Mental Health

Are artists allowed to be vulnerable?

Bo Burnham: Make happy?
Bo Burnham: Make happy?

Under the influence of a few beers Sunday night, Jake and I watched Bo Burnham’s most recent comedy show, Make Happy. The majority of the show is Bo being his ridiculous musical self, so I laughed. Then, he reached the big finale. I stopped laughing as Burnham, quite noticeably, stopped being a comedian.

It started innocently enough with a joke about Kanye West and Auto-Tune, the follow up being Burnham himself using Auto-Tune for a final musical number that opened with, “I have problems.”

So begins a rant about the preposterously small size of Pringles cans and the danger of over-stuffing Chipotle burritos. But then …

“I can sit here and pretend my biggest problems are Pringle cans and burritos. The truth is my biggest problem’s you. I wanna please you, but I wanna stay true to myself. I wanna give you the night out that you deserve. But I wanna sing what I think and not care what you think about it. A part of me loves you. A part of me hates you. A part of me needs you. A part of me fears you. And I don’t think that I can handle this right now. Look at them, they’re just staring at me, like ‘Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.’”

The monologue didn’t smack Jake in the face the way it did me, maybe because Jake isn’t an artist and I am.

Just last week, following the death of my cousin, I wrote a very personal essay on grief. On a conference call with my college advisor, she asked about the piece. She said, “Didn’t it make you feel vulnerable?” I thought about it. I thought some more. Then, I said, “No. My work never makes me feel vulnerable at all.”

Paxton-Abbott Photography.
Photo of me by Paxton-Abbott Photography.

My brother has asked similar questions, especially following a harrowing magazine essay I penned about my “cry for help” suicide attempt (which was later reiterated in Phoenix Magazine). He didn’t understand how I could put myself out there like that—metaphorically going to confession in front of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people.

Are artists allowed to be vulnerable, or should we hide behind a fictional veneer? As opposed to non-fiction, should I have made one of my fictional characters take a bunch of Klonopin and drink a bottle of vodka? Instead of opening a vein for his audience, should Burnham have gone on making jokes about race, drugs, and politics?

The hard truth (for some artists) is that being vulnerable is part of what makes us interesting. I spent years of my life pretending I was totally okay. Very few people knew about my depression and anxiety issues. In fact, if asked, most people thought I was the happiest, most sociable person they knew. Then, Robin Williams went and committed suicide, and I wrote an essay for about how I like to cut myself.

I believe it’s the artist’s choice whether or not to be vulnerable. I choose to be honest about my demons; others channel their demons into fiction; still others refuse to admit their demons even exist. But let’s be honest: audiences like demons, because everyone has ‘em—some people are just better at hiding.

“A part of me loves you.
A part of me hates you.
A part of me needs you.
A part of me fears you.”

Yes, this is how every actor/comedian/writer/painter/name-your-artistic-vocation feels every time we create anything. We love the good reviews. We cower from the bad. Sometimes, we need applause; other times, we just want to create in peace. We put ourselves out there because we have something to say. (If an artist falls alone in the woods, do they make a sound?) We are vulnerable every time we put ourselves out there, and we must be prepared for the repercussions whether we get called boring, racist, sexist, label, label, label.

As artists, we are not only allowed to be vulnerable. I think we need to be. Because of my essay about cutting—my openness about my mental health problems—I’ve gotten countless emails saying, “Thank you.” One of the responses I’ll never forget: “Your essay made my husband understand his wife.”

Burnham, despite his silliness, showed vulnerability to every person in the audience at Make Happy and to everyone who’s watched the show since. I don’t remember all the jokes, but I remember the moment the mask slipped and “the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health” made his cameo to enthusiastic applause.

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