For millions, Hugh Laurie will only be known as the curmudgeonly doctor on the long-running US medical drama House, M.D.
For me, along with his comedy partner Stephen Fry, he was a big part of my growing up, an incisive comic talent whose work I still turn to today whenever I want to pull myself out of a funk, or just remind myself how playful, intricate and downright silly life can be.
He was often cast as the daft fool opposite the dry Fry, and his talent for physical comedy cannot be denied, but his subtlety and penchant for absurdist humour easily matched his other half’s.
His musical talents were always put to good use throughout the four series of their sketch show, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and I think he set the bar pretty high with his ridiculous would-be lounge standard “Mystery”:
It’s one that has obviously stuck with people, as during an appearance on Inside The Actor’s Studio after House launched him to worldwide fame, he performed the song for the delighted audience once again.
This sketch is another of my favourites, This Woman Is Very Upset, in which he combines the deadpan serious tone of a news reporter with exquisitely-timed facial expressions worthy of the best of the silent era:
When I first found out that Hugh Laurie had experienced periods of severe depression, I’m not sure what I felt. I guess I’d always felt “closer” to Stephen Fry because his very candid autobiography Moab Is My Washpot laid out the experience of unrequited same-sex love at an all boys’ school that mirrored my own. And of course there was the bipolar.
One part of his depression anecdote really stood out for me at the time. He was driving in a charity demolition derby in the mid-1990s and realised that he was experiencing no emotional reaction to what was going on around him, and when you consider that said action included exploding cars, he realised that something wasn’t right.
Being a Woody Allen nerd, I even knew that there was a clinical term for this: anhedonia. Anhedonia is defined as “the inability to experience from activities usually found enjoyable”. Allen had it marked down as the original title of perhaps his most famous film, Annie Hall.
I didn’t really understand Laurie’s lack of reaction to explosions until fairly recently, when I came to the realisation that depression itself has a spectrum. At one end, you’ve got the looming darkness and despair, but at the ‘upper’ end you’ve got indifference. A numbness that just sits there, making you feel like a squatter in your own body.
Laurie’s disclosure of his experiences with depression were a perfect fit for some with his nihilistic TV character, House – “ah, so that’s where he gets it from”. Given his long career as a comedian, I think the co-relation is irrelevant. As many people who have been bereaved by suicide now, it’s often the ‘happy’ ones you’ve got to watch out for.
What did sadden me was finding an interview where Laurie said he regretted speaking out about his depression:
“I don’t like to be thought of as this guy who has nothing else to talk about except how miserable my lot was. I remember watching Mel Gibson on some show once, and he was being asked about his belief in the afterlife. Gibson said, ‘Well I can’t believe this is all there is.’ And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. You’re Mel Gibson. You have millions of dollars. You’re a great-looking chap with every conceivable blessing that could be bestowed upon a man. And that’s not good enough?’
“So you can see why I’m hesitant to talk aboiut any trivial pain I have. I find myself going, ‘Oh for god’s sake, Hugh. Pull yourself together.’”
In the same interview, he qualified his statement by saying that depression wasn’t something that should be taken lightly, but my 10-cent psychoanalysis of his comments suggests to me that there’s a big dose of self-stigma lumped in with Laurie’s depression, the same kind that all of us experience.
My problems aren’t as big as X person, so I should just shut up really. Diagnosis by comparison has kept too many people from getting the help they need, and thankfully Laurie didn’t let it stop him from reaching out.
His regrets about being candid are no doubt fuelled by ignorant columnists who talk about such interviews as if mental illness is some sort of designer accessory that celebrities wish to acquire in order to boost their status. Stephen Fry has hit back at this kind of damaging dismissal.
We need people who are part of our pop culture to be honest about mental illness and their experiences. Comparatively, I know that my life in terms of food, shelter and medical support is exponentially greater than that of a starving child in Africa, but none of that changes the fact that my brain chemistry is screwed. Perception is everything when you have a mood disorder.
I spoke to a friend last night who had disclosed his experiences with depression, and upon opening up to people in his workplace found that many others had too. Rather than causing greater honesty, it had a ‘secret club’ effect, with people asking each other for medication and therapy advice in hushed tones over coffee and in corridors.
We need this to stop, and for meaningful conversation about mental illness to have as much impact as a belly laugh from the work of a talented comedian like Hugh Laurie.