Proposal & Bibliography- Laughing Like Crazy: Depictions of Mental Health in American Comedy


Perhaps one of the most often discussed health topics in recent years has been that of mental health. As society careens forward into the digital age, there has been an increased focus on the upkeep of one’s mental health, and as a result, there has been an increasing turn towards openness in communicating issues of mental health. Nowhere has this trend been more apparent than in American popular media, and more particularly, American comedy. Increasingly, issues of mental health have moved away from portrayals of the exclusively dramatic, and an entire ecosystem of comedic depictions are abound. This begs the question, however, if this is really new? Has comedy always confronted such issues, or is it only with this increased cultural awareness that such common depictions seem all the more apparent? This project endeavors, in part, to answer that question through a comprehensive examination of the dynamic relationship between American comedy and the depiction of mental health from origins before the Vaudeville era, to the era of streaming and stand-up specials. Employing an interdisciplinary approach, this project will investigate how humor, psychology, and cultural attitudes toward mental health have interplayed and evolved over time. By conducting a thorough analysis of primary sources encompassing comedic performances, films, and television shows, in conjunction with a broad historiographical review, this research aims to provide an intricate exploration of how comedy has at times reflected and challenged societal views on mental health, and how those views have evolved over time. Few works have examined the place that mental health has occupied in American comedy, and so this project will hopefully fill some gaps in the literature, and serve as a well-balanced examination of an overlooked area in the history of mental health in the US.

Selected Sources (Annotated)

Apatow, Judd. Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. New York: Prelude Books, 2017.

Beginning this bibliography with a somewhat unorthodox source, Apatow’s Sick in the Head is a part memoir-part compilation of interviews that the writer-director has had with fellow comedians over the years, from 1983 to 2015. Apatow interviews various comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, James Brooks, Steve Martin, among many others, talking about their creative processes, comedic approaches, and personal struggles. As a half-primary, half-secondary source, this fits somewhat oddly in this bibliography, however this work will be crucial in understanding perspectives of comedians, and how they approach comedy in general, and difficult topics of mental health.

Berger, Phil. The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-up Comics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Berger’s Last Laugh paints a broader picture of the development of stand-up comedy in the US, using a narrative format to describe early standups from the 1940s and 50s, moving up through to the 70s. Because of its narrative format, it offers a uniquely comedic tone, and helps to show how stand-up evolved alongside comedians big and small. It also offers a way to map the development of how mental health came to stand-up to the profession writ large.

Declercq, Dieter. Satire, Comedy and Mental Health: Coping with the Limits of Critique. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing, 2021.

Declercq offers an examination of satire’s political nature and its impact on mental health. It explores conventional views on the value of satire, addressing debates regarding its political efficacy and emotional catharsis, and it appears to be the only readily available work to be making this direct connection. Declercq argues that satire’s most remarkable aspect is its capacity to help individuals cope with critique, and that understanding satire grants a deeper understanding of mental health. As the only work directly examining the project topic, it will likely be an invaluable guide to breaking down connections between comedy and mental health.

Eagleton, Terry. Humor. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

Eagleton’s Humor is a literary focused breakdown of the elements of humor, written as literary criticism more than a historical or psychological approach. Not only does that fact not garner it an important role in this project, its deconstruction of humor in general is incredibly useful in illuminating the how comedy is created, and gives clues as to what and how comedians, writers, satirists, etc have joked about. This leaves a fascinating path to follow to explore how jokes about complex topics like mental health are created and approached by comedians.

Ezell, Silas Kaine. Humor and Satire on Contemporary Television: Animation and the American Joke. London: Routledge, 2016.

Much of this bibliography focuses on a specific mode of comedy: stand-up, or more generally, live comedy. Much of what drives common perceptions of mental health is popular movies and television, and so this source is an attempt to shore up that deficiency in this bibliography. Ezell provides a more modern perspective than many of the other sources here, a view outside of live comedy, and provides a framework that will help to analyze primary sources this project will use.

Finney, Gail, ed. Look Who’s Laughing: Gender and Comedy. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1994.

As the title suggests, Finney explores how women have existed in the comedic space, both through female comics, and how women have been treated by comedy. On its own, it is a useful summary and examination of the role of women and gender in American comedy, but paired with Lanady’s Madcaps and Mizejewski’s Hysterical! it looks to help draw out the perception of a throughline between women who are mentally ill, and those who pursue comedy.

Federman, Wayne. The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle. Independently Published, 2021.

Federman’s History of Stand-Up is another overview work on standup, but is a fair deal more contemporary than Berger. One thing that Federman does is delve a bit deeper into the origins of live comedy in the US, harkening back to vaudeville, even tracing the lineage of modern American comedy back to minstrel shows, something that this bibliography will come to explore more deeply. Understanding such roots, and how they informed the profession will be critical to explaining how topics like mental health came to be depicted.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). Translated by James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1963.

Despite his controversial legacy in modern psychiatry, Freud’s works loom large over the profession, and his work on the role of humor in psychiatry is no less important to the study of psychology or of humor. Framed through Freud’s preferred lens, that of the subconscious, this work serves to establish a historiographical basis for the connection between comedy and mental health. It also serves to buttress some of the psychological works and aspects in this project, and to connect the idea of the use of jokes in relation to mental health to ideas of social bonding

Gelkopf, Marc. “The Use of Humor in Serious Mental Illness: A Review.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (January 1, 2011): 1–8.

Far more scientific in tone than other entries in this bibliography, Gelkoph takes a decidedly scientific and treatment focused examination of comedy in a clinical setting. In addition to further fleshing out the more overtly psychological side of this bibliography, it stands to introduce some novel rhetorical concepts about how humor can be used as treatment for mental illness, both formally and informally, and expand upon ideas of humor as a tool of social cohesion explored elsewhere in these sources.

Gibson, Janet M. An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor. London: Routledge, 2019.

In what is decidedly a textbook, Gibson’s Introduction serves as a comprehensive psychological look at the roots of humor. While somewhat unique in this bibliography due to its format, this source is pivotal to exploring the psychological underpinnings of humor, providing insights into the origins of what society finds funny, how humor is utilized effectively in various contexts, and how those played into evolving topics of mental health in comedy. 

Greenberg, Jonathan. The Cambridge Introduction to Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Much like Eagleton, Greenberg’s work is more literary focused, especially as it is a reader on satire. While disconnected from the American context in particular, Greenberg helps to explain how satire developed from ancient antecedents, and explore the evolution of written humor, and delineate the careful yet important distinction of satire and comedy. Also like Eagleton, this work will be useful in creating a timeline of comedic trends, and how popular jokes come to exist.

Hess, Linda. “Cringe and Sympathy: The Comedy of Mental Illness in Flowers.” Humanities 10, no. 4 (November 20, 2021): 121.

Hess examines the use of cringe comedy in the Channel 4 show Flowers, and how the depiction of cringe represents a realistic portrayal of mental illness. Part of Hess’ analysis revolves around Flowers’ self-reflexive use of narrativity, how the show draws attention to the culturally constructed and narrativized nature of mental illness throughout history, an idea critical to this project. This is useful as an accurate portrayal of mental disorders, but also as a signal that accuracy, rather than simple mentions, were beginning to be the important part of depicting mental illness on screen, comedically or dramatically.

Kanfer, Stefan. Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball. New York: Knopf, 2003.

In looking at the life of Lucille Ball, Kanfer conducts what is, for the purpose of this project, a case study on how mental health difficulties affect a comedian, and what that means for their comedy and their image. While it is important to proceed with caution when it comes to a third person view of someone’s mental health, it nonetheless can provide a useful insight into an individual perspective from a third party. One concept explored here that this project will delve much deeper into is the idea of the facade of normalcy that tended to exist around celebrities at the time, and how that affected the mental health and performance of certain material in the mid twentieth century.

Krefting, Rebecca. All Joking Aside: American Humor and its Discontents. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

In All Jokes Aside, Krefting looks at “charged humor” and its use in creating and defining groups, and the important role that humor plays as a societal regulator. Krefting uses the frame of charged humor to examine subversive comedy, counterculture comedy, and how humor fits in stratified social, political, and economic contexts. This work is invaluable in getting at the social role of comedy, how it can be used as a signal for behavior, and how it can both break and reinforce various societal norms and standards.

Landay, Lori. Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Landay’s Madcaps offers a valuable exploration of gender stereotypes and their connection to portrayals of mental health through the trope of the “trickster” character in popular media. The title itself hints at the association between women and notions of “crazy,” which illuminates certain societal perceptions of women and their emotions. This source not only delves into the historical context of these stereotypes but also examines how female trickster figures in American culture have played a role in perpetuating or subverting such associations. Landay’s work provides critical insights into the intersection of gender, comedy, and mental health, making it an invaluable inclusion

Martin, Rod A., and Thomas E. Ford. The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach. Second edition. London: Elsevier, 2018.

As with Gibson, Martin and Ford also write a textbook that is more geared to the psychological sciences than it is history or literary criticism. That said, Martin and Ford delve into theory, and take a rather interdisciplinary approach towards explaining some of the more evolutionary and physiological roots of humor alongside the more social factors. Again, like Gibson, this source is meant to provide a solid psychological context for examining mental health and comedy, both directly with each other in clinical settings, and more abstractly in cultural contexts.

Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. 

Much like Ezell, Mast provides a branch away from what is live, and into comedy during the silent era of film, offering crucial insights into the early development of American comedy. Mast will serve as a vital resource for constructing a timeline of the evolution of comedic styles in American cinema. By focusing on the silent film era, Mast’s work delves into the foundational elements of visual humor, slapstick, and physical comedy that laid the groundwork for future comedic traditions, and offers a lens through which to examine how themes of mental health were portrayed or alluded to during this formative period. 

Micale, Mark S. “Hysteria and its Historiography.” History of Science 27, no. 4 (1989): 319–351.

This article is a fairly standard review of the literature surrounding hysteria from Micale, and while it may seem out of place in this bibliography, it does two things that will be useful to this project. The first, and most important, is providing a historical baseline of how mental illnesses were thought of, both through and in the literature. Secondly, it provides a certain amount of historiographical review on gendered notions of hysteria, which come into play when discussing women and mental health in American comedy.

Mills, Brett. The Sitcom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Perhaps one of the most important developments in television was the emergence of the situational comedy, or the “sitcom.” Mills’ work takes the form of a genre analysis, and explores how things like production, tropes, etc shape our understanding of the genre and limit what sitcoms can be. Not only is this useful for further deconstructing television, many of the modern primary sources this project will use are often called sitcoms, so using Mills’ framework on these modern examples may color the interpretation of relevant themes. 

Mizejewski, Linda. Hysterical!: Women in American Comedy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. 

Mizejewski’s Hysterical! will likely be a pivotal resource for this project, offering a contemporary, in-depth exploration of gender dynamics within American comedy. Another reader, the collection delves into the multifaceted relationship between women actively engaged in comedy and how derogatory stereotypes that have colored their comedy or their person as crazy, or more accurately, hysterical, a term with a fair amount of historical baggage. Mizejewski’s analysis sheds light on the complexities of gendered humor and offers a valuable lens through which to explore mental health in the context of women’s roles in comedy. 

Sawallisch, Nele. “‘Horsin’ Around’? #MeToo, The Sadcom, and BoJack Horseman.” Humanities 10, no. 4 (October 29, 2021): 115.

In this article, Sawallisch explores the blend of tragic and comedic elements in the animated series BoJack Horseman, specifically focusing on its fifth season from 2018. The show, which she dubs a “sadcom,” is analyzed in the context of larger inquiries into the interplay between tragic and comic modes of humor, such as elements of awkwardness and cringe. Sawallisch argues that season 5 emphasizes notions of authenticity and solidarity, which are core themes in sadcoms. This focus on the specific intersection of “tragicomedic” elements in a sitcom, coupled with a deep examination of mental health, offers a valuable contribution in the study of humor in contemporary television to this bibliography.

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