Standup comedy for mental health? ‘One of my anchors,’ says veteran

David Granirer, who suffers from bipolar, teaches standup as a way of building confidence

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You know that bromide, laughter is the best medicine?

Turns out there’s some truth to it.

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“When I was in school I got bullied a lot,” Filomena Black deadpans. “And after all these years, there’s only one thing I’d like to say to those girls: At least I still fit in the locker.”

The delivery is perfect and there are visuals, but the joke is more than part of Black’s standup comic routine.

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Black is part of SMH Comedy Society, a troupe of comics and up-and-comers with mental health issues who use standup as a way of building confidence and fighting public stigma. (SMH is short for Stand Up for Mental Health.)

Filomena Black started standup comedy classes with David Granirer’s SMH Comedy Society in 2008. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

On Saturday evening, the group is putting on a sold-out show at Hastings Racecourse and Casino to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

All those things you’re ashamed of? The absolute worst things about yourself? They make great material for comedy, David Granirer, SMH Comedy Society founder, said.

“What’s so funny about mental health? As far as Stand Up for Mental Health is concerned, everything,” he said. “This program changes lives.

“There’s something incredibly empowering about telling a roomful of people exactly who you are and having them laugh and cheer.  Once you’ve done standup you can do anything.”

Granirer, a mental health counsellor, began suffering from bipolar disorder as a teen, although it wasn’t diagnosed until he was 30. It mostly manifested itself as depression. He’s attempted suicide, received therapy. Medication smoothed things.

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Always the class clown as a kid, he had taught standup comedy at Langara College going back to 1998. It was a night course, it had nothing to do with mental health.

“But I would see people come through that class sometimes and they would have a life-changing experience,” he said. “And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to give this to people who wanted the comedy, but who also wanted the life-changing experience?

“That’s what gave me the whole idea for Stand Up For Mental Health.”

Comedian David Granirer in Vancouver, BC, April 10, 2024. Granirer is executive director of (SMH) Stand Up Mental Health Comedy Society. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

When he started SMH as a form of therapy in 2004, he had no idea what he was doing. Maybe one three-month class, he figured.

“It ended up being a year long, and it just kept rippling out more and more as people started to hear about us.”

Since then, Granirer has run the program in more than 50 cities across the globe, training more than 700 comics, in partnership with local mental health organizations.

SMH has performed more than 500 shows for government departments, corporations, the military, universities — even a show for the U.S. Secret Service.

Granirer has won awards in Canada, including a Governor General’s Award, and in the U.S. and Australia with SMH, as well as being named one of the 150 Difference Makers in Canadian mental health.

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“The confidence you get from stand-up comedy is so huge,” he said. “Here you are on stage and you’re telling people all about your struggles and the worst things about you, and there’s laughing and applauding, people telling you how great you are.

“That’s an incredibly healing thing. It makes the shame go away and think, you know something, maybe I’m not such a bad person after all.”

The stand-up classes begin with a six-month course, followed by continuing classes, and the next introductory class starts in June.

Black agrees wholeheartedly with Granirer’s philosophy that once you’ve done standup, you can do anything.

“It took me a whole year to get in touch after I’d heard about it, just thinking about it would get my heart racing,” she said.

Feeling her voice had been unheard by professionals and acquaintances alike, she took her first class in 2008.

Intimidated initially by the microphone, her early jokes were more like rants, but under Granirer’s guidance she was able to channel her hostility into taking back control of her issues by laughing at them, she said.

“It’s very healing. I look forward to it every week, it’s one of my anchors.”

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