When “Big Daddy” Tazz Norris peppers his stand-up routine with jokes about hanging himself, he can predict the audience's reaction. They laugh without thinking, then hush: Wait, that's a suicide joke. Then they laugh even harder because, Mr. Norris chuckles, they don't want to depress him by letting his punchline fall flat.
“Onstage, I always tell them, ‘You know what you did? You just accidentally rapid-cycled,' ” the Winnipeg comic says, using the medical term for the ups and downs of the bipolar disorder that has plagued most of his life.
Mr. Norris, 40, has made mental illness an edgy part of his “Bipolar Buddha” routine to “give stigma a bad name,” but for the longest time, he refused to even admit that he might be sick.
His story is anything but funny. Born in Saskatchewan, he believes that his parents suffered undiagnosed mental illness even as they regularly sent their troubled son to stay with relatives out of town. At the age of 8, he tried to commit suicide by stepping in front of a bus; five other attempts followed.
He lived the contradiction common to people with bipolar disorder: Manic states stoked his creativity, while destroying the rest of his world. He cheated on every girlfriend. Picked fights at pubs. Blew $45,000 on electronics and bar rounds in a single weekend. And lied compulsively, once telling friends he was dying of cancer. “I had no conscience,” he recalls. “I didn't have to answer to God. God had to answer to me.” His voice cracks. “I know I hurt a lot of people.”
Onstage, the manic rush was “intoxicating”: He could extend a 45-minute routine into 21/2 hours of improv. When the applause was over, he often crumbled, spending long spells in bed sobbing. After the birth of his first son in 1994, his wife at the time dragged him to a doctor: “Of course, I was a man. I didn't need help.”
Six years ago, he finally sought treatment. Today, he controls his illness with behavioural therapy, and has become more spiritual, studying Buddhism in particular. He recently had a second son with his fiancée.
And this past April Fool's Day, he set a world record for the longest non-stop stand-up routine: eight hours.
He wanted to prove to himself that he could still run a comic marathon without mania as his fuel.
Erin Anderssen is a senior feature writer for The Globe and Mail. Watch Tazz Norris and read The Globe's series on mental illness at globeandmail.com/breakdown.