Is comedy a way of shedding light on the most difficult of subjects?

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There is nothing new about suicide as a theme in entertainment. Shakespeare used it: think of the doomed lovers in Romeo and Juliet who would rather die than live in a world where they couldn’t be together. It wasn’t even new in the Bard’s day: suicide as a subject for storytelling goes back to ancient times. More recently, suicide has featured in films as diverse as It’s a Wonderful Life and Full Metal Jacket, and TV shows from Mad Men to Seinfeld.

There is nothing surprising about this. Writers and artists are drawn to depicting suicide for obvious reasons: it is a means both of making clear the seriousness of proceedings and of igniting a drama by introducing a devastating event into the lives of those left behind.

Vivian (Thomasin McKenzie) is a “guardian” who looks after people contemplating suicide in Totally Completely Fine.Credit: Stan

At this stage, however, some creators are seeking to explore suicide in a more in-depth and realistic way. Two new Australian comedy-dramas are tackling the subject in an attempt to bring truth and sophistication to the issue. In the ABC’s In Limbo, a man is haunted by the ghost of his best friend, who has died unexpectedly. In Totally Completely Fine, a young woman moves into a house next to a notorious suicide spot and assumes the responsibility of saving those who come to end it all.

For Gretel Vella, creator of Totally Completely Fine, the idea came from personal experience during lockdown. “Within the space of five days I was witness, from a distance, to two different suicide attempts. During the second one, my Uber driver turned around and said to me, ‘Every day I take the same route and every day this is happening’.” This sparked her to research “guardians” – people who take it upon themselves to go to places where people attempt suicide and try to help them.

“I started to wonder what it would look like if someone who had anxiety and depression themselves took on this role.” In the show, the lead character Vivian (Thomasin McKenzie) is on the brink of suicide herself when she inherits a house on a clifftop from her grandfather – and at the same time inherits the role of guardian that he performed. Vivian’s own mental health struggles become what Vella calls her “superpower”: the ability to relate to others at their lowest moment. “Sometimes it’s difficult to take advice from people that seem like they have it all together,” says Vella. “But when someone who’s been there before says it, it really hits differently.”

Vella’s decision to treat this most serious of subjects in a comedic manner is one shared by In Limbo, which gains great comedic mileage from its characters and the relationship between man and ghost, even in the shadow of the overwhelming tragedy that hangs over it all. Director Trent O’Donnell, whose comedy pedigree includes shows like The Moodys and No Activity, sees comedy’s co-existence with tragedy as a natural way to tell a realistic story: in real life, the funny bits don’t stop happening just because the sad ones intrude. “Having this kind of big heavy grief moment on screen … the reality is life goes on,” he says.

Charlie (Ryan Corr) and Nate (Bob Morley) do the bantering bloke stuff beautifully in In Limbo.Credit: ABC

Although In Limbo contains its element of fantasy, it looks to depict the death at the heart of the story in a way that is true to life, and in doing so provides a gut-punch moment of wrenching emotion. Nate, played by Bob Morley, is a happy-go-lucky husband and father with everything going for him, presenting an ever-cheerful front to the world. A major part of the show’s narrative is the mystery of why such a man would struggle: a mystery that his loved ones are left to unravel.

This stands in stark contrast to the conventional screen depiction of suicide, where the reasons are generally obvious and explicit. “I think we’re so attuned to that screen language of ‘this person’s not doing well, we should watch out for them’,” says O’Donnell. “It’s like someone in a period film coughing blood into a handkerchief … it’s kind of fascinating and heartbreaking that in the actual world we live in, these things happen so randomly and unexpectedly. That’s a more interesting story world for us, I think.”

In Limbo creator Trent O’Donnell sees comedy’s co-existence with tragedy as a natural way to tell a realistic story.Credit: Steven Siewert

It may be interesting, but making a show about mental health struggles carries with it a heavier responsibility than most. There is a taboo about depictions of suicide based not just on audience sensibilities but on the pervasive fear among many that even mentioning the subject out loud can have a catastrophic contagion effect.

Vella believes that this fear of talking openly about suicide and suicidal ideation is counterproductive. “I think reluctance to talk about these things means we feel more shame when we experience them. I hope the show will lessen the shame that people feel.”

Awareness of the potential for on-screen action to have an impact on the real world, however, led producers to seek expert guidance. On both Totally Completely Fine and In Limbo, suicide prevention professionals were consulted and guidelines for responsible depictions strictly followed. In the process the casts and crews learnt a lot themselves.

O’Donnell had his eyes opened regarding the conventional view of male suicide. “Something I learnt was that [the] notion that men need to open up more and talk about their feelings … is really a case by case thing. That’s great for some people, and for other people being stoic can be their best way of handling stuff.”

For Vella, one of the major takeaways, appropriately enough given the theme of her show, was the importance of directness. “What we were hearing from the suicide prevention bodies was that when you suspect someone is in a period of suicidal ideation, you need to ask them outright: are you thinking about suicide?”

What both In Limbo and Totally Complete Fine convey, more than anything else, is that suicide and suicidal ideation is not just something that happens in moments of operatic extremity to people with problems and heightened feelings. Rather, the question of whether or not to go on living is one that can intrude on our lives at any time for any number of reasons.

If entertainment can ever have an effect on real people’s lives, there could surely be no better way than by shining light on times of darkness. For TCF’s Vivian and In Limbo’s Charlie, moments of great sadness provide both humour and the opportunity to find an unexpected strength.

Lifeline 131114.

In Limbo is on ABC, Wednesday, 9.05pm and iview; Totally Completely Fine is on Stan.

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