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Comedy Crusader -

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It seems remarkable that in this day and age mental illness is still stigmatised. Even talking about the condition can be difficult for suffers who are never sure what the response will be. Imagine then a person who is battling depression deciding to become a comedian based on his own experience of the black dog. Not only that, he also starts a comedy school for suffers so they can learn to laugh at their own situation. David Brill travelled to Canada to meet this comedy crusader who's dramatically changing the lives of those around him. Here’s David

REPORTER: David Brill

MC: Please welcome David Granirer.

David Granirer is not your average comedian.

DAVID GRANIRER, COMEDIAN: One of the things the introduction doesn't tell you about me is that I have a mental illness. I have depression. I want to share with you, I found this great way of overcoming depression. Whenever I'm depressed or bummed out, I go find someone who's really happy and I suck the life force out of them. Thank you, I learned that from my parents.

It's been a long and difficult journey, but David has finally come to terms with his illness, learning to confront his demons by laughing at them.

DAVID GRANIRER: I'm tired of all the secrecy and the shame and stigma around mental illness. I'm telling everyone about my mental illness. I was coming across the border and the Customs guy asked if I had anything to declare. I'm like, "Yes, I'm crazy". He's like, "Big deal, I'm lactose intolerant".

From Alaska down to California to Louisville Chicago, I've lost count. Across Canada, Halifax.

This stand-up up is an exceptionally busy man. With a mission to change perceptions of mental illness, he's in high demand across North America.

DAVID GRANIRER: Let's get started. Paul, do you want to go first. Let me turn on the PA. Paul, you basically want to practise your stand? Yes.

In a church basement on the outskirts of Vancouver, David is teaching people with mental illness how to turn their problems into punch lines.

MAN: I often wonder if I'd ever be called for jury duty, I talked to the people in charge and they say, "No, we can't have a person with an a mental illness on a jury". I was certain that I was more than capable of being 12 angry men. Thank you.

DAVID GRANIRER: You're getting to the point where you're almost not having to use your cards. I know you've been working on that for a long time. You came on and you managed to nail that sort of thing where the audience doesn't know if they should be laughing or be afraid of you.

MAN: I get that a lot.

DAVID GRANIRER: That's really good, really funny.

David's quiet revolution has been going on four seven years now. Today he's joined by the students who have been with him from the very beginning.

FILMENA BLACK, STAND-UP COMIC: Okay, so I'll do my new one first. I will run it by everyone.

His most experienced pupils are workshopping their new material.

FILMENA BLACK: I suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and low self-esteem. Other than that, I'm fine.

DAVID GRANIRER: Let me just get that down. I think we can get some more out of this, too.

Most of his students had never done anything like this. For those who had been crippled by depression and anxiety, the transformation is remarkable.

FILMENA BLACK: One woman said that I was depressed because I was possessed by the devil. I'm thinking, I'm already possessed by Catholic guilt, the devil doesn't stand a chance.

I've always been a very anxious person at a very young age. I was very anxious and very sensitive. I didn't take criticism well and over time I became more and more a loner. I saw in the local newspaper that stand-up comedy class was going to be starting and I was very interested in that. But it took me a year to actually make the phone call because just thinking about doing it scared me and I got all anxious. I really, really like helping the other comics write jokes that way, and as soon as I start doing that, I forget it and get this mini three-hour vacation from reality and even though we're there to deal with reality, it's an empowerment.

When I was a kid I got teased for being skinny and tall, having freckles, bucked teeth, lisping, stuttering, coke-bottle glasses, and a funny name. And that's just from the teachers.

Drawing from their painful past experiences provides a lifetime of material. This often means dealing with the toughest subject matter.

RANDY GOODCHILD: I once tried to kill myself, but I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. You know why? Mostly because of my dog. My dog. Yeah, every time I get the bloody noose tied, she wouldn't stop playing tuggy, I couldn't get it round my neck.

Suicide is not funny, you know, it's not. But the worst thing you can do is not talk about these things, not bring them out in the open.

Randy Goodchild has had a long road to recovery.

RANDY GOODCHILD: I've had issues since I was a little kid. There's always self-doubt, self-loathing and overwhelming sense of dread, 24/7, 365 days a year, I have this feeling. It's like being in the back seat of a car going down a windy mountain road in the middle of the night in the pouring rain with a driver you don't trust and you're in the back seat trying to get your seatbelt done up and you can't get it done up.

His councillor recommended David Granirer's comedy class after noticing Randy's sense of humour. Since enrolling he's been less terrified of leaving the house.

RANDY GOODCHILD: Every time I go to class, even if I'm feeling lowest of the low, by the time I finished with the class, I feel like I've done something, you know, I've made a difference in someone else's life or my life and it's helped me a lot.

The new stuff threw me band I've got this head cold. It didn't flow and they weren't laughing.

David's course, called 'Stand Up For Mental Health', has been a labour of love, entirely self-funded for many years.

REPORTER: Is the government supportive?

DAVID GRANIRER: Put it this way: everyone loves the idea of this program. They love it, but when I come and say, "Well, so, hey, let's talk about some funding." Oh, well, you know. Sure, we'd love to help out, but, you know t budget and this and blah, blah.

WOMAN: It's remarkable that somebody of his talents has chosen this as his calling when he could have chosen to get rich instead.

WOMAN 2: This is kind of like therapy. You can have a crappy day and you come here and vent and everybody genuinely cares for everybody else.

MAN: My quality of life is better now than it ever has been and I owe so much to that to David Granirer and the health place here. They're like family, except they don't secretly hate you.

DAVID GRANIRER: Write that down, that's funny.

That's always been the challenge from the beginning, how do we fund this program and to be really crass - how do I do this work and pay off my mortgage and feed the family and whatever.

What's for dinner? We have beef tenderloins, we have mushroom kebabs.

David's comedy course has expanded across North America. He hardly has time for dinner before his next class is scheduled. This one he runs from home.

DAVID GRANIRER: I've been training a group via Skype in Albuquerque. We will be doing a show in front of 300 people. They're excited. We're flying to do a rehearsal and a show.

We will keep rehearsing until it drives you nuts. Remember that the more you rehearse your act, the closer we get to is show, the less funny it's going to seem. That's the way it is. That's comedy. No-one in class is going to be laughing because we've all heard your material a thousand times.

He's been teaching these students for the past six weeks. Tonight is David's last chance to pass on final words of wisdom before he flies to Albuquerque to join them for their public debut.

DAVID GRANIRER: When people say mental illness is not a laughing matter. Cause I've had that, "You can't make jokes about that", I tell them to see one of our shows. We're not making jokes at mental illness, we’re not laughing at people with mental illness, we're talking about our own experiences with mental illness through comedy. That's a totally different way of looking at it.

REPORTER: Good morning. What time is it? 4am.

It’s the day of the show. David's up early to promote tonight's performance. He's on his way to Albuquerque's annual hot air balloon festival where he secured a brief publicity spot with a weather man on a local TV station.

DAVID GRANIRER: I am a councillor, a stand-up comic with depression, and I teach people with mental illness how to do stand-up comedy and we're doing a big show tonight at the African Culture Centre. Thanks for having us.

WEATHER MAN: I wish you the best.

As dawn breaks the balloon fiesta gets under way. The stunning spectacle is a rare breather in David's busy schedule. But with the clock ticking, he has to get a move on.

DAVID GRANIRER: We're going to meet the comics now at the venue and we're going to have a dress rehearsal with the lights and the sounds, so they can get used to having the spotlights blind them. That's what happens when you're on stage.

David's excited about meeting them all in person for the first time.

DAVID GRANIRER: Hello Robin. Great to meet you.

The hope, the enjoyment, that's what we forget, when it comes to mental illness, you know, you're going to all this treatment and support groups and you lose that sense of enjoyment in your life. What better way of recovering than having some fun and also being creative and moving forward.

Closer, closer. Yes, exactly. Okay.

With just six hours until the audience arrives... They waste no time in rehearsing their routines.

MAN: Good, you can be a little bit louder. Along with the message we want to share with you. It's simple: laughter is the best medicine.

DAVID GRANIRER: I love it. Great, he's got great timing and great delivery. You can tell he's a natural. Then at the end of the show, we will bring you all back for another round of applause. So you will be...

David's remarkable work seems to have flown largely under the radar of the mental health community until now.

ALLEN DOEDERLEIN, DEPRESSION AND BIPOLAR SUPPORT ALLIANCE: We call this award we're giving for the first time today, the Life Unlimited Award. Can I think of no-one better than our partner and friend, David Granirer.

He's being honoured by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance for his tireless efforts in transforming the lives of those with mental illness.

ALLEN DOEDERLEIN: What I think is great about David is that he is so adept at navigating the relationship with the people he's working with and his stand-up comedy courses, where he can be very sensitive and caring, and you instantly feel safe with him. Yet he's still a funny guy. It's still fun and there's not too much formality or too much hand-holding. I think that dualability of David's is part of what makes him so extraordinary.

Back at the cultural centre the theatre is filling up fast.

REPORTER: So we all ready, are we?

TEAM: We're ready. Nervous, probably. Yeah, nervous. I'm not worried at all. Great, let's get on with it.

DAVID GRANIRER: Are you ready for your first comic? Yeah.

MAN: Wow, am I ever nervous. Telling my story in front of 300 people. But I am going to think of you and 300 therapists. I wonder if Medicaid will cover that cost.

MAN 2: At one point when I was recovering, I got in a place I shouldn't have. Put it this way: it's never a good sign when the place you live only accepts cash in its rooms by the hour.

DAVID GRANIRER: People come to our shows and they go, "Oh man, I saw this guy on the stage, with schizophrenia, he was hilarious". People get a different perspective. You have these success stories. They give you hope and completely change the way you look at what it means to have a diagnosis.

I would like to bring out all the comics for another round of applause. Come on out, you guys. Thank you. Wow. Yeah. I mean, you all just rocked. You know, from start to finish, there were no...

MAN: I thought it was an excellent program. I was so happy. I loved it, I had a great time. It was great. Sad and funny and all that together.

WOMAN: It was awesome, it was great, I loved every minute of it.

DAVID GRANIRER: Watching them get up on stage and succeed and not only succeed but they're succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. They're succeeding beyond their wildest expectations. One thing I really loved and I know that I'm really good at is making other people into the stars. I just love watching that happen.

YALDA HAKIM: David Brill with a man in great demand. David tells us the comedy crusader believes that given the incidence of mental illness in Australia a similar comedy program would work well in our country. There's a link to his work on our website.