Is this true, or had Chaplin fallen for his own mythology? Does a talent for comedy necessitate a tragic life? Are comedy and happiness truly incompatible? Common sense says no—there are countless comedians who have lived normal, well-adjusted lives without succumbing to depression, insanity, or suicide. So why is it so hard to think of one? It would seem that Chaplin, like the many who followed in Grimaldi’s wake, found it hard to resist the powerful narrative that set expectations for his happiness. The comedian’s split personality reveals what we ultimately believe comedy to be. Whereas in the Middle Ages fooling was seen as an expression of the cosmic absurdity of being alive, the modern world views it as a symptom of personal distress. In Grimaldi’s day, misery was the grit in the oyster that grew the pearl and gave substance to the otherwise trivial world of pantomime. Suffering ennobles, and when comedians suffer, we are more willing to see their work as flowing from the same font as the profoundest art. We want our comedians to be tortured; only then can we really laugh.
I hadn’t heard of Grimaldi until Arthur explained his choice of avatar to me. Stott is also the author of this article about Grimaldi specifically; both are fascinating and worth reading.