Depression, addiction, suicide. They’re deathly serious topics, but Seattle stand-up comic Bill Bernat is using humor to bring light to the darkness that plagued him for decades. And he’s hoping his humor can help others find the peace and happiness he’s discovered after many years of struggle.
“I had a lot of self destructive tendencies, which got worse. And I went into some very dark times … addiction, undiagnosed bi-polar disorder and just sort of dealing with sort of extremes on both ends,” said Bernat, who has created a show based on his downs and subsequent ups being performed as part of the Seattle Fringe Festival over the next two weekends.
Bernat admits he thought often of taking his own life, despite a successful career in technology that took him from NASA to top Seattle-area companies, along with a burgeoning comedy career.
Despite his ongoing and seemingly intractable depression, somehow there was always an underlying sense of humor, Bernat says.
“So I would kind of be writing jokes in my head or still doing comedy here or there, as much as I could, and finding humor in the darkness. So to me, there was always humor in the darkness until the very end, when I was like, ‘Wow, I’m so depressed, nothing’s funny.’ And then I started to turn my life around,” Bernat chuckled.
There was no magic pill, so to speak. Bernat says it took a lot of work and the help of out-patient drug treatment, a 12-step support group, mental health counseling and other steps, but life increasingly got better.
And it was at a 12-step meeting that he realized his experience and ability to make people laugh could help others.
“We can all laugh at these monsters together and it’s really hilarious and bonding because we’ve all had these thoughts in that group and so it helps a lot,” Bernat said. “There’s just immediate catharsis in laughter.”
Bernat’s own travails have turned into a brutally honest, often uncomfortable but ultimately hilarious show that’s equal parts comedy and counseling.
His willingness to bare his own soul touches those darkest places of our own insecurities, fears and foibles.
A great example of how he deftly treads the fine line between humor and bad taste is a bit he does about suicide.
“I walked into a hardware store to buy poisons to kill myself because I thought I was so hideously overweight that nobody would ever love me. I had a 30 inch waist at the time, so I was super skinny,” he tells the audience in a painful admission of just some of his struggles.
“Looking back, I don’t think I was really going to do it because I got worried the hazardous chemicals might taste bad,” he says. Then comes the deftly delivered punch line. “Excuse me, does this weed killer come in pumpkin spice flavor?” he jokes as the audience breaks into uproarious laughter.
Bernat says his act continues evolving as he tests the lines of good taste and humor. After all, it still has to be a good show.
But at its heart, the comic says what’s most important to him is helping others.
“I want people to know that they’re not alone because I felt so alone,” Bernat said. “And I would read this or that about somebody that was dealing with something similar to me. And it meant so much. So I want people who struggle in any number of ways in life to know that they’re not alone.”
“The things that make you feel like a freak actually make you really connected to more people than you can imagine.”
Bernat says the effect has been profound. People regularly thank him for sharing their truths and helping them.
He says one family who lost a son to suicide told him his act helped their own healing, and reminded them of all the good times they had together.
Bill Bernat’s new show is called “Becoming More Less Crazy.”
He performs Friday night at 6:00 pm at the Eclectic Theater on Capitol Hill, Saturday at 2:00 pm and next Saturday night at 7:15 pm as part of the 2017 Seattle Fringe Fest.