Circling the Drain: Depression in Comedy

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Simon Pegg as The World's End's Gary King
Simon Pegg as The World's End's Gary King
Simon Pegg as The World’s End‘s Gary King

There’s a darkness at the center of The World’s End, the new movie from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with the trio’s first two films together, 2004’s rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s exuberant parody of American action movies Hot Fuzz. The former has Pegg’s protagonist Shaun shooting his mother in the head scant moments after she becomes a zombie, while the latter features, at the center of its plot, a town council cheerily murdering every citizen whose deeds, or indeed lives, interfere with their objective of town beautification. The movies are notable for Wright’s signature frenetic direction, the comedy itself, and the cartoonish level of violence (Wright is clearly influenced by Sam Raimi, having said as much in interviews, and some of the scenes in both movies nearly out-Raimi Raimi; Shaun has Dylan Moran’s character receiving a horrifyingly out-of-proportion comeuppance, while Hot Fuzz features two squirm-inducing uses of a church steeple, and God bless Timothy Dalton for going along with the second), but what makes them endure beyond the slapstick is the heart, and that heart is frequently in pain.

The premise of The World’s End is that a group of five friends from high school re-unite, late in their lives, in order to take on the Golden Mile, a pub crawl through 12 of the pubs of their home town. Their first attempt, as teenagers, ended in failure, but group leader Gary King is determined to ensure that the second time’s the charm. The three movies in the tongue-in-cheekily named Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun is the red Cornetto, Fuzz the blue, and End the green) each feature a bit of down-to-earth table setting before shifting full-speed into genre emulation; Shaun plays like a slice-of-life independent rom-com about a man who just needs to grow up before the dead begin to rise, and Fuzz resembles a fish-out-of-water comedy about a man who’s wound too tight and just needs to learn the art of relaxation from his charming country neighbors until he discovers that, no, there actually is a mysterious conspiracy that can only be dealt with by plunging full-tilt into action movie machismo. The World’s End is no different, and the trailers spoil what is a jarring, but not altogether unforeshadowed, revelation; the town has been mostly taken over by alien robot duplicates. What the trailers didn’t spoil, however, is the darkness.

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Not the literal darkness – although the movie mostly takes place over one day and night, and as the events spiral more and more out of control, so too does the sky darken – but the darkness at the heart of Gary King. Pegg’s Shaun was a bit hapless but ultimately good-hearted, while Nick Angel, from Fuzz, is civic-minded to a fault with a bit of a stick up of his ass but with a charming honesty. Gary King, on the other hand, is out-and-out pathetic, putting me in mind of the sad-sack losers of Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” (one of the many examples in the Boss’ canon where the music obscures the message, the most notorious being “Born in the USA”) who never quite surpassed the highs they hit in their youth. There’s a lighter comedy to be made out of this premise, but Wright and co. didn’t make it. Instead, Pegg is given free reign to make King a selfish, self-centered, oblivious oaf, driven into borderline unrealistic behavior by demons that are very real indeed. The yawning abyss within him, the void that he fills with tales of the old days, with misremembered events from the past, with three other people’s discarded beers combined into one glass, is at the very center of this movie.

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The movie reminds me of Night Watch, one of Terry Pratchett’s darkest novels. Not necessarily in subject matter, but in the way that Night Watch is saved from being unimaginably bleak entirely through word choice and presentation. Sam Vimes, Pratchett’s hardest-boiled protagonist in the Discworld canon, is sent back through time, stranded in the past, away from his family and everything familiar, and he goes through existential hell in the process. The reader assumes Vimes will end up home safe, because that’s how stories work, but Pratchett manages to convince us that this might not be the case, not because Vimes won’t find the MacGuffin in time, but because his own psychological state and moral compass become so tenuous. It’s the same stark, arid emotional landscape of Chandler, and Hammett’s Red Harvest, dressed up with quips and hey-here’s-that-character-you-know-in-the-past.

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Charley Koontz as Community's Neil
Charley Koontz as Community‘s Neil

Neither The World’s End nor Night Watch can stay in the darkness, the true darkness of the soul, for very long, and neither can “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” from the NBC sitcom Community’s second (and arguably best) season. Most Community episodes center around one particular study group, a motley assortment of people all attending Greendale Community College, but “AD&D” has as its center Fat Neil, a peripheral Greendale player. The study group knows that he’s going through a bad time and, in a bid to make him feel included and raise his spirits, has organized a game of Dungeons and Dragons, his favorite pastime. They don’t include Pierce, played by Chevy Chase, who in the larger arc of the season is being a huge prick, and Chase wreaks havoc on the game, invading and ruining everyone’s fun, and eventually we learn that Neil isn’t just having a bad time in life, but that he’s severely depressed and inches away from suicide. Community has an outstanding core ensemble, but the episode wouldn’t work without Charley Koontz’ portrayal of Neil, a pitch-perfect rendering of a depressive. Koontz’ work is subtle, standing out all the more because of the outsized personalities around him, and the episode’s emotional climax is just as subtle, and all the more beautiful for it.

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Three comedies, all dealing with depression, anger, rage, impotence, personal failure and self-hatred, and dealing with these subject with as deft a touch as possible, because to do otherwise would be to strand an audience in places we so often try to avoid. Three comedies dealing with these subjects in ways that those of us who grapple with these things in the real world deal with them, through humor, because to do otherwise is to go madder, to withdraw even further into ourselves, and eventually to break. Gary King reveals his seething, broken core for only a moment, because to do so for longer would be to plunge an audience far too deep. Sam Vimes circles the drain for much of Night Watch, but for the most part the camera is focused outwards, at the edges, only turning inwards for one or two extended moments. Neil keeps his pain hidden because to do otherwise would be to risk more pain. And those of us who watch or read are reminded only for an instant what those who know someone who is mentally ill know in perpetuity, which is that even when you aren’t the one in darkness, the contact with that darkness can be nearly unbearable.

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We’re not going to have a conversation about guns in the wake of the Naval Yard shootings, because we never have a conversation about guns in the wake of our shootings. We’re going to have a conversation about mental illness, because Aaron Alexis heard voices. It’s not perfect, but there’s good to do there, so by all means, lets have the conversation. And for those who don’t suffer, when you watch The World’s End, or Community, or read Night Watch, or any other material that treats, however obliquely, with mental illness with any degree of truth, watch for that moment, when the darkness, the true darkness, breaks through unhindered. Stay there, for as long as you can, so that you can stand it when you find it in the real world.

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Aaron Alexis, as himself
Aaron Alexis, as himself