When the Laughter Dies

Before we begin the sermon, I would like to preface it by stating that it will be dealing with issues relating to mental health and suicide and Jewish responses to these critical issues. I know for some, this is a very sensitive issue, and if you choose that this sermon hits a too little close to home, I completely understand.

It is undeniable that Jews have had an incredible impact on American culture beginning in the early days of the 20th century. One could argue that our fellow landsmen were instrumental in the invention of Hollywood and the comic book superhero. We were also heavily involved in the development of Jazz, the musical comedy on Broadway, the arts, poetry, and cuisine, just to name a few. But for our purposes today, it was also Jews also helped bring to maturity the art of the stand-up comic.

The antecedents to stand-up comedy in our country date back to the wandering minstrel shows whose origins date back to before the Civil War. That being said, the stand-up comedian as we know it, really traces its lineage back to the days of Vaudeville. As author Kliph Nesteroff notes in his book The Comedians, “at the start of the twentieth century, the United States had close to five thousand vaudeville theaters. There were small houses with less than five hundred seats, medium theaters seating a thousand and large palaces that accommodated anywhere from fifteen hundred to five thousand people. The result was an immense working-class circuit, an underbelly where future stars learned their craft.”[1]

The number of famous names who honed their craft working in conditions that were dreadful at best and horrific at worst, are almost too many to recite. They include Abbott and Costello, Fatty Arbuckle, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, the Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, and the list goes on and on. Some of them went on to fame and fortune by appearing in radio and later in the movies.

Others worked the comedy circuit which moved on from Vaudeville first to night clubs, then to Vegas, then to the Borscht Belt, followed by the boom with the rise of the comedy clubs in the 60s and 70s.

Most of the early stand-up performers were not much more than joke tellers. In Nesteroff’s words, “prior to the 1950s the vocation of stand-up comic was not far removed from being a door-to-door salesman. One learned the basics, memorized some routines, found an agent at 1650 Broadway and called himself a comic … A 1946 book called From Gages to Riches praised comedians who used lines like “I know there’s an audience out there, I can hear you breathing” and “Is this an audience or a jury?” It’s amazing anyone earnestly used lines now associated with Fozzie Bear, but the Willy Loman approach worked for decades.”[2]

It was not really until the 1950s when comedians “like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters came along … (who) led a revolution by developing their own material, derived from their actual personalities,”[3] that modern stand-up comedy, as we know it today, came into existence.”

With the rise of the modern comedian also came the stereotype of the sad-clown. As was noted in a recent CNN article, “Legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized that comedians often tell jokes as a kind of relief system from some kind of anxiety.”[4]

Not all comedians buy into this theory. As Nesteroff notes, “The ‘tears of a clown’ idea has dominated comedy discourse even as giants like Johnny Carson and Jerry Seinfeld rejected this idea. ‘There are a lot of unhappy people driving bread trucks, but when it’s a comedian people find it very poignant,’ said Seinfeld. ‘Some of them are in pain but I don’t see that as a thread.’ Carson said, ‘There have been volumes written about why comedians are lonely, depressed, rejected, hostile, within themselves. They say you must be suffering. I don’t adhere to that philosophy.’”[5] Carson went on to explain further.

All that being said, many Jewish comics embody the themes of the neurotic and troubled individual. And we, as an audience, eat it up. There is something about witnessing a person open themselves up completely and fully in such a raw and powerful way that makes us laugh and helps us to navigate our own worlds. As Richard Lewis, whom Mel Brooks once described as the “Franz Kafka of modern-day comedy” said, “I read somewhere that when I go on stage, people realize that they’re not me and they feel better.” But at the same time, these comedians are also making a huge sacrifice for our benefit, that sometimes ends in tragedy.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this comedian filled with inner turmoil was the late-great, Robin Williams. Though not Jewish, Robin incorporated many Jewish imitations and Yiddishisms in his routines. At a dinner for the Shoah Foundation, Robin started his routine by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen … welcome to Temple Beth Prada. This evening’s meal will be milchidik, fleishadik, and sushidik.”[6]

Robin was also close friends with Steven Spielberg and Billy Crystal. And Robin and others even referred to him as an “honorary Jew.” Following his death, Steve Martin referred to Williams as a ‘mensch.’

Recently author Dave Itzkoff wrote a fascinating and in-depth biography on him simply entitled, “Robin.” Itzkoff tells the story of Robin’s childhood as the only child of divorcees. How he grew up, upper-middle class, and developed his imagination playing with, among other things, toy soldiers. How he really did not come to improv or comedy until college, and how he was inspired by Jonathan Winters, whose improvisational stand-up would become the basis for Robin’s own manic energy that awed so many of his fellow comedians during the 70s and 80s. And how his tragic death by suicide left the world bewildered, a little more sad, and a little less funny.

Robin was a constant in my childhood. From his days on Mork and Mindy, to Popeye, which the critics hated, but I enjoyed, to his standup specials and Comic Relief, and later to his movies like Good Morning Vietnam, which was his first major critical success, and later to one of my favorites growing up, Dead Poets Society and later Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire and so many more, and his late night show appearances, I knew I could count on him for a laugh, a respite from my own feelings.

So of course, his sudden death came as a shock. Why would someone so beloved, so famous, so funny, want to take their own life? It was later revealed that, Robin suffered from Lewy Body Disease. In the words of Izkoff, “Lewy Body Disease, a dementia believed to affect more than 1.3 million people in America – and far more men than women – results from a buildup of protein deposits in the brain.”[7] As Izkoff goes on to explain, “It is also a disease with an associated risk of suicide, particularly when patients are younger and before its most severe effects have set in. ‘If you’re young, if you have insight into what’s happening, and you have some of the associated symptoms – like depression and the hallucinations … that’s when we think the risk of suicide is highest…” Or as his friend and fellow comedian Billy Crystal stated, “My heart breaks that he suffered and only saw one way out.”[8] For some, the diagnosis of Lewy Body Disease is comforting because it provides, and explanation, a reason for why Robin did what he did. But in reading the narrative of his life, this rational explanation is far too simple for such an irrational act.

Robin battled with demons throughout much of his adult life. When not on stage, he was described often as being quiet, lonely, and reclusive. It was the audience and the laughter and applause that he lived for. More often than not, Robin would rather portray a character rather than be his genuine self. The question being, what happens when the applause and the laughter stops?
Suicide is often described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But this description is problematic because it puts the blame solely on the shoulders of the person who commits the act.

Judaism has had a complex relationship with mental health. As an article in My Jewish Learning explains, “There is little direct discussion of mental illness in the Bible, though some have suggested that various biblical figures, most notably King David, may have suffered from depression. In the Bible, “madness” is described in several places as a form of divine punishment. In Deuteronomy, shigaon — an antecedent term for the common Yiddish expression meshuggeneh, or crazy — is one of the forms of divine retribution for those who don’t heed the word of God. Later in that section, God says that the Jewish people will become “m’shuga” after a foreign people steals their crops and abuses them.”[9]

The rabbis of the Talmud deal with mental illness mostly in terms of competency and ability to fulfill religious obligations. As is stated in tractate the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chagigah 3b Our Rabbis have taught: What is a “shoteh” [translated until now as a mentally ill person]? He who goes out alone at night, and he who sleeps in a cemetery, and he who tears his clothes. It is stated: R. Hunna said, so long as they all take place at one time.”[10] Basically what the rabbis are doing here is giving examples of behaviors they feel a person of sound mind would not perform.

Or as My Jewish Learning goes on to explain, “According to traditional Jewish law, someone who is mentally incompetent — a category known as a shoteh, derived from the Hebrew word for wanderer or vagrant — is exempt from most religious obligations and cannot get married or bear witness. The Talmud describes such a person as someone who goes out alone at night (despite the dangers) or sleeps in a cemetery — signs of his or her detachment from reality. Maimonides said the shoteh is someone who runs around naked or throws rocks.”[11]

Nowadays, we know mental health to be a much more complicated issue and rather than stigmatize it, we should strive to better understand it.

Recently Johann Hari, an insightful, but problematic writer composed the book – Lost Connections. Now before we dive into some of his insights, a note on Hari. He has been exposed to plagiarism, and his arguments against the use of anti-depressants are very much up for debate. Also, his examination of the bio-psychosocial model are not his own creation. The reason why I am referencing him is because he does provide a good and accessible summation relating to the issues we are discussing this evening. Or to put it another way, the causes of mental health issues are not exclusively in our heads.

Hari goes on to explain that there are nine causes of depression and anxiety: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from childhood trauma, disconnection from status and respect, disconnection from the natural world, disconnection from a hopeful or secure future, and from issues relating to genes and brain changes.[12]

Rather than dive into each one of his causes, we can simply note that there is a central theme running through his book. As Hari goes on to explain, “You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values you’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things. You need to release any shame you might feel for having been mistreated.

Every human being has these needs, and in our culture, we’re relatively good at meeting physical needs … but we’ve become quite bad at meeting these psychological needs.”[13]

Now this is not to dismiss chemical issues in the brain. But to recognize that our brains and the way they function are also directly impacted by our environment, the world we live in and the worlds we build around us.

Our sages knew intrinsically that community was essential to the health and well-being of the individual, just as the individual is essential to the vitality and progress of the community. This is in part why we pray together in minyan, in a group. This is why we mourn in minyan, so no one ever mourns alone. This is why we celebrate life cycle events in community, and this is also why no one should suffer alone.

So how can we, as a Jewish community, help to take on the issue of mental health? First off, we need to be more open. We need to stop stigmatizing people who suffer from depression and anxiety. We need to stop whispering in hushed tones as if depression and anxiety are a communicable disease.

We need to be more open about our own experiences. I myself have struggled with issues of depression and loneliness. A big part of it has to do with the nature of the modern rabbinate. It can be a very demanding and isolating profession at times. It often takes me away from my family and being an exemplar for a community can be spiritually and physically exhausting. Mind you, thankfully my thoughts have never gone done that dark road, and I have not been tempted to turn to the paths of drugs or alcohol as a means of coping. But, like many I do turn to ineffective remedies like food and buying things like guitars to try to fill that empty feeling.

However, this sermon is not about me nor is it about the rabbinate. Instead I am giving you a glimpse into my world because I know many of you are also struggling with similar feelings and emotions. I know this because we have had conversations about it. Not just about professions but also related to family disappointments and physical and emotional challenges of ageing.

We also need to trust our friends, our family, our community, our support networks enough to be more honest with them. Unlike most illnesses, mental health is mostly internal, though there can be physical manifestations. That is why we are so shocked when an Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade take their lives. They seemingly had it all, but clearly were fighting their own inner demons.

And perhaps, most importantly, we need to be ready, able and willing to listen and not judge. Our society is very much built on the superficial relationship. “I’m fine, you’re fine.” If you’re not fine, take a pill and feel better. Or the competitive, you think you’ve got problems, wait until you hear mine. Or the you think you’ve got it bad, so many others have it so much worse than you. In reality we know this is not helpful or constructive.

Instead we can be inspired by our tradition and by the High Holy Days. In its purist form, the haunting melody and words of Kol Nidre, and really the entirety of the liturgy of the Yamim Noraiim, these High Holy Days, invite us to stand before God; raw and exposed. Our liturgy is set up to create a model of support. We confess, we open up not just with God, but also with each other. It is hard work. It is awkward. It is discomforting. But it is also honest, and it is necessary. We may not be able to solve of the societal ills that leave so many anxious and depressed. But within the framework of our tradition and our heritage we do have a roadmap to be able to help ourselves and those who are suffering both silently and openly in our orbits.

In an interview with MTV in 1988 concerning his movie ‘What Dreams May Come,’ Robin Williams said, “My live now is extraordinary. It’s full of amazing people and such gifts, in terms of everything around me. I’m just so in awe of how I am right now … it makes me examine how precious the connections I have in this life [are]: family, friends. There are so many things that I really treasure. If anyone comes away with anything from the movie, if they look at their own life and really realize what they have or who is in their life. Then that’s interesting. Then I’ve accomplished something.”[14]

If you, or someone you love, is dealing with issues related to mental health, depression, and thoughts of suicide, please let us know. We have many wonderful mental health professionals in our congregation who can work with you directly and confidentially or can recommend someone for you. You don’t have to struggle alone. We, as a community, are here for you.

As we continue into the last day of the Yom Kippur, may we be reminded to build upon those most important connections in our lives. May we hear the voices crying out aloud or silently of those who are suffering. May we hear our own voices and be reminded to reach out to those who can help. May we remember that our lives are filled with blessings and with the potential for more blessings. May we be inspired by the legacies of those who have brought so much laughter and joy into our worlds and seek to do the same. And may we all know that we are not alone, but instead that we are part of a larger community and family that cares for us, that cares about us, and that is there for us. Amen.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

[1] Nesteroff, Kliph, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, New York, Grove Press, 2015, pg. 1

[2] Ibid pgs. XIV-XV

[3] Ibid pg. XV

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/01/health/sad-clown-standup-comedy-mental-health/index.html

[5] Comedians, pg. XIV

[6] https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/robin-williams-honorary-jew/

[7] Itzkoff, Dave, Robin, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2018, Pg. 424

[8] Ibid pgs. 426-247

[9] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-and-mental-illness/


[10] BT Talmud Tractate Chagigah 3b

[11] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-and-mental-illness/

[12] Hari, Johann, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, New York, Bloomsbury, 2018

[13] Ibid. pgs. 256-257

[14] http://www.mtv.com/news/1897008/robin-williams-afterlife-interview/