Heard the one about comedy helping people to recover from trauma?

Angie Belcher, comedian has developed a course of prescription comedy to help people recover after trauma. It’s been so well received, that it will now be offered to people at risk of suicide

You’re on stage. You have the mic in your hand. The audience is looking, waiting. You’re the main act, but your mind has gone blank. The heckling begins. Quick, a joke, or any joke. “Knock, knock…” 

Public speaking rivals spiders and heights as one of society’s most prevalent fears, but for standup comedy no yardstick exist: it’s simply too terrifying. 

Will Reynolds, however, is not shy. A resident of Bath, Reynolds is already a veteran of the south-west comedy circuit, eschewing his natural shyness to take to the stage and – hopefully – raise a laugh or two. 

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“When people say: ‘I’m not funny’, it’s just not true,” insists Reynolds, who was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). “Everyone has a decent 10 minutes in them, regardless of whether they want to do standup or not.” 

His unshakeable belief in everyone’s “inner comedian” comes from a chance encounter with fellow south-west Angie Belcher is a pioneer in art therapy and a comedic talent. 

After seeing Reynolds perform, Belcher invited Reynolds to join her course for those who are just starting out in comedy. Describing her sessions as “a bit like creative writing courses”, Belcher walked Reynolds and his fellow students through the basics of observational comedy: everything from how to find humour in everyday life, to tips on reading a room of strangers. 

Angie Belcher wants participants to see the joy in difficult times. Image: Damien Hockey

Although her courses are nominally designed to prepare students for a brief set, Belcher is not concerned about whether they actually do. It is what comedy can do for her that matters most. 

“It’s not about becoming a pro performer,” she says. “It’s just about enjoying the idea of being on the stage and going: ‘Hey, I want to talk about my being bipolar or having dyslexia’.” 

With a background in psychology, Belcher knows the benefits of airing experiences or feelings that we’d sometimes rather keep hidden. They will grow if you find humor in them. What’s Mickey Mouse’s line? “To laugh at yourself is to love yourself.” 

I’m hoping this will be a way for people to learn a new way to talk about themselves

The examples she gives are of bipolar disorder or dyslexia. But there’s also a reason why the conditions are top of mind. Together with the NHS-backed Wellspring Settlement Social PrescribingBelcher, a unit in Bristol, launched a pilot course to help trauma survivors. It was deemed a success and has now won NHS funding to help men at risk of suicide in London.

“Using comedy as therapy is not entirely new, but this is the first time, that I know of, of a social prescribing team applying it specifically to trauma,” she explains. 

The ‘comedy on referral’ class employs group work, games and one-to-one coaching with Belcher. The idea? To “explore blocks” and address emotional issues in participants’ lives through the art of standup. 

‘I hope this will be a way for people to learn a new way to talk about themselves,’ Belcher says. Image: Damien Hockey

Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and postnatal depression are all common emotional problems that the course addresses. 

One of Belcher’s main aspirations is to help participants see joy in dark moments. Ask any comedian and they’ll tell you that the best jokes are made when things go wrong. A beach vacation that is idyllic is not funny. However, a beach vacation that is ruined by an all-night party could be. 

Belcher knows trauma is serious and does not encourage people to go faster or further than they are comfortable with. That said, once a relationship of trust is in place, she’s frequently surprised how eager people are to open up. 

In every terrible situation, there’s invariably one thing that makes you giggle

“In every terrible situation, there’s invariably one thing that makes you giggle and think: ‘Gosh, this is really awful, but it’s also kind of funny’. That’s the one thing that people always want to talk to me about,” she laughs. 

Belcher believes that comedy can have positive knock-on effects beyond its individual benefits. For example, it could help to end the stigma surrounding discussing mental health issues or other trauma sources. To move, in short, to sharing and caring. “I’m hoping this will be a way for people to learn a new way to talk about themselves,” Belcher says. 

She gives the example of Tig Notaro, a US comedian who famously spoke to a live audience in Los Angeles about her battle with breast cancer only a few days after being diagnosed. Notaro opened her show with the line: “Hello. Good evening. I have cancer. How’s everybody doing?”

It can be very empowering to have a microphone in your hand and some jokes in you head. Image: Fun4all

Dubbed “instantly legendary” by Rolling Stone, recordings of the set have since been heard by millions. “I suppose that’s what we do as comedians,” reflects Belcher. “We professionally share our lives and report back on all the awful things that have happened to us – and that way, we create a new dialogue.” 

Back in Bath, Will Reynolds couldn’t agree more. He says that the comedy course gave him the tools to make disability issues more visible. 

He loves the feeling of making people laugh. “I’ve had morphine,” says Reynolds, who has just returned home after a long stint in hospital, “and it’s way better than that!

Main image: Damien Hockey