Mental Floss

Mental Illness / Mental Floss Blog – 29th July 12


Hello and welcome to my latest blog. Come in. Sit down. And take the weight off your cargo pants.


The headline indicates that this time around I’m writing about a serious subject. Mental illness is no laughing matter, despite the fact that in comedy everything is open game. However, in case any of you are thinking “Hmm. This sounds a bit of a downer. I might skip this one, watch the womens’ synchronised underwater knitting at the Olympics and wait for Phils next blog “ , let me assure you the following contents, while being informative, will also be, where appropriate, light-hearted.


Thinking about it, my opening statement is incorrect. Mental illness has been a laughing matter for centuries – to varying degrees. In the 18th Century people would pay a penny each to be allowed into Bethlem Royal Hospital in Moorfields, London to laugh and cruelly poke fun at the hundreds of unfortunate slack-jawed, dead-eyed, mental patients weeping and wailing as they repeatedly banged their mis-shapen heads against the crude stone walls of their fetid cells.


Obviously we haven’t come to a light-hearted bit yet.


In 1841 alone, 96,000 people visited the hospital to stare and giggle at the inmates. The first Tuesday of the month saw them queuing around the block to get in. Entry was free on those days. You’ll probably know the Bethlem Hospital by its better-known name….Bedlam.


“ Yes, but we’ve come a long way since them“ I hear you say. “ We’re much more civilized “. Oh really? Then you tell me what the difference is between 18th century bullies, doubled-up at the sight of a confused ex-foot soldier with shellshock, gibbering away to himself…and the people in the audience at The X Factor or Britains Got Talent auditions, hooting with laughter at some deluded unfortunate without one iota of talent and suffering some (hopefully) minor mental problems, who the producers thought would ‘ liven up ‘ the show? And hand on heart, I bet you’ve sat at home watching and enjoying these moments too, even if you did feel a little guilty at the time.


Taking that into consideration, I don’t think we’ve come too far, personally.


There are of course varying degrees of mental illness, some of which depend on your viewpoint on various subjects. For example, if you’re a particularly religious person, you’ll probably believe in a God/Creator who fashioned this Earth in seven days and who sits around in Heaven, waiting to greet and shake hands with the deceased as they walk through the Pearly Gates. You believe this despite having no absolute proof that He or She exists. If anyone suggested you were mentally ill because of your beliefs, you’d be offended.


But how do you feel about people who firmly believe in fairies, angels, pixies, lizard men from the centre of the earth, aliens, The Yeti and U.F.O’s, even though there’s never been any absolute proof they exist? When you see them on tv going on about their obsessions, do you shake your head and think “Poor deluded fool”? If so, what you’re doing is passing judgement on their mental state.


People with OCD, who wash their hands and clean their house over and over, have a slight mental illness. But people who clean their cars inside and out every Sunday morning and meticulously mow their lawns and trim their garden hedges are merely regarded as ‘ neat ‘. It’s a thin line.


Mental illness, like physical illness, can invade all walks of life – and comedy is no exception. From the great clown Joseph Grimaldi to Spike Milligan and more recently Paul Merton and Caroline Aherne, comedians have had their problems keeping sane while making audiences laugh for a living.


Comedians and performers are particularly vulnerable to mental fragility as they face rejection on a regular basis. In fact every time they stand on a stage or in front of a radio microphone or television camera, they have to prove themselves. It only takes a couple of sub-standard performances, perhaps and the word gets round….” So and so’s not as funny as he/she used to be….”


Rejection can be so damaging to the seasoned performer just as much as it is to the young or new talent. We all feel pain on a bad night or when that cruel of cutting review is read.


I’ve stood in front of an audience, delivering a routine that got big laughs in another venue the previous week….and this particular night I got a staring ovation. Nothing. Zilch. There’s no real reason for my jokes to be received in silence – unless the audience were German tourists – but it’s agony for a comic.


The nights you went well, you’ll always remember. The nights you went badly, you’ll never forget.


No wonder there is so much mental illness in the world of entertainment.


I pride myself in being supportive and encouraging to all my fellow performers, despite the fact that the world of comedy can lack professional respect – a possible subject for a future blog.


You may have noticed that TV and Radio are currently publicising the fact mental illness should be dealt with openly and we should be more supportive. I couldn’t agree more, but as a nation our lack of understanding or ignorance of the subject makes this a long drawn-out challenge.


Having known, and worked with some clever and talented people, it is sometimes hard to accept or understand that they are, or can, become ill or mentally challenged at any time.


Life is full of ups and downs, highs and lows, and we can be affected in many ways. Anything can send a relatively normal person (not that there is any one absolutely 100% normal person anywhere in the world ) hurtling towards the door marked “Nervous Breakdown “. It could be pressure of work, marital problems or money worries. Some people can deal with these matters without it affecting their mental state. I take my hat off to them.


But if you have a run of bad luck (presuming such a thing as luck exists – that’s another possible subject for a future blog ) starting with, say, a family bereavement, followed immediately by a car accident, a kitchen flood, a sick child, redundancy, being overdrawn on your overdraft and a summons being handed to you…it would take a very strong person not to be sent mentally reeling by this relentless pummelling, if only for a few days.


How can we deal with such matters? It may take a visit to the G.P. for some happy pills to see you through this stressful time. But friendships and being surrounded by positive, understanding, uplifting people is also important. Whether it’s your partner, family member or a good friend, having someone who can take the long view and assure you that better times are ahead is vitally important. You many not believe them at first, but as things do get better, you’ll remember their words and be grateful for them.


I have worked with, and for many talented household names over the years and hopefully this will continue for years to come. And if I end up mentally challenged, I very much hope that someone out there will take me to one side and say “Phil. It’ s okay. We understand. This will pass and all will be ok”.


But until it does pass, Iet me make it clear right now that, as a professional funny man, I’ll be charging vistors a damn sight more than a penny a time to come and laugh at me bouncing around inside my padded cell. And the dvd rights will remain mine in perpetuity.


In the words of the great radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane…” I wish you good bye…and good mental health “.


Thanks for reading and please spread the word xxx