In his autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, Alan Gordon Partridge tells us “I lost control. I lost control and ended up driving to Dundee in bare feet” (2012, p.220). We’ve seen this before in I’m Alan Partridge – in the final episode of season two we visit the scene in Dundee through one of Alan’s many flashbacks, amid a mental episode at Lynn’s baptism. In his autobiography, however, he goes into greater detail about his lowest moment, describing how Lynn was there to literally save his life: “she quickly washed and shod me and then began to drive home with the hosepipe dangling from the exhaust like the tail of a giant mouse.” Sorry, what?
He expands on this further in the footnote of page 221 illuminating a fact that was not obvious in the telly show: “Oh, I should have said – this was for the suicide bid that I didn’t get round to.” Alan Partridge, at his lowest point, was in the midst of attempting suicide. In the baptism episode, Alan simulates blowing his head off with a shotgun but we never take anything more from it than simply Alan being his usual, slightly insensitive self.
A few pages on, Alan states: “I sometimes thought the kindest thing would be to put me out my misery, chop my head off, gut, truss and baste me, then cook me on gas mark 5 or 190c for three hours – check after two hours – and then place me centre table for a Christmas feast” (p.219). Again, we see Alan’s apparent flippancy towards such a serious subject, as he combines a confession of feeling absolutely lousy (or “clinically fed up” as he calls it in the show) with a recipe for cooking a Christmas turkey. Is it flippant? Or is it maybe the way a high-level comedian deals with the seriousness of such a distressing topic?
It is quite a strange phenomenon to find laughter in a person’s bleakest moments, and stranger still to find comedy in a character’s ultimate expression of lowness – suicide. In I’m Alan Partridge, there is never any doubt that we are supposed to be laughing at Alan’s continuous humiliation, his reflections on past breakdowns, or his continuing struggle with his mental stability. Not least because of the ridiculousness of his accompanying addiction to Toblerone. Even in his book, as he announces his attempted suicide – literally a throwaway line in the footnote – the tragic sadness of its reality is in the distance, hidden behind the funniness of ‘Alan Partridge’.
Unless, of course, you find suicide and depression in other people funny (which would render you as mentally odd to say the least), we do not generally laugh at the tragic events themselves – we may find a way to laugh at the event after the fact as a coping mechanism, but there is nowt too funny about suicide itself. We laugh at the recognisability of the circumstance; we laugh at the very human occurrence of feeling like shit, being depressed, feeling like everything is too much. We’ve all been there in varying degrees, so we all have a reference point of some kind. It is a laughter of familiarity and pathos. Perhaps we’ve not all been suicidal, or depressed even (in a clinical sense) but certainly most of us know enough about that train of thought – an inkling of losing control – to understand what’s going on.
When we watch Denholm Reynholm jump out the window of his high-rise building in The IT Crowd, there is never a jot of sadness inspired in us. He had just explained that he started his business with “nothing but a dream and six million pounds” and states that he is without question the “the greatest man in the world”. When the police arrive to speak to him about irregularities in the pension fund, he asks his assistant to make him a cup of tea and then he just jumps out the window. It’s hardly Aristotelian: we feel no sympathy for a man of such arrogance, and the only pity we may feel is for the fact that we won’t be seeing any more of Chris Morris playing the character. But it is still incredibly tragic underneath the comedy – a demonstration, perhaps, of the pressures of high-risk-and-reward business. We do not witness the slow and excruciating breakdown of Denholm, as we do in Alan Partridge, but unless Reynholm has acted on a whim and made a split decision to jump out the window, he must have experienced some kind of mental downfall.
In one of the greatest sitcoms ever produced, we find a character whose defining trait is that he’s suicidal. Neil Wheedon Watkins Pye, better known as Neil from The Young Ones, is clinically depressed, in a constant state of despair, constantly being picked upon and assaulted by his flatmates, and regularly attempts to kill himself. These aspects of Neil, opposed to being a cause for genuine concern, are running jokes. We laugh as he sticks his head in the oven and tries to gas himself; we laugh as he tries and fails to hang himself; and we laugh as he flings himself into the path of an industrial wrecking ball only to not be splatted by it.
Could the humour found in the fact that Neil is constantly failing to kill himself come from a relative insensitivity of 1980s attitudes to mental health and suicide? Possibly. But, also, there is the detachment from reality of the fictional world of The Young Ones, and their collective traits forming an expertly balanced mix of human psyche: Neil, the suicidal one; Mike, the eternally cool and overtly sexual one; Rick, the snarky but confident anarchistic one; and Vivian, the borderline psychotic, nihilistic one. Neil forms part of total experience of human conditioning found in the group as a whole, therefore his suicidal tendencies become a mere demonstrations or commentary on one of many aspects of humanity itself. And humanity itself is too big to feel pity for. It’s so big a concept that it almost becomes laughable: the only guaranteed part of life is death, and if you look at humanity as a whole, why the fuck wouldn’t you want to run away from it or laugh at it?! It’s a nightmare.
Some may consider it insensitive to joke about suicide – not insensitive to the victim (for obvious reasons), but the loved ones left behind. One of the jobs of art, however, is to shine a light up to the battles we face in reality, and to somehow find positivity in the most negative of circumstances. To be able to temper the seriousness of life with the silliness of comedy can help to make the real-life eventuality that little bit less potent. For the way we deal with death is a cultural thing, and not much is more defining of a culture than the topics we allow our comics to talk about.
Frank King, the self-proclaimed ‘mental health comedian’ is a suicide prevention speaker, who wrote comedy for The Tonight Show in the US for 20 years, and has also lived with suicidal thoughts for entire adult life. He is of the informed opinion that “where there is humour there is hope, where there is laughter there is life – nobody dies laughing. The right person, at the right time, with the right information, can save a life.” And who is to say that person isn’t a British comedian brave enough to tackle this difficult subject?