Ottawa’s own Jessica Holmes has spent her life making people laugh. She has opened for names like Jerry Seinfeld, Leslie Nielsen, and Ellen DeGeneres, and hosted events for such visionaries as Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, and Oprah Winfrey. She spent over sixteen years as a favourite on Royal Canadian Air Farce, during which time she had two children with her husband Scott.
Despite her career’s upward trajectory, her life took an unexpected turn when she found herself unable to get up off the couch. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with depression. But if her career had taught her anything, it was that some of the best comedy comes from tragedy, and time. She used this method to create a brilliantly written memoir of her struggles with mental health titled Depression: The Comedy. As she explains in an interview with Breakfast Television Toronto, “I decided to write about it only in retrospect. And in a funny way. The same way that if I want my kids to eat broccoli and they won’t, I’ll just grind it up and put it in cake mix. This is the broccoli wrapped in cake.”
When did you know that this was the career path you wanted to take?
When I was at Ryerson a few peers and I dared each other to try stand-up at the local open mic night. It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever done, and I actually swiped a sip of a stranger’s drink for courage on my way up to the stage. But I caught the bug that very first time when I got a laugh. I still get nervous, but not, like, at a drink-stealing level.
What are some struggles you face with your career?
Being on stage is the wonderful part. Managing the highs and lows between shows is trickier; the busy successful periods followed by weeks of tumbleweeds is a work in progress. So everyday is like Christmas, and every other day is like…not Christmas. But I love the thrill of it. It’s something most performers face, whether at the highest or most humble levels. You get used to it…….eventually. I’ve attached my career to a deeper purpose and that’s given me a sense of stability.
What was it like to open for big names like Jerry Seinfeld, Leslie Nielsen, and Ellen DeGeneres?
Those moments were incredibly meaningful milestones. Apparently, Seinfeld chose me from my demo reel which still floors me! At the same time it’s a tad surreal because you’re so honoured to open for your idols, but their security detail is like “stay 3 feet back, lady!” (Ok that was only Ellen’s security…but I don’t blame them, she’s got people flinging themselves on her 24/7!)
What are some of your favourite moments from stand-up?
There are some shows where everything just lines up perfectly. Improvising is my favorite and when it works it’s the most incredible feeling of flow. For example, sometimes I’ll go into the crowd and if I find someone who’s the perfect foil, straight-faced but willing to banter, the audience loves it and I’m in heaven.
Tell us about your time on Air Farce?
They fit me like a warm glove and we hit it off right away. The writers had me playing Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and a Scottish nun. My favourite part of the week was going to wardrobe and makeup to figure out how they would transform me into these people. The most convincing transformation was when Sue Upton, the amazing makeup artist, turned me into a very convincing Emma Stone for a parody of La La Land. They even brought in a choreographer to teach us the full dance. It was my little girl dream come true.
They would take these dreary news headlines on Monday morning and turn them into something the whole country could laugh about by Friday night. I try and view life like that now, that even bad things are just a punchline in the making.
You recently wrote a book, “Depression, the Comedy: A Tale of Perseverance”. What is this book about?
I suffered from depression a few years ago and it took away all of my ambition and excitement for life. I had everything I could ever want, but I felt like an emotional robot. A zero. My head was so cloudy and I was always tired. When I recovered I was so grateful and wanted to share my experience in a way that was simple and funny. Depression is hard enough… who wants a sad book about it!?!
What do you hope readers will gain from this book?
I want readers to feel safe and understood, and maybe to laugh with relief. “Phew – it’s not just me who spends days at a time on a sofa that looks like a tornado hit a 7-eleven!”
When was your first encounter with mental illness?
I had postpartum depression after the birth of my second child. It was diagnosed quickly because I was so paralyzed with anxiety. I got therapy, got a prescription, and a few months later felt “recovered”. I thought “I’m never having more kids, so I’ll never be depressed again. Take THAT, depression! Boo-ya!!!” But then, 4 years later a whole other type of depression snuck up. Apples and oranges.
What was your support system like once you expressed the struggles you were facing?
Everyone’s heart is in the right place, and I knew friends and family cared about me, but not everyone is comfortable “getting involved”, and frankly some people don’t believe in depression. “Oh, just get some fresh air” like it’s a case of the lazies or a figment of your imagination. But I’ve taken charge of my mental health, and I’ve set my life up in a healthy way that I’m not dependant on the validation of people who don’t get it.
With everything that you have going on, how do you manage to balance work life and personal life?
Well, for me there’s no such thing as ‘having it all’…something’s gotta give when you commit yourself in either direction. So I’ve accepted that, and figured out my priorities, and I take care of myself first, then my family, then the rest of the world. I also learned that exercise (playing team sports, jogging, Tabata) fills me up and makes me feel strong, so I have more energy to give others. I’ve tried meditation, but I think it would be more fun if it involved watching TV simultaneously…
What advice would you give to those suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness?
First, I would just say sorry that they’re having a tough go of it. And if they asked, I’d tell them that
with my experience with depression, I tried to keep making whatever small effort I could, every day, again and again, and eventually there was light at the end of the tunnel. And I’d also suggest limiting the time you spend on social media because it rarely improves your self-esteem. Treat it like a hot tub: get in and get out before you catch something!
How do you think we as a society can begin to de-stigmatize the topic of mental illness?
I love how many people are sharing their mental health stories whether through programs like Bell Let’s Talk or just online or in conversation. And I appreciate athletes like Demar DeRozan speaking up about it, because they’re viewed as so tough, and if they can say “hey, I struggle” it gives other people a sense that it’s not so taboo. Things are changing.
What types of events have you spoken at?
I’ve spoken at corporate events promoting mental health, but then I’ve also been invited to share my mental health story at community gatherings where they took a chance on this comedian who tells jokes but then also shares her story of depression. The greatest honour of my career is having people tell me “you know, after your presentation, people opened up to each other more.”
What do you usually get up to in the summer?
We have a trailer parked on the shore of a remote lake in the middle of Ontario. We’ve been spending every other week there this summer (the packing/unpacking is alarming and I’ll need to rethink that strategy next year!) but it’s also wonderful to take a break and hang with my kids before work gets bananas in September.
As a motivational speaker what type of messages do you try to pass along to your listeners?
My biggest message is that we’re all in this together. Suffering is universal. When we laugh together, it’s a relief. So I encourage people to view life as a sitcom, and look for the funny in everything. It all comes back to tragedy + time = comedy.