The Cruel Joke of the Sad Clown

I relate too much to Andrew Koenig. I'm not saying I knew the man, I didn't. But when his body was found yesterday, no news report had to tell me that he had taken his own life. I had known that since the missing persons report had come out. 

I'm not psychic, I didn't know something no one else did. But Andrew Koenig left his friends, family, and home on February 14th and set out to do what I almost did 2 years ago to the day. But this story isn't about me, and it transcends Andrew. He was beloved by scores of people, who will no doubt remember him in words more eloquent than I could write. This is about a type of person who is the embodiment of the comedy/tragedy masks. The symbol of drama, of acting, and the mask we who wail on the inside and laugh on the outside wear every day. The mask that grows so heavy, so, so heavy, that some of us can no longer go on wearing it. People like Andrew Koenig. 

When I first heard confirmation of his suicide, the first person who came to my mind was Richard Jeni. Richard Jeni was the first stand-up comedian I ever saw, on pilfered HBO during a babysitting gig when I was probably all of 12 years old. I remember laughing so hard I quite literally tipped off the couch, with tears streaming down my cheeks. Jeni was so funny, so brilliant in his observational wit, that as I grew older and started to write humor pieces, he often came to mind. I quoted his act shamelessly, and devoured every cable special I could find featuring him. I can still hear his voice in my memory.

Richard Jeni took his own life in 2007. And while I was horrified and devastated that one of my heroes of comedy was gone, I only had to look at some of his material to see the pain behind the laughter. Andrew Koenig didn't have the comedy fame that Jeni had, but he was prolific in the LA improv scene, and that was no small feat. He, and Richard, were Shakespearian in their tragedy: The sad clown.

In my lifelong battle with depression, the tool, nay, the weapon I use most is humor. The more self-deprecating, the better. If I couldn't be happy on the inside, I could make OTHERS happy, and man, making someone else laugh is one of the best feelings in the world. It's a drug for me. I absolutely get high off of the sound of laughter, and the knowledge that I caused that laughter? Is a power trip like no other. "I did that," I think, and pride, a rare emotion for me, swells. I imagine it did for Andrew, and Richard, and all the other sad clowns. I have friends who are sad clowns, dear friends, and I SEE IT, the pain behind the laughing eyes. And it terrifies me. Because I know what they are feeling inside.

There's only so much acting one can do before the facade slips. And for some, the ones who take their own lives, or try to, there must be an incredible sense of relief as that laughing mask, which on the inside is full of needles set in concrete, falls and shatters on the ground. 

I'm not here to validate or excuse suicide. I'm here to say that when a person whose craft it is to make others happy kills him or herself, whether it be from a gunshot or an OD, accidentally or purposefully, it is in some way connected with the laughter. The laughter didn't go away, it simply wasn't strong enough to keep the mask in place. And when you live your life with a mask on, losing that mask, that shield from one's own emotions, can be too much to bear. 

So may you find peace, Andrew. And may your family and friends heal enough, someday, to remember you with laughter instead of tears. I can think now of my stand-up hero Richard Jeni and smirk, his memorable one liners and hilarious tangents still locked in my mind, word for word. I'd like to think he's somewhere now, appreciating that I can do that. And I know I'm not the only one. 

If you, or someone you know is in trouble, 1-800-SUICIDE is there to help, 24/7.  


The Cruel Joke of the Sad Clown — 15 Comments

  1. I’m going to throw something out there, and I’m doing it because I’m hoping you can perhaps provide some insight.
    As a faithful Perez Hilton reader, each time it’s revealed that a celebrity commits suicide, he (or his goons) write at the end of the entry, “…suicide is NOT the answer” (all-capped “not” and all). And there’s something about this that bothers me.
    Were I to face someone who was suicidal, of course I wouldn’t encourage them to take their own life. I’d try to talk them out of it. Awkwardly, but that’s what I’d do. That’s what most people would do.
    Except…someone I know committed suicide, and she felt she was putting an end to her own suffering, as well as an end to the suffering she was inflicting on those around her. She’d attempted suicide many times, and each time worried the bejesus out of those who loved her. It’s sad that she succeeded in the end, but her depression was so deep that this was a legitimate decision for her. And though nobody would have ever affirmed that she’d caused them any suffering (and I’m sure they didn’t see it that way anyhow), I can’t help but see her point. Her suffering was so intense, so viceral, so incredibly all-consuming, that this was a way out for her. And when she did it, grief-stricken though her family was, they also felt relief themselves in knowing she was finally at peace.
    So when I read “suicide is NOT the answer,” I can’t help but feel it undermines the experience of that level of depression. Suicide is tragic, of course, but for some people, it ~is~ the answer. You talk about the weight of that mask, and suicide provides relief to those who wear it.
    Not that I would encourage anyone to commit suicide. Of course I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t encourage it because I simply don’t understand the experience of depression. I don’t understand what it is to seek relief from that level of everyday, won’t-let-up pain.
    So in the end, I suppose what I want to know is, how do you talk someone out of it? How do you convince them that there’s another way to find relief? What is relief? How does it work?
    I guess I just feel that those who are on the outside of this experience don’t have the right tools or language to help people deal with suicidal thoughts, in part because we’re not in their shoes, but mostly because there’s still a taboo surrounding suicide. For example, we can understand why someone who’s suffering badly from a disease (like terminal cancer or the final stages of AIDS) wants to put an end to it. But we don’t have the same rule for someone who’s suffering badly from an emotional ailment.
    Yet for some people, like the girl I knew, suicide was an act of mercy on herself and the people she loved. Those of us around her would never have seen it that way, but I can’t help but feel that we need to better understand how she saw it.
    Does any of this sound totally horrible? I hope it doesn’t.

  2. Your comment is really thought provoking – I’ll write more about the subject of suicide soon. Thanks for the push to think more about it, Olivia. And no, you don’t sound horrible.

  3. Isn’t it hard to write about suicide when you’ve been on the brink yourself? When I try to explore the subject my readers cannot abide the pain. Well, tell me about it. I hope you continue to write. And your blog/flickr/twitter is so great and real. Thanks for looking in the mirror and being brave and wonderfully artistic.

  4. Reading this while listening to the Elliott Smith song Tracey just posted and…
    Fuck. I get what you’re talking about, and I get what Olivia’s talking about, and still…
    Hell. I don’t even know what I want to say here. But thank you for saying it.

  5. Coming from a theatre background, I know the sad clown all too well. Its all too common that those who are the funniest – that make us laugh the hardest – are usually the most tragic and complicated within. You can sometimes catch that glimpse of pain before they realize you’re looking at them.
    I will say that I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Jeni and his mother at one of the restaurants that I worked in when I lived in New York. He was a beautiful, kind man and I, too, adored him for the laughter/gut laughs into tears that he gave us all. I was shocked and taken aback when he took his life. Though I cannot fathom the pain that he endured to come to that conclusion, I still wish there was something we all could have done to make him feel treasured – perhaps understood?
    Though the court jester feels it is his duty to make us all chuckle. I would hope that the jester would also see how treasured and valuable he is – not just someone to kick about for laughs. Our lives would be sad and empty without these sad clowns. I know I love the sad clowns in my life for more than the happy facade. I love them for their complexity, wit, and intelligence.
    I don’t know – I suppose I’m trying to reach out and hug a sad clown today. 🙂

  6. Lovely post. I am so saddened by Andrew Koenig’s decision to end his life, but I can’t imagine what he must’ve been feeling to have made such a final choice. I’ve never been suicidal, but I have been in the depths of despair — and it’s an ugly place to be. I wish for his family to know that he’s at peace now.

  7. It’s so incredibly heartbreaking for the families and friends of those who choose to take their own lives.
    Unfortunately, the person who commits suicide is trying to save others around them from the pain the person is feeling. When in actuality, most people would rather have a broken friend or family member than a dead one.

  8. I always wonder, as a Christian with my own mental health struggles, what happens when one successfully ends their own life with suicide. I don’t buy the burning in hell idea but I do believe energy follows us…what happens if that pain follows them into death? It makes my head and my heart hurt worse for both the families and the lost ones.

  9. I read this post this morning and have been thinking about it all day for a variety of reasons, some of which have been addressed already in previous comments. There are days, friend, when I am so mentally and emotionally exhausted from putting on my apparent happy face that I wonder if I’ll have the stamina to do it again the next day, wishing instead I could just not. My head is filled with conversations I want to have and things I want to scream and I just don’t. I don’t. Because then what am I supposed to do with them, you know?
    I don’t really know what my intent is within this comment. I just wanted to say I grasped onto chunks of this post and haven’t been able to let them go.

  10. Dear fadkog,
    I’ve been where you are, and when it was at its worst, and I felt as if the pain was almost more than I could endure, but I did not have the money for therapy, I started going to AlAnon. For me, it was a place where I could go and just sit and listen, or just sit and cry, or talk, without judgment. I needed to say some things out loud. It was incredibly important to me at that time to be able to say what I needed, to people who would get it but not try to fix me.

  11. I called a suicide hotline once. The guy was such a shockingly stupid idiot that I think it snapped me out of whatever it was I was going through. But it did make me concerned about suicide hotlines. I don’t think I would ever call one again.

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