Funemployed: Fame airs Thursday at 10:30am. Wally and I discuss multiple song theory.
Funemployed: Fame airs Thursday at 10:30am. Wally and I discuss multiple song theory.
‘Why are comedians depressed?’ It’s one of those age old paradoxes like ‘why are contact jugglers so creepy?’ I’ve been one for ten years (a comedian, that is: not a creepy juggler) and I’ve frequently pondered the equation.
Does it work the other way around? Are funeral directors the life of the party? Nick Cave seems pretty chipper in interviews. Jokes aside, there is a serious side to looking on the lighter side of life, which has been brought into the spotlight by the recent suicide of beloved comic actor Robin Williams. Like many comedians, Williams dealt with dark themes. It’s little surprise that his mental workplace was an occupational health and safety nightmare.
The distance between the onstage and the backstage persona is even more confronting when it’s a successful artist such as Williams. As a sharehousehold name performing as The Bedroom Philosopher, I can attest. Given the nature of my family history, my personality and ‘put all your eggs in one basket and break a few to make an omelette’ approach to creativity, I’m genuinely surprised when I’m happy.
Stand-up comedy is where sport meets service industry – it can be as draining as it is rewarding, and for a moody person, it’s consistently destabilising. Anxious highs dip into soul-crunching lows. The mood swing is the main attraction in the devil’s fun park.
These are the reasons why comedians often appear down. They are drawn from monitoring my own mental health over the years and somewhat coded debriefs with fellow cacktitioners. (Right click – ‘add to dictionary’)
1. The nature of the job
Comedy equals tragedy plus time multiplied by anxiety squared. This anxiety may begin a week before the gig. That’s up to one hundred hours of nerve-tingling, bowel-clenching, stomach-sinking, dream-curdling, hope-dismantling worry before you even get to the venue. Then it triples. As your name is introduced by someone claiming to ‘love your work’, your body releases a civil war’s worth of survival adrenalin, your veins light up like a Christmas tree, and you stand beneath the glare of the headlights like a talking rabbit pulled out of your own sorting hat. Your soul is graded on the spot via laughter, or the lack of it. This crude survey information is stamped into you for life as you experience a terrifying emotional comedown: depleted natural chemicals quickly replaced by ‘electroheavies’ from the friendly barkeep.
2. The nature of the craft.
Comedians are miners. They must go inside the cave of human folly and swing a pick axe of anger at the iron walls until a hunk of coal comes loose. They must take the lump and flambé it in their imagination furnace, overthinking it until it becomes electricity. This is the satirical sizzle that finds its way on stage, powering the high-beam smiles of an audience. Coal mining is dirty, dangerous work. Most people sealed off their tunnels years ago, and wouldn’t enter it if paid. Comedians spend their lifetime in the darkness of emotional solitude. It gets lonely and it gets bleak.
3. Fitting the cliché
People expect comedians to be funny in real life. Surely to God they’ll be cracking gags on the tram, right? Aren’t comedians responsible for the crime rate at airports, their wits deemed too pointy to take onboard the craft? No. Instead, most comics I know are reserved and nervous, their personalities muzzled by a lifelong obligation to be abnormally hilarious. (With great power comes great responsibility). This social pressure, real or perceived, can be marvellously tiring. The expectation is downright illogical – and somewhat disrespectful of these professional speakers. If you were at a dinner party with a clairvoyant and she started reading your future – ‘you’re going to choke on a fish bone’ – you’d be creeped out. One can imagine the clairvoyant would say A) sorry folks, I’m off hours, and B) you want me to read your palm? I see you reaching for your purse, dude.
4. No fallback emotion
There is a theory that comedians have it tough because, unlike other artists who fall on shit times, they don’t have their sense of humour to rely on. A sense of humour is their main tool of trade. It’s like Kate Miller Heidke trying to sing herself to sleep after a show instead of watching Game Of Thrones. Unlike a theatre troupe, who can drink and laugh together after a bad show, a touring comedian will sit alone in the padded cell of their hotel room. They may take a drag on their humour to find the charred, singed remains of coal dust. If you’re not laughing, you’re crying.
5. You don’t have to be crazy to work here …
Comedians are mad. Anyone who would actively choose this career path, to willingly undergo the mild emotional torture of running the validation gauntlet of live performance must be deeply imbalanced in some way. Perhaps it’s not that comedy makes comics depressed, it’s that they do comedy because they are a mess already. Most comedians report being picked on at school. Their sharpened wit was a mechanism built for survival. While this sword is attractive and effective, behind the armour is often a pale, vulnerable nerd still trapped in the perpetual self-loathing and rejection of their teenage self. Relationship anyone?
6. Success doesn’t buy happiness
We all know money doesn’t buy emotional prosperity. By the same token neither does career affluence. In a truly sinister twist, for the neurotic weirdo described above, being lauded and loved only feeds the mould of low self-esteem. Deep down, most comedians will casually hate themselves and rarely feel comfortable in the yellow jacket of their stage win at the Tour De Farce. This guilty paradox is doused with a cold-fusion pressure to perform, creating a peace-sapping spiritual hamster wheel of micro-angst that would leave anyone as ashen faced and hollow eyed as Robin Williams’ recent press shots.
Comedians might make great clown doctors for sick children in hospital but, by golly, those clowns shouldn’t be operating on themselves. Most performers will try and counter the gross emotional rollercoaster by applying lashings of ale, nicotine, pot, coke and whatever else is cool. (Smack kind of died out in the 80s). You now have someone prone to depression treating their on-stage high with a stimulant washed down with a depressant. This is akin to giving yourself a hug then slapping yourself in the face (which is only okay if you’re Frank Woodley doing a bit.) If the comedian did a dodgy show (which is a 50/50 probability, at all levels), they will be left with a steaming pile of sorrow to absorb. Drugs are a snooze button for emotional processing, and when they wear off, the steaming pile is still there – only now stale. Breakfast of champions – and then it’s back down the coal mine!
Actors are narcissistic.
Writers are arrogant. Puppeteers are … different. The clichés are all there. The sad clown image has been around for years. One of the most pertinent issues to be raised by the death of Robin Williams is an understanding and awareness of mental illness. My personal mantra is ‘better out than in.’ It’s a subject matter that cannot be discussed enough. Hopefully more comedians are encouraged to Come Out of the mine and talk about their experiences. Goodness knows: if handled correctly, they are the perfect ambassadors for depression, making this ghastly topic not only palatable but even – god forbid! – joyous.
Not always. Sometimes it’s intellectually difficult, emotionally punishing or simply dull. From writing fifty promotional emails in a day to having your 70,000 word second draft ripped to shreds to sitting in an Adelaide airport with a delayed muffin — one could argue that the majority of an artist’s time is spent not having fun. That isn’t to say it isn’t satisfying or rich or intriguing. Actual medical-grade ‘Fun’ is the 2% of the time you’re on stage, or the five-minute window watching your girlfriend giggle as she proofs your work. Fun is fleeting and glorious. For the most part, though, art is closer to work than play. Think of your favourite ride at the show. Now imagine going on it every day for the next five years. Now you’ve vomited into a showbag. Now your friends are laughing at you.
Artists are essentially running a high-cost, low-income start-up. Like any small business, they will expect to lose money in the first…um…all years of their practice. To record an album in a professional studio might cost $10, 000. Publicist: $3000. Venue hire on a small room in Comedy Festival: $5000. Unless you’re massive, touring costs more money than it makes, once you consider travel, accommodation and promotion. (Who hasn’t considered flying ‘Australia Post’?) And people aren’t paying for music anymore! Sheesh! Much like the Victorian Gold Rush, it’s the publicans and shopkeepers that make all the coin. Traditionally, only filmmakers were allowed to go around asking for investors. Now all artists are doing this, through Pozible campaigns and awkward conversations with rich aunties (in alleyways).
I mean, who thinks of that when they see Beck’s ‘Loser’ on Rage in 1993? Who considers it as they watch Tony Martin’s ‘The good scissors’ routine on The Late Show in 1996? When you’re a kid dreaming of being a star, you see the lights and the fans and the acclaim. Fast forward ten years and you’re perched in your bedroom in a dingy Thornbury apartment sending yet another follow up email to MX as next door’s buzzsaw cuts the world in half. It’s as if you’ve been punked by the faceless women at Officeworks. Did John Farnham sing ‘You’re the Invoice’? Did Heath Ledger balance his ledgers? Is Richard Linklater on LinkedIn?
We often hear about how artists are depressed — but what about how artists are bitter? Depression has been described as ‘anger without the energy’, so perhaps bitterness is anger without the outlet. If your career isn’t working out how you want it (and with high teenage expectations meeting Australia’s low population, chances are it isn’t), you begin to lose hope. You look over your shoulder at your neighbour and are jealous of what they have. Competitive energy can be useful, even motivating, but bitterness is a junk emotion — a hotshot of self-pity fused with petty jealousy. When you are bitter you begin to lose perspective: and to an artist, perspective is as valuable as a wallet or smart tablet.
So alcohol is great, right? It’s such an amazing drug and I won’t hear a bad word about it. Don’t want to be accused of being a teetotaller. Artists love booze. Sometimes they are paid in it! Otherwise, they go to networking events where it is dished out or work solely in venues whose entire marketing model revolves around shifting it. Meanwhile, it’s an addictive depressant. Alcohol abuse is completely fun in your twenties, slightly problematic in your thirties and pretty shit in your forties. Alcoholism is widespread across all art forms. It’s responsible for the failing organs and toxic relationships of many a veteran performer who you’ll probably never hear from…because who wants be a downer on twitter? Buck up champ! Have another whiskey and get back out there.
The majority of being an artist nowadays is spruiking yourself like a bottle of milk. From a hip-poppet 7-piece mumbling about their EP to the self-unpublished writer instagramming their therapist, we’re in the golden age of personality. This is all well and good unless you’re a classic introverted, subversive, self-deprecating anti-capitalist, in which case self-promotion is akin to standing naked at the tuckshop offering up your wonky mars bar slice. “SORRY, can you buy this?” Great pitch! Luckily, Australia is being culturally colonised by America and their DRESSED FOR SUCCESS mentality is overriding Australia’s Small Puppy syndrome.
Going well is terrifying, especially if you’ve been covering up your grades since high school. When you’re on Triple J, you can’t really tell anyone properly for fear of seeming arrogant. So instead you bury it and come off aloof and oddly ungrateful. Fame in Australia is set up as a wonderful curse. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets ‘tall poppy’ on your arse. Australia is egalitarian to a fault, and one of the few places in the world where ‘try hard’ is an insult. Succeed, by all means, but live quietly in fear of the next character assassination. Low population, few opportunities. The Australian arts scene — Game of Moans.
So, one might think being an artist is one long holiday. Not so (see also: It’s Not Fun). Most creatives are holding down a day-job and working on their practice (see also: You’re A Small Business) and trying to have some kind of relationship or social life. It’s a cocktail (see also: Alcohol Is A Dirty Drug) for workaholism. Most artists can’t afford a holiday, and wouldn’t know what to do on one anyway. Artistic work is often a productive mask for the deep hollow inside. The side-effect of this lifestyle is burnout. What happens when everything you do is ‘you’ and you’re completely tapped, eyes burning, stomach ulcer brewing, but you have to keep performing as it’s your main source of income? Well, you have a meltdown at the Wesley Anne last year — or is that just me?
The origins of Funemployed could be traced back to 2010 when Martin Hughes from Affirm contacted me to contribute to a book he was publishing called ‘The Bogan Delusion.’ He revealed he was a fan of The Bedroom Philosopher. I made sure to keep in touch with him over the next couple of years, especially grateful when he read over my Australia Council grant application. It was a rare instance of an industry figure being proactively supportive of my career.
In 2012 I wanted to collate the best of my Ezine tour diaries into a book. Martin was supportive of the idea, but suggested I take a DIY route. I collaborated with Stuart Geddes at Chase & Galley on a limited run of 500. (I was introduced to Stuart through Penny Modra, who edited the blog Three Thousand – this contact coming from sending out my own press releases.) Martin wrote to say that it had given him big laughs (while eating, unfortunately.) He offered to publish the E-book. It was my first publishing break and a timely shot of confidence.
Over coffee, Martin asked if I had any other ideas for a book. At the time, (early 2012), The Bedroom Philosopher was falling apart and I was in a depressed state. On the spot I decided someone should write about what it’s like to be an artist in Australia.
While Martin had faith in my writing, he needed to be convinced that I had the focus and discipline to carry out such an epic task. Firstly, I wrote a two page pitch document, followed by a chapter breakdown. The next step was to flesh out three ‘test chapters.’ The first time round, I only passed one out of three. I was under pressure to prove myself while receiving extensive criticism before the project had even begun. It was tough. I sat on the tram, thumb scrolling through a hefty email, heart stinging. It pushed meAfter a second attempt at the chapters, I got the green light. Martin ask to improve.ed how much I might like for an advance. I didn’t know. Off the top of my head I said: ‘$4000.’ I hadn’t done any research or asked others about it. Martin agreed and I was paid $3000 upfront, with $1000 upon delivery of the manuscript. It was my first book deal. I was a real writer. Most of the advance went straight on paying off debts.
It took me about seven months to write the first draft. Two months were spent conducting interviews and researching, while the next five were spent writing, (conducting interviews all the while). While money poor, I was time rich. At the time I was subsisting on my usual cocktail of Bedroom Philosopher gigs and Centrelink. It allowed me to work on the book in almost full-time hours. I didn’t know how long it would take, but set myself a January deadline. I was so obsessed with finishing on time that I spent Christmas Day and New Years Eve home alone.
The first draft was ripped to shreds. It wasn’t holding together as a book – there wasn’t enough narrative structure, or point. As a reader, Martin was asking himself ‘why am I reading this?’ I was devastated. For someone who was used to being their own boss in the recording studio, this was an ego smackdown. I swore into the swimming pool, paced around the block a few times and started on the second draft. This took around two months, from February through April 2013. Although I had more than enough interviews, I disappeared down a rabbit hole of ‘you should interview this person’ and always had a potential subject on the go.
In April, Martin delivered the news that the book still wasn’t cutting it. As he no longer had time to edit the manuscript, he was hand-balling it to freelance editor Nadine Davidoff. If the first draft was ripped to shreds, the second was melted down for parts. Nadine delivered seventeen pages of notes, outlining in compelling detail what was working, but mostly what wasn’t. The book was too insular, too snarky, too much about me – I needed to open it up, address the reader, provide solutions. Reading my own private criticism file for the first time was like having my soul graded. Here I thought I was being cutting-edge and maverick – recreating the wheel. I was more like the Melbourne Star. I needed help.
In August I applied for and won a Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre. From July-September I could leave my gloomy Thornbury apartment and commute into the city to write. This boosted my confidence and gave me fresh wind. Armed with seventeen pages of notes, I literally had an instruction manual on how to finish the book. Until this point I’d written mostly 650 word columns. This was 70, 000 words. I was learning on the job.
The third draft was where it gelled. After a year thinking heavily about the subject, I had found my own voice. I could now make my own claims and draw my own conclusions rather than relying on outside voices. The third draft took four months, delivered in October 2013. During this time I was still gigging heavily as The Bedroom Philosopher – a traumatising challenge as I jammed my gears from introversion to extroversion, like performing during my own operation.
The verdict came in – I’d nailed it. I’d built a strong narrative structure, warmed up my tone and hung my quotes appropriately (like beads on a necklace). I was thrilled. Now, the hard work is paying off. Funemployed is being described as ‘easy to read’ and a ‘page turner.’ This is due, no doubt, to the rigorous drafting process, and the long-leash I was given to write and edit the book. The greatest things in life are often the hardest work – but well worth the journey.
Thanks to everyone who attended the Funemployed Tour! I had a blast. It ended in Brisbane at Southside Tea Room. Here’s Pae Hoddy (Th’ Grates) and myself mooching by the pinnies. I recommend the shakes (as in the drink). I’ll be at the Comedy Stage at Plunder In The Grass. (Thursday 7:45pm / Friday 6:45pm). Watch me phone in Northcote.
Credit: Jeremy Staples, ZICS.
I recently spent four nights giving artistic and life advice at Readings, Carlton. It actually worked, and I ended up ‘counselling’ about 25 people. Armed with walnuts and Elderberry tea, I sat in my disarming booth and shared intimate ideas with kindly strangers.
Justin: Justin, what were you hoping to achieve with Funemployed?
Justin: I felt backed into a corner, like an injured possum, during 2012. The whole Northcote hipster thing kind of backfired, and I felt pigeonholed. There really is power in obscurity for a control-freak artist, believe it or not. You can dictate how you are perceived a little more. Anyway, I basically wanted to be a social suicide bomber, strapping a truth-bomb to myself and detonating it – essentially destroying the professional ‘façade’ of my Bedroom Philosopher name. I felt I was being misunderstood on two fronts. A) people thought I was some judgmental coolsie, when in fact I’m also a semi-sweet-natured, oversensitive mental from Tasmania and b) people thought I’d ‘made it’ when in fact I was $20, 000 in debt and in a terrible rut from over-performing.
Funemployed acted as an emotional audit to both give my own side of the story (a memoir is essentially a self-interview) and hopefully create a document that could empower artists and educate society at large about the maelstromic labyrinth of volatile, fragile ingredients that goes into an art practice in Australia. Or thereabouts.
Justin: Ha ha (laughs.)
Justin: Quiet, minion.
Justin: Did you just call me an onion?
Justin: So, did Funemployed feel dangerous to write?
Justin: Oh, most definitely. I felt like I was breaking several taboos. This included things like ‘you’re not allowed to complain as an artist.’ I guess this is part of why I was feeling disempowered. It’s like, okay, now you’ve made it, you’re on Triple J, your head is everywhere, so like, shut up now! You’ve had your time. Fame felt like a taboo subject – and when I was interviewing other artists, I could tell they were uncomfortable talking about fame and even said “you sound like a wanker talking about it” – which is the ultimate catch twenty-two. (You’re arrogant if you acknowledge it, ungrateful if you don’t). Writing about bitterness was especially exciting. We often hear about artists being depressed, but rarely explore the violently competitive parts of our nature. The Australian arts scene is negative and bitchy – well, I’ve often perceived it that way. I thought if I volunteered myself at ‘Snarkaholics anonymous’ it might liberate others to do the same.
I think the general public aren’t ready for the concept that being an artist is actually a lot of quite dull, hard work and often not particularly “fun”. Reality TV really slams that Hollywood idea of ‘overnight success’ and other fairytales we know and grew up with. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, so I really felt like I was writing a kind of anarchists manifesto on the arts. You know how Lars Von Trier started the Dogme 95 collective, which had their own set of rules of how movies should be made? I was applying my own ‘ultimate truth’ doctrine. I feel like in Australia we’re often so damn worried about what people think of us that it discourages people from saying what they really think. We also have an aversion to being ‘too serious’ – so as someone who is mostly seen as a comedian, it felt satisfyingly edgy to be as earnest as I saw fit.
Justin: Do you think irony has come so full circle that earnestness is the only natural conclusion?
Justin: (Laughs) Yeah, I do in a way. I think irony has kind of lost its meaning – or we’ve gone so far past the feedback loop that we’ve lost our moral compass or something. Funemployed is a kind of artistic ‘reset’ button. Reminding us that we’re just blood and guts and water and sadness and happiness. You can have all the gifs and hashtags and apps and distractions you like – but at the end of the day we have terrifying dreams and we cry with the fleeting beauty of our own improvised, imprisoned lives.
Justin: It seems like Funemployed is about celebrating failure, in a way.
Justin: Certainly. It’s protesting against the tyranny of glam and positivity on the internet. As theatre-maker Tim Spencer says in the book, “Failure is something we have to live with. As artists, I think we exist outside the dominant paradigm of our society.” Being an artist is a philosophy, or almost a religion as much as it’s a job. It comes with its own set of ideals. Art has crawled into bed with advertising. We are being called brands. Neoliberalism is trying to strip-mine us of our context and our identity. We’re under threat of being snubbed out or made irrelevant! It’s time to fire up and fight back. Funemployed is my little warcry, with jokes.
Justin: I love you.
Justin: I love you too.
On Monday I started running an Advice Booth at Readings. It’s been a lovely ‘ground zero’ experience – mixing with people directly in a post-internet age. The focus is on arts / creative advice – but as I say in my occasional spruik “Free art and creative advice, psychological, relationship, basic health and I know some bus times.” In my two hour window I’m barely alone for longer than five minutes. Meek, kind-eyed strangers sit and we share a cup of tea and some walnuts. I’ve spoken to about fifteen people so far. Here are some of the subjects covered:
New single from ‘Funemployed EP.’
Directed by Alesh Macak & Justin Heazlewood.
Starring ‘Fin’ by Sabrina D’Angelo.