Comedian Jason Byrne – mental health is no laughing matter

Trevor Keegan

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Copyright Jason Byrne/Twitter @thejasonbyrne

Comedian Jason Byrne is currently riding high as a judge on the successful series debut of Ireland’s Got Talent.  He is also known as one of Ireland’s zaniest, most energetic and eclectic comedians.  But what might surprise you even more about this all round funny man is how seriously he takes his mental health.

Unlike other professions, comedians are somewhat solitary performers.  As Jason says, “it’s not like going on stage with a band where you are all in it together and if one person is feeling a bit down, the others can help buoy up their mood”.  And unlike other workplaces, it’s not often that comedians get the time to gather together and chat about the daily grind of their profession.  Unlike most of us, their workplace changes weekly, if not daily, when they are constantly on the road moving from venue to venue.

Indeed, being on the road is one of the most difficult aspects of a comedian’s life.  If the latest gig is a massive success or a downright washout, the comedian will normally return alone to their hotel room and won’t have the luxury of being able to sound-off to family or friends, at least not in person.  It’s also a notoriously difficult profession in which to achieve lasting success.

Jason is an exception to that rule.  He has been performing comedy for over 22 years.  Maintaining fresh and funny performances is the “toughest challenge because you constantly have to come up with new stuff.  If I am on a UK tour, that audience will have seen me last year and so they expect totally new material.  It’s not like a singer having to belt out their classic hits on every tour.  I can’t repeat the same material or the audience will let me know that they have seen and heard it before”.

One of the added stresses of the job can also be one of its bonuses.  Jason is well aware that people have paid good, hard-earned money to see him perform.  They might have travelled a long distance, hired a baby-sitter for the night and they expect him to make them laugh.  But that pressure can also be worth it because often people will approach him after a gig to say that he made them laugh out loud and forget that they have just been through a bereavement, shock or sickness.  So, it’s a double-edged sword in terms of his own personal stress.

Jason knows the two things that he needs to protect his own mental health and to give him a release from those kinds of pressures.  “I use exercise firstly.  Even a short burst will clear my head.  I will just run out the door and go as far and as fast as I want.  I also listen to a great motivational speaker called Alan Watts.  He died in 1973 but his works can be heard on Youtube.  He’s a funny, concise speaker and he helps you delve deeper into yourself.  He makes you look at the question, where is the centre of the Universe?  Jason says most people are surprised by the answer to that question because they don’t’ realise that the centre of the Universe is actually ourselves.  “Without sounding self-obsessed, we are actually the centre of our Universe”

Unlike the old adage about comedians that they usually have dark characters and suffer the ‘tears of a clown’, Jason says I was “always an approachable lad and a messer, so I don’t feel I need to be funny in private because that was always my type of character anyway”.  He also says it helps when a comedian accepts and enjoys the job they have chosen to do.  “It doesn’t matter if my day has been bad or good, I have to go out their and live in my imaginary world and entertain people in the process.  Similarly,  a surgeon may be having a bad time in life but all that worry and woe has to be left at the door of the operating theatre so they can get on with the job.”

So, Jason is well aware of the pressures on his mental health and how to offset the negatives against the positives in his career.  He knows the pitfalls of his profession and is more than happy to admit them.  “It’s a stress when you have spikes in adrenalin which happens when you perform, so I know I need things like exercise to keep my mind well balanced.

And as he happily signs off from our interview, I admit a stress of my own about going to comedy gigs… I never sit near the front for fear of being picked out of the audience.  Jason is notorious for doing that and focusing a whole routine around people in the front row of his show.  “I’ll work from the back of the room next time”, he says.  Suddenly my stress levels are up so I best take a run in the opposite direction to avoid being the butt of his next joke!

Jason Byrne was chatting to Trevor Keegan on Walk In My Shoes Radio, the pop-up radio station at St.Patrick’s Mental Health Services.  More details and help on www.stpatricks.ie or on 01 249 33 33

Jason Byrne has a limited number of gigs in Ireland in March with details on www.jasonbyrne.ie

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Trevor Keegan