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Comedy and anxiety don’t mix. Or do they? A conversation between anxious comedians

Ashton Brown talks telephone terrors, mental health, and why anxiety doesn’t necessarily hinder his performance in a phone-avoiding messenger chat with Natasha Hoyland.

Natasha Hoyland: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is phone calls, because I hate them with a passion. 

Ashton Brown: Holy crap, I got three missed calls from a private number today. I was already off work today because of anxiety, so I can only assume someone was trying to kill me. 

Phone calls are actually something I’ve worked a lot harder on over the last few years because I really struggle with them, and I’ve been self employed for four years now so sometimes I just have to do it.

NH: It’s something I’ve tried to work harder at too. I’m producing a tour for Guy Williams at the moment and I had to make a lot of phone calls to book venues because a lot of the small towns didn’t have or respond to emails. It was the most agonising thing ever, and I work myself up about it so much.

I have to physically write out a plan for a conversation before I call anyone. I’m getting a bit better at it now, I used to not even be able to call the bank to resolve an issue. I’d put it off for weeks until someone sent me a letter or email.

AB: Yeah, I hear you. I’m guessing my missed calls today were the IRD. It’s ALWAYS the IRD.

NH: The other day I was expecting a call from OPSM about my new glasses so I answered the phone, but then it wasn’t them! I felt so betrayed! It ended up being some lady on Waiheke calling me to fix her septic tank. She had the wrong number, at least I think and hope so?

AB: Ugh, I know. My parents have a private number so if they want to get hold of me, if they don’t call from their mobiles it’s just not happening. Is there good money in septic tanks?

NH: I keep getting calls from my old uni who haven’t been able to accept the fact that I’ve unenrolled. They call me once a day and from multiple numbers so I’ve just labelled each one “don’t answer calls from this number”.

AB: As if you’re eventually going to be like “right, sign me up. Fuck it, I want a doctorate now because your persistence has really changed my whole mind about things.”

NH: I know! It’s ridiculous!

I’ve noticed that my anxiety seems to be worse when it’s little niggly things. What about for you?

AB: I have OCD thought processes, meaning I obsess cyclically about shit – big or small, and they just repeat. Then my vision gets blurred, outside seems really big and scary and feel like I’m not seeing the world properly and like I’m losing my mind. That’s when I have BIG anxiety. I end up stuck in my room.

also get anxious like just over worrying about stuff. Did I leave the oven on? Did I upset someone? I hope I don’t see someone I know, etc. My anxiety attacks often manifest visually, so I feel like peoples faces look weird, supermarket shelves get really big or things seem too bright.

NH: Mine tend to be a visual thing as well but also so physical that sometimes I think I’m having a stroke. I get lightheaded, dizzy, my vision gets blurry and my hearing goes funny, and it feels almost as if I’m underwater. One time I even felt like I was drowning.

AB: Horrible, aye. And no matter how many times you’ve had it always feels like something different or worse than anxiety. Like this is the time you have actually lost your mind.

NH: That’s exactly it!

‘I obsess cyclically about shit – big or small, and they just repeat’: Ashton Brown. Photo: Supplied

AB: I’ve read the same things on the net about anxiety attacks 1000 times to just remind myself that that’s whats happening. It can be really bloody hard being a performer with anxiety, although I understand it’s not uncommon for them to go hand in hand either.

NH: It’s one of the reasons I stopped performing. The last few gigs I did I just wasn’t enjoying, and it’s not because they were bad gigs. It’s just that I was overthinking so much and it was taking such a toll on me to the point where it just became exhausting.

AB: Yeah, it’s real hard. I’d been acting since I was six. I got put into acting classes because I was a pretty unsettled kid and had a terrible lisp. Acting was always my safe place where I could express myself.

When I developed my anxiety disorder in my latter years it really challenged this and for a while I thought I’d have to stop. Comedy has been so love hate for me in particular. I swore off it last year and then said I was going to take this year off, but things happen.

hate doing gigs right up until I do them, and then often I hate them afterwards, too, regardless of how good they were or not.

NH: Yeah, this year has been my hiatus year. I don’t know what will happen later on or if I’ll ever go back to it. I don’t know if I ever will.

AB: That would be a shame I think, for both you and the industry.

NH: That’s very nice, haha. I still love writing and telling jokes and I’m glad parts of my jobs allow me to do that still. Just have no desire to get up on stage to do so currently.

AB: I understand fully. you have to do what makes you happy in the way it makes you happy.

NH: Exactly. It took me a while to work that all out.

AB: I’ve been so anxious for the last two days, I’ve struggled to leave the house. I managed to go to rehearsal tonight and as a result feel like I’ve achieved something, if that makes sense.

NH: I absolutely understand that. If I can go a whole day at work without wanting to go home and shut the world out, I consider that an achievement.

AB: It’s complicated as performers, because if I didn’t tell people I struggled with anxiety they would never think that about me because I appear so confident on stage and people don’t realise us performers can be entirely less confident and happy than we appear to be.

It’s becoming more common and unfortunately our understanding of it happens through loss, with people like Robin Williams. People say, “you’d never expect someone like that to be depressed.”

NH: Yeah, you’re right. Or you hear things like “everything in their life is/was so great.”

AB: Yup. “what do you have to be depressed about.” People with raincoats still get the flu.

NH: Active people still have heart attacks.

AB: Exactly. Blessed and privileged people still get depressed. I‘m blessed and privileged as fuck. I have an amazing job, amazing wife, amazing family, amazing friends.

I‘m a white middle-class straight male, but I suffer from hideous anxiety and seasonal depression. Part of the difficulty in dealing with it is being frustrated about why I feel like that.

NH: I’ve had quite a privileged life too. I’ve been so so lucky. So when my anxiety gets real bad, it makes me feel really guilty and pathetic when I can’t deal with it.

AB: Guilt is the one feeling I cannot cope with. It’s the worst thing in the world for me.

NH: In a way, it eventually does make me want to be better. Do more things, be more helpful to people who have it a lot worse.

AB: Agreed.

NH: How did you get into stand-up despite all this? For me it was strange and unexpected and I honestly don’t know how I managed.

AB: People had been telling me to for ages because I’m “funny at parties”and I tried it and loved it. I was so bloody nervous, and I still am every single time I do it.

But I’m more comfortable on stage than I am arriving at the gig and talking to people in the foyer. If I could just do the stage bit and not the arriving, leaving and foyer stuff, it would make me way less anxious.

NH: I think I know what you mean.

AB: Even after a good show my goal is to get from the stage to my car as quickly as possible without looking like I’m a rude dickhead.

NH: I constantly leave immediately after shows too. I don’t know why I do, but I can never bring myself to stick around. I think it’s because I need to go home and have time to process things.

AB: I try real hard to stay but I’m not good at it.

NH: Every time I try to, I feel like no one wants me to when I’m there and that makes me even more nervous.

AB: It’s sucky. Social anxiety just makes you expect and assume the worst.

NH: I’ll never understand it.

AB: It gives me most of my material these days. At least now when I feel shitty and anxious I can write a joke about it.

NH: Is this what we can expect from your festival show?

AB: You certainly can expect true stories of struggling with mental health, but the format isn’t just me doing stand-up. It’s all based in my reality.

NH: Can you elaborate on that?

AB: Haha, I’m just trying to explain how it’s turned out without giving it all away. I will be performing as me, the stand-up comic, and another character in a sketch type scenario. The sketch character will be counselling me which then leads into the stand up bits. 

It’s like an hour of comedic therapy is the easiest way to explain it. There will also be tvs and visuals with prerecorded parts of my personality that I also interact with.

NH: That sounds incredible!

AB: Thanks, I hope so. It’s pretty scaring doing your first hour and doing something completely different than just cranking your best hour of stand-up. It’s all new. also wanna get across that the whole reason for me doing such a personal show is because we are often too scared to talk about these issues. Especially men in NZ, it’s so taboo.

In my daily life and through my comedy, I’m trying to be honest about mental health to start conversations about it and break down the walls. I hope if people are comfortable laughing at me as I share my mental health stories that they may come forward and share their own. Laughing helps to normalise things. Not by laughing at mental health, but laughing at life because of it … if that makes sense.

NH: Yes, absolutely. I can’t wait to see it!

Ashton Brown is performing his first solo hour Anxious To Meet You as part of the 2017 NZ International Comedy Festival and you can get your tickets here.

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