Barking at Scars: Harriet Dyer on her new comedy night tackling the subject of mental health

Comedian Harriet Dyer explains the inspiration behind her new night in Manchester, Barking Tales, which gives fellow comics a platform to speak openly about mental health issues – with humour

Feature by John Stansfield | 26 Mar 2015

When the tragic news broke that Robin Williams had taken his own life it was met with consternation, as people struggled to come to terms with the idea that a man who had been responsible for so much joy had been unable to replicate that in his own life. The tears of a clown are not a new thing, and as the world begins to understand more about the terrors of depression, we can see that no one is immune to its dark grasp.

To shed more light on the subject, Harriet Dyer has set up Barking Tales, a night for comedians to speak candidly about mental health issues while still being funny. "It’s fairly recently that I’ve realised that I suffer with mental health issues," she writes. "Previously I thought it was normal to regularly feel like you’re plummeting down a dark vortex of despair. Apparently this is not the case."

All too aware that sincerity can put a knife through comedy, Dyer stumbled upon the idea for the night while doing a show at the Fringe about mental health entitled Barking at Aeroplanes. "I didn’t set out to hammer home a message or anything like that, it was just an obvious choice because there was so much material I could do on it, as people have questioned the state of my mental health my whole life. I thought they were the mad ones. I was bowled over by the amount of people that said my show had helped them, even by just talking about it openly, never in an awkward ‘woe is me’ manner, as that’s definitely not what it needs." 

Talking about depression in comedy is still a risky business. Dyer often splits the room into those who were moved by her stories of attempted suicide by drinking fabric softener, and those who either didn’t think depression was real, or that killing yourself was disrespectful to God. "I just thought, 'What the Dickens are you on about you absolute plonkers, I obviously didn’t even kill myself seeing as I’ve just stood in front of you chatting for an hour!'" Seems fabric softener is not the way to go.

"Previously I thought it was normal to regularly feel like you’re plummeting down a dark vortex of despair. Apparently this is not the case" – Harriet Dyer

The show itself became more and more about raising awareness as it was about being funny – a difficult balancing act that Dyer approached with her usual verve. "I’m very aware that if you want to cover something that, as a topic, is considered a lot ‘deeper’ than the usual jollies, it has to be even funnier to fly. There’s no point going, 'Yes, but I’ve got a message so that shall prevail.' If people want that, they’ll go to a sermon. Although if you do master the funny to go with it, I think that’s quite a beautiful thing." Lessons through laughter is the key, though Dyer worries that comedy may also have the opposite effect: "It can be thought provoking but perhaps without the audience even realising at the time, as they’re too busy chuckling." 

Comedians have always spread messages through their routines; they are passionate orators, so if a particular problem is something they feel can be tackled through humour, then why not use the stage as a soapbox? "So many comedians struggle with mental health issues and as a comedian your material tends to be about what you know in life or what you’re currently experiencing," Dyer states. Be it Bill Hicks’ rallies against the Bush era (though it was Senior’s reign when Hicks started, his act was alarmingly accurate for Dubya’s tenure too), Dave Chappelle speaking to white people about the injustices faced by black Americans, or even more recently Aziz Ansari shedding light on the appalling treatment of women throughout the world, comedians will speak honestly about anything.

As one of the last taboos of both society and standup, mental illness is something that needs to be pushed to the forefront. Once we can laugh at something, we take away its power – and can discuss it honestly without fear or prejudice. Having suffered herself, Dyer knows how important it is to share: "I’m not beyond my post, or think I’m on this crusade to shatter the stigma that currently waddles around arm-in-arm with mental health, but I think there’s no harm in trying to raise awareness as it seems to be cathartic to everyone involved."

It’s good to talk about things. It’s even better to laugh about them.

More from The Skinny:

Idealist vs Realist: Liam Williams talks politics

Robin Williams: A Remembrance

Barking Tales is at Joshua Brooks on 2 Apr, 7pm, and every first Thursday of the month from then on