It should come as no surprise that comedians have issues. Even if you were somehow unaware of comics dying drug-related deaths or having armed public breakdowns, you might still suspect that there has to be something vaguely wrong with people who choose to make a living by trying to make strangers laugh by, typically, mocking themselves.
For years, when a famous comedian would foray into publishing, their books would either be word-for-word transcripts of their acts or memoirs that kept it real but lost their humor in the process (see Roseanne’s on child abuse in My Lives). In the last couple of years, however, a few comedians have released memoirs that are honest while maintaining a sense of humor. Sara Benincasa’s memoir, Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom, covers both her career and battle with severe anxiety, while Michael Ian Black’s book of essays, You’re Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations, is a surprisingly earnest take from a reliably prickly performer. The grandaddy of them all is Darrell Hammond’s memoir, God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem, an unflinching chronicle of the comedian’s life.
Benincasa might be the least well-known of the comedians listed here, but only because she hasn’t broken through to national television. She’s all over the internet, from the Huffington Post to XOJane. She’s a seasoned stand-up with a large following, which is what makes her stories in Agorafabulous! about peeing into bowls because she was too scared to go outside so remarkable. Benincasa herself marvels at how “crazy as a loon” she was, especially back in college: After admitting that she once cut herself with a butter knife, she wonders, “What the hell kind of half-assed training wheels shit is that? I’ve given myself deeper cuts while shaving my legs.”
While Benincasa began experiencing severe anxiety in high school before reaching her nadir at the bottom of a pee bowl in college, the rest of the book, which focuses on her recovery and the path that lead her to stand-up, is equally honest and humorous — even while discussing trips to Planned Parenthood and the emergency room. Most people who become as ill as Benincasa can’t write about their experiences this clearly, let alone with this much insight and fun. “You know you’re in a bad way,” she writes, “when the thought of lying on a dirty public bathroom floor seems perfectly acceptable. You’re in an even worse way when you curl up beside the public toilet and start to cry.” That she can admit to cuddling with a toilet — let alone joke about it — is remarkable.
Michael Ian Black’s issues are less cut and dry, but his personal essay collection, You’re Not Doing It Right, is surprisingly revealing, especially considering how detached his stand-up can be. As one third of the comedy troupe Stella (and a member of the enormous ‘90s group, The State), Black’s comedy is often quietly absurd, but in his stand-up and on Twitter, he’s more acidic. He’s one of the few comedians to openly spar with Marc Maron — which is essentially like trying to out-asshole someone who’s constantly trying to repent for being an asshole.
Black doesn’t come off like an asshole in his book, however. He’s shockingly honest about his parents’ divorce, his mother’s coming out and his general anxiety about being married, successful and a father. As for his decision at nine to become an actor, he says, “I have spent the last thirty years of my life living out a career choice made by somebody who had not yet mastered the ability to tie his own shoes.”
Black also talks a bit about his depression, which he believes is “to modern Americans what scurvy was to old-timey sailors, so common it’s barely worth discussing.” That said, much of this book is about that depression and its consequences. Black never has a major breakdown, but in couples therapy with his wife, he admits, “The main thing I take away from this initial sessions is that I can be a real asshole.”
God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked is Darrell Hammond’s dark and darkly funny memoir, which begins with the question, “You know what’s worse than being in rehab?” The immediate answer is being in rehab over the holidays, but I’d say that much of what follows is also worse — namely, growing up with abusive parents in a racist Florida town in the ‘60s where the only affectionate person is your life is your black maid. Hammond goes into detail about his long career at Saturday Night Live — from listing the actors he worked with to the number of times he got to say, “Live, from New York!” — but this book really shines when he delves into his own troubled mind.
Even though Hammond had a rough relationship with his mother, he sympathizes with her, even though his version of sympathy is saying, “In those days, especially in the South, if you were a woman with aspirations, you might as well be a whore.” His father, a veteran of both World War II and Korea who was severely damaged by his experiences in combat, would drink, then tell stories about covering himself in the brains of a fallen soldier to convince the Germans he was dead; still, Hammond admires his toughness. After his father threatens someone over the phone for upsetting his sister, Hammond writes, “He scared the fuck outta the guy, and then we ate.” Hammond doesn’t directly joke about his experiences, but his tone is so flat and his stories are so extreme that he seems to know that the only response is to laugh.
After Hammond leaves home, he begins drinking in college and moves into a drunken existence in New York, only starting to do stand-up after being encouraged by the gangsters who frequent the bar where he works in Hell’s Kitchen. He finally gets himself into rehab for drinking (although he will later start abusing cocaine), after which he convinces himself that the only way to make a living and stay sober is to master impressions. His road to SNL is long, riddled with Florida comedy clubs, rehab, sponsors committing suicide, relapses, incorrect diagnoses for his mental illness (he turns out to be bipolar), rehab again and more. He once cut himself backstage at SNL, and the way he can describe that experience in the same factual tone with which he describes developing his famous Bill Clinton impression is both odd and completely appropriate at once.
While there are probably some comedians out there who are totally sane and eternally drug-free (like Jerry Seinfeld — unless you consider a total lack of self-awareness to be a mental illness), most seem to be like Benincasa, Black and Hammond: able to transform their own issues into entertainment for the rest of us. Their books serve not just to make their disorders more understandable, but to make the authors themselves more human. There’s no bigger accomplishment for a comedian than being both brutally funny and honest at the same time, and making laughs out of misery is as good as it gets.