Mackenzie Taylor’s latest comedy show is based on his failed suicide attempt in 2008 and his subsequent experiences of mental health services. Like most comedians, Taylor can find something funny to say about most topics, but his current production, provocatively titled No Straightjacket Required, has won plaudits from service users and comedy critics alike for his candid account of his mental illness.
He says he has experienced mental health problems since he was 15. “I’ve got bipolar schizoaffective disorder. I’m mainly bipolar which means that I’m up and down and I also see and hear things as I have elements of schizophrenia,” he says. “It’s a part of me, but not a part that everyone knows about. It’s not something I went around broadcasting. It’s not something I talked much about outside of my friends.”
This month the 31-year-old comic from Surrey takes his production to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “The show is about my suicide attempt and the 15 weeks that led up to it. And it’s about the 15 years of mental illness and the two years after that,” he says.
Despite the seriousness of the topic, Taylor says plenty of comic material can be found in mental health settings and he feels laughter can be a useful strategy for dealing with traumatic events. “In group therapy there can be a lot of laughter,” he says. “I think that laughter can be a coping mechanism. If you can laugh about something you kind of own it. So you have control over it if you can make a joke about it.”
Taylor finds humour in unlikely places. In his performance he recalls an event before his suicide attempt where he spent half an hour looking for a vacant car parking space in Brighton, worried that his car might be towed away if he parked it illegally.
Taylor’s previous shows have explored biscuit clubs and cheating at quizzes, and he acknowledges that this year’s production is something of a more serious departure.
But he says the show is one that resonates with many service users, their friends and family. “Normally I get into weird conversations after a show about someone’s favourite biscuit or some other trivia from the show,” he says. “At this one I get into deep conversations about suicide or someone who’ll tell you that their husband committed suicide 10 years ago. It’s an altogether different experience.”
He acknowledges that comedy is often a confrontational art form and that his routine may cause offence, though, so far, he has only had one audience member walk out of a performance. He notes that, unlike more controversial comics such as Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr, he is making light of his own experiences rather than poking fun at others’ misfortunes.
When Taylor wrote his show he wasn’t intent on causing controversy, nor did he set out to educate people about mental illness. He just had an urge to tell people about his experiences. But with numerous well-received preview performances behind him, Taylor feels the production might go some way to counteract the negative attitudes to mental illness that prevail in the media.
“It was my need to tell my story. It’s become an accidental issue-piece. But I never viewed it as an educational tool or an issue piece when I wrote it or started to perform it,” he says. “Hopefully people come out of the show feeling entertained. And if it changes or challenges an opinion or two, that’s great.”
Six of the rest
Six of the other shows about disability elsewhere on the Fringe in 2010.
- The Fragility of X: A play about a woman and her autistic teenage son. Underbelly, Cowgate.
- Paul Betney: Unshakeable: Paul Betney tells his story of living with Parkinson’s for 18 years. Surgeon’s Hall, Nicolson Street.
- Speechless: A play portraying the true story of the destructive alliance between two silent sisters. Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street.
- Smiler: Richard Fry’s new show about drink-driving, friendship and disability. Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square.
- Chris McCausland: Emotional Retard: Comedy from the blind Scouser. 60 Pleasance Courtyard.
- Private Dancer: Site-specific dance from some of Scotland’s best professional disabled dancers. Mercure Point Hotel, Bread Street.
No Straightjacket Required is at C Soco, Edinburgh, until 30 August 2010
This article is published in the 5 August 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline The Funny Side of Suicide