I could write multiple books about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of my all-time favorite TV series and one of the best representations of mental illness in pop culture. Maybe I will. For now, though, I am grieving the loss of Adam Schlesinger, one of the songwriters from the series (in addition to a million other things), and have been revisiting some of my favorite songs in his memory.
One of the topics I’ve wanted to write about for awhile is the way that the show deploys jokes about mental health in many unique ways. Jokes about suicide in particular are rampant throughout the show, in a way that I would argue serve as precursors to (SPOILER ALERT) Rebecca Bunch’s suicide attempt in season 3.
In fact, the first scene of the entire series has young Rebecca and Josh talking at summer camp, where Rebecca references how she told her dad that she was having suicidal thoughts as a way for her to get permission to go to the camp in the first place. It’s one of many jokes that Rebecca and other characters make about mental health, and this one shows us immediately that Rebecca is someone who might be considered dramatic, an over-sharer, and possibly manipulative (at least as a teenager). I remember not being sure how I felt about those jokes early on in the series – they weren’t offensive, per se, but they made me feel a little uncomfortable. Jokes about suicide (or mental health in general) just make me a little more vigilant about what’s behind the joke, what’s supposed to be funny about the joke, and is it mocking or diminishing something that I take seriously.
I have met many people who have struggled with suicidal thoughts tell me that a throwaway comment from a friend like “That movie was so bad, I wanted to kill myself” can be inadvertently hurtful and off-putting. Mostly, jokes like these are often made by people who have never dealt with suicidal thoughts. That’s not say that only people who have never been suicidal make jokes about suicide. On the contrary, many people with suicidal thoughts find ways to joke about these experiences. For some people, these thoughts come and go just like other thoughts, and making jokes about these thoughts is a way to take away the sting and importance from them. For some, it’s a less shameful way to express genuine feelings (“If I just joke about it, I can say how I actually feel and people won’t be worried about me). For others, it can be cathartic to make jokes about the misunderstandings that people have about their struggles with suicide. I soon realized that the jokes in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were these types of jokes. Rather than making fun of or light of the idea of suicide, the jokes in the show were funny because they reflected genuine feelings. They felt like they came from someone who intimately knew what it was like to struggle with these experiences.
For example, Rebecca’s mother Naomi is a particularly toxic figure in her life. Again, in the first episode of the series, we hear Naomi on the phone with Rebecca discussing Rebecca’s suicide attempt in law school. She immediately belittles the experience to Rebecca, telling her that she “didn’t even cut the skin” and how she “inconvenienced a lot of people.” On the surface, these are horrible things to say. However, the humor comes from understanding that this is the type of mother that Rebecca has lived with her whole life. It’s a perfect representation of Naomi as a character, one that we get to know more throughout the series. It’s also true to life. It remains a persistent myth that some suicide attempts are “cries for attention” or “not real” attempts. This is dangerous for many reasons, especially because a past history of attempting suicide is one of the top predictors that someone will attempt suicide again. These comments from Naomi continue throughout the series, showing us why Rebecca feels so judged and misunderstood by her mother.
The many, many allusions to suicide in Rebecca’s songs also serve as both jokes as well as indications of Rebecca’s mental state throughout the series. While Rebecca doesn’t explicitly talk about wanting to end her life until the third season, there are hints throughout the songs (that ostensibly are all in Rebecca’s mind) that she thinks about death and suicide pretty regularly. I have much more to say about Rebecca and the delicate, nuanced way that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend handles suicide and mental health. But for now, I will end with all of the references to death or suicide in songs leading up to Rebecca’s suicide attempt.
In “A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes” (from Season 1, Episode 3, “I Hope Josh Comes to My Party!”), there is a reference to “dreams in which you (Rebecca) tends to die.” This is notable, as the entire song is about how Josh can help with her mental health issues.
In “Math of Love Triangles” (Season 2, Episode 3, “All Signs Point to Josh… Or Is It Josh’s Friend?”), Rebecca sings about her dilemma in having feelings for both Josh and Greg. At one point, she sings: “Will this help me choose? If not, I’ll be swinging from a hypotenoose!” This again signals that Rebecca is hoping that falling in love with the right person will help cure her of her mental health concerns.
During one of the “Santa Ana Winds” songs (Season 2, Episode 11, “Josh is the Man of My Dreams, Right?”), the singer talks about how the Santa Ana Winds are associated with a high rate of suicide. In this episode, Rebecca kisses her new boss, Nathaniel, even as she is preparing to marry her “dream man” Josh.
Finally, in “Where’s Rebecca Bunch?” (Season 3, Episode 1, “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Wants Revenge”), someone explicitly sings, “If I were her I’d kill myself,” referring to Rebecca after she was stood up at the alter by Josh at their wedding. Further, Rebecca sings, “My reason for living has abandoned me,” suggesting that she is at an extremely low point after the man who was supposed to cure her of her distress has left her.
I have more to say about this season, leading up to her suicide attempt, but that’s for another day.