Stand-up comedy acting as therapy

Robert (Rob) De Boyrie had cue cards in his hands and a stuffed bunny in his pocket. The spotlight beamed on him as he walked on stage and stood in front of the mic.

“So many people think that individuals with schizophrenia are violent psychopaths,” De Boyrie said, “but that’s just only when we’re training for the zombie apocalypse.”

Laughter filled the room at the Registry Theatre in Kitchener-Waterloo as De Boyrie performed his comedy act. He and other comics had gathered to perform at the 10th anniversary of Stand Up For Mental Health, a program that teaches stand-up comedy as therapy to individuals with mental health issues.

David Granirer created the program in 2004. The inspiration for the program came to Granirer while he was teaching a comedy class at Langara College, in Vancouver, B.C.

“I remember there was a woman (student) who had a fear of flying, and she told me the day after of our showcase (comedy performance by students) that she had to get on a plane,” Granirer said. “And she said to me, ‘My fear (of flying) was gone because once I did stand-up, I could do anything.’”

Apart from being a comic and an instructor, Granirer is also a counsellor who has dealt with depression. He explained why offering help is an asset while teaching comedy to individuals with mental health problems.

“I wanted my life and the world to make sense, because a lot of the time I would see people with (mental health) problems (and) not understand what they were going through,” Granirer said.

Granirer’s program is taught and operated in the U.S., Australia and Canada, in partnership with mental health organizations. Allan Strong, one of Granirer’s students and also a social worker, runs the program in Kitchener-Waterloo. Strong was diagnosed with bipolar II when he was in his mid-30s. He explained why it is important to recognize mental health issues.

“I ask every fifth person in a room where I am performing, (public speaking or comedy) to stand up,” Strong said. “I do this because it is believed that one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem.”

Strong added that many people with mental health issues won’t admit it because they fear being judged or not being taken seriously. Robert De Boyrie addressed mental health issues while he was in high school. He would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21.

“I started hearing voices, I got really paranoid and didn’t want to be around people,” De Boyrie said.

For years, De Boyrie denied he had a mental health condition. He was apprehended by the police and taken to a psyche ward, where he learned more about schizophrenia through treatment.

He was motivated to join the Stand Up For Mental Health program after he saw Allan Strong performing (stand-up). De Boyrie contacted David Granirer, and began by learning how to write jokes.

“He (Granirer) gave us (students) homework, where we were asked to write five jokes,” De Boyrie said.  “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve tried, because sometimes the jokes wouldn’t be funny or the setup was incorrect.”

After studying comedy more thoroughly, De Boyrie got the hang of writing his own material and soon came up with “Bad Bunny.” During his stand-up performances, De Boyrie often uses the stuffed bunny as a prop. He explained its origin.

“When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend called ‘Bad Bunny,’” De Boyrie said. “If anything ever went wrong, I would blame it on Bad Bunny.”

De Boyrie explained that writing jokes about his personal life and mental health issues has helped his recovery, while at the same time addressing the stigma of mental health problems. De Boyrie’s mother, Elaine Paton, has played an integral role in his battle with schizophrenia.

“My mom volunteered for a tonne of organizations such as Schizophrenia Society, and tried to get support for me and the community,” De Boyrie said.

Paton soon joined the Stand Up For Mental Health program to support her son, and brought in a family perspective with the character “Bad Mummy.” With the support of his family friends and comedy, De Boyrie now spends his time raising awareness about mental health issues and assisting people who have schizophrenia. De Boyrie’s passion for comedy and mental health awareness is motivated by Granirer’s words.

“Most normal people wouldn’t think of doing stand-up comedy,” Granirer said.