seems to be a real desire among organizations to raise awareness around mental health for their people in a way that is not depressing and is not really boring and technical. And when they find out that they can have some comics come in and talk about it through comedy, it seems to be something that intrigues people.”
Asked if he thinks public understanding and acceptance of those with mental health conditions is improving, he admits to some optimism. “I still think we have a ways to go, but certainly within the past five years, there’s been so much awareness-raising by different organizations and celebrities coming out of the closet and saying they have issues that I think it’s starting to create a ripple.”
Stand Up for Mental Health, he feels, is part of that effect. “One of the ways I know this is working is that I will hear people at our shows say things like, ‘Oh man, I saw that guy with schizophrenia, and he is hilarious.’ And how often do you hear hilarious and schizophrenia in the same sentence?”