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A love letter to laughter

the reveal of monday monday

"Comedy is just tragedy plus time."

Three and a half years ago I woke up strapped to a Duke Hospital bed with an IV sprouting from my wrist and a monitoring machine beeping softly by my bedside. I looked around frantically only to see that the room I was in was completely empty. I lay there for a while, bewildered and utterly alone, until a nurse walked in and I finally asked what was going on. After a brief back and forth she finally told me why I was there: “Your friends brought you in tonight because you tried to kill yourself. Your father is flying in from England.” I began to sob uncontrollably.

Fast-forward to the beginning of this semester: with my MacBook broken, I sat at home manically trying to piece together a Monday Monday column on my iPhone, roasting Tim Cook’s commencement address just 24 hours after its announcement. It was titled “Tim Cook admits to intentionally slowing down commencement address to accommodate older generations.” With no warning, my iPhone’s battery gave out and the screen turned to black. I sat back, overcome by the irony, and roared with pure, joyous laughter.

When I first set foot on Duke’s campus as a freshman—like so many others—I had no idea what highs and lows my time here would bring me. I had no idea that I would make friends I would have for life; that I would find communities where I truly felt like I belonged; that I would love people and lose them; or that in my sophomore year I would receive my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder Type I, and that by the end of that semester I would attempt to take my own life with all the alcohol and pills I could lay my hands on. This is Duke: we each carry our unique burden, often painfully hidden from the world. I never imagined this place could be so hard and yet so profoundly beautiful at the same time. But if there has been one thing that has kept me going through it—no matter the circumstances—it has been laughter.

The first day in the Duke Hospital psych ward was the hardest. I felt completely lost; surrounded by harrowed faces I did not know and worried doctors saying things I could not comprehend. On the second day I was visited by two close friends, who had come to check in and cheer me up. At one point, my friend Graham cracked a joke over something I cannot quite recall—probably something terribly dark and insincere in light of the situation—but in that moment of laughter I could not be sad and I could not be afraid. I was just laughing. And, somehow, I knew it was all going to be okay. 

When it comes to comedy I have always believed two things: the best comedy is that which resonates most truthfully, and that there is nothing that cannot be joked about. It is perhaps for this reason that I am proudest of the columns that I have written this semester which tackled darker, more challenging issues; be they the pervasive culture of sexual assault, the appalling and ongoing toxicity of Tallman Trask or our administration’s shameful lack of courage to stand against hate speech. Those were the times I tried not only to make people laugh but also to think more deeply, if only for a few minutes, and I stand defiantly by what I wrote.

I firmly believe that comedy, when done well, can be a powerful catalyst for discourse and debate; I think nothing proves that more emphatically than the fact that a controversial yet deeply necessary conversation about racism at Duke was ignited with a volley of memes on Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens page this past week, ostensibly a place for laughter and levity. I am not naive enough to think that memes or comedy alone can solve our issues—be they personal or institutional—because I believe that the drivers for such change lie in more serious debate, introspection, and tangible alterations in policy. However, I do believe that laughter can shed light on unseen issues and lead us to a deeper questioning of our own assumptions and of our institutions.

I would also like to briefly speak to those at Duke suffering from any kind of mental illness—be it depression, anxiety, bipolar, PTSD, an eating disorder or something else—to say that there is absolutely no shame in your condition. It may strike you as simultaneously tragic and heartwarming to know that there are literally hundreds of others on this campus enduring similar afflictions—you are far from alone—and, fortunately, there are resources that can help you on campus (be it a trusted friend, CAPS, Duke Wellness or DukeReach). Confiding in others about such deeply private matters may seem like an utterly terrifying idea but, speaking from my own experience, it can be an extraordinarily empowering and important first step. At the very least I hope with all my heart that someone makes you laugh today, be it over something silly or something serious, and that it makes your day a little brighter. 

For those of you that read them, I hope that my columns gave you a few chuckles at the beginning of each week. There are probably some of you out there that wish I’d succeeded back in 2014 and never had the chance to write this semester (Hi, Tallman!). But I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to explain quite how much this column meant to me. In my hardest weeks this semester I have been able to sit at my laptop, clear my mind, and write comedy without a care in the world. I am extraordinarily thankful to The Chronicle’s editorial team (opinion editor Jackson Prince in particular) for that precious opportunity and for all of their phenomenal work.

Finally, while I have the opportunity to, I’d like to thank a few people without whom my time at Duke—let alone my column—would not have been possible:

Firstly, to the three individuals who rushed me to the hospital that night in 2014: Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi, Wilson Brace and Mark Botros. To Tom Szigethy and Amy Powell; two of the most wonderful people I have ever met who do incredible work each day supporting students through the Duke Wellness Centre and Duke Reach respectively. To the Robertson Scholarship for making my dream of studying in America a reality. To my family in Wayne Manor and my family at home: Khalid, Laure and Ali.

And lastly to my parents—Alan and Patricia—for being by my side throughout my struggles with nothing but patience and unwavering love. Everything I am is because I was lucky enough to have the kindest mum and dad anyone could ever wish for.

My name is Mark Botterill. I have been your Monday Monday. Thank you for reading.

Correction: Monday Monday would also like to thank the various departments at Duke over the past semester for being good sports and sincerely hopes that, one day, they do actually receive their Nobel Prizes. I can finally declare in good faith that this joke is unquestionably - and rightfully - dead. I ask you humbly not to judge my comrades in Inside Joke by the quality of my own atrocious jokes. 

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