The UK presenter and comic gets into matters of the matter of the mind
Be advised: Ruby Wax's Out Of Her Mind isn’t a conventional comedy show. Sure, Wax knows funny – the motormouthed yank was one of the writers for Not the Nine O’Clock News and was script editor for Absolutely Fabulous, as well as having her own interview shows and documentary series’, becoming a beloved television personality.
However, she always had an interest in psychology, studying it at the University of Berkeley in California before changing tack and moving to the UK to study acting. That interest became more acute when she was diagnosed with clinical depression a decade ago, which fuelled her further studies in the area and has provided the subject for her last couple of shows. “It isn’t stand up at all, really,” she warns. “No-one would describe it as that. But it’s funny too, let me make that clear.”
OK, but does it make it easier to address stigmatised issues around mental health if it’s framed as part of a comedy festival?
“Well, it’s not supposed to be part of a comedy festival. I mean, it happened to be in Edinburgh, but I toured in mental institutions for two and a half years, and then it went to the West End [in London] and then LA, so what’s great is that people say ‘we didn’t know what to expect’. That’s the best way to see it. You start off with your safety belt, thinking ‘oh, I know what this is’, and then it takes you on a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. I mean, it is a play – it’s scripted within an inch of its life – and it gets really dark, and then it gets really funny.
So what is it about? “Well, it’s not all about mental illness,” she’s quick to point out, “it’s about ALL of our sicknesses. All our malaise, and how none of us have an instruction manual, we don’t know how to live our lives, and how busy consumes us – y’know, that kind of stuff. It’s never about dating or diets, and it’s not at random.”
Isn’t this draining, going over such heavy stuff night after night?
“No! It’s the best time: these are my people. And I make the joke ‘if you can make a schizophrenic laugh, you’re halfway to Broadway,” she laughs.
“The best times was doing this in the mental institutions – their reactions were unbelievable,” she insists. “They’d sometimes be slightly comatose and you’d think ‘oh, they’re dead,’ and then as the show goes on they’d kind of defrost and by the end they’re asking the most sensational questions. So no, it’s never draining.”
It’s also an interactive show. “After the interval the audience can talk back to me, and that’s when it really takes off. Since I’ve just done a mental strip tease, they feel OK to do it too. But let’s remember, I’ve done it with humour,” she smirks. “Otherwise it’s called ‘whining’.”
Ruby Wax: literally the UK’s poster girl for mental illness
“I got outed by Comic Relief by accident: they used a photo of mine for a big poster saying ‘this woman has a mental illness’, and it was all over London. So then I thought ‘alright, fine, I’ll write a show to make it look like that’s my publicity poster.’”