Adam Cayton-Holland brings jokes and frank mental health discussions to Just for Laughs

Content warning: Mentions of suicide. 

Denver comedian Adam Cayton-Holland wants to talk about tough topics most comedians choose to avoid, like his sister Lydia’s suicide. In Nov. 2018, Cayton-Holland published a memoir called Tragedy Plus Time, which discussed her passing and how he processes grief. 

“I was a little tired of wondering if people know this about me or [whether they are] tiptoeing around this issue, [like when] people try to bring it up awkwardly,” Cayton-Holland said in an interview with The McGill Tribune.

While writing the memoir felt cathartic to him, Cayton-Holland still felt the urge to process his grief on stage.

“I thought that [the book] would scratch the itch of me being an insufferable artiste and needing to process it in my work, but I felt compelled to talk about it on stage. But it’s not the kind of subject you can just [bring up] like, ‘Hey, comedy club! How are your fried cheese sticks? My sister killed herself,’” Cayton-Holland said. “You need a more appreciative, sensitive, nuanced audience.”

As a result, and at the encouragement of his comedian friends Sean Patton and Rory Scovel, Cayton-Holland tested out a loose adaptation of his memoir as a one-man show. 

“They were like, ‘you should do this as a show’,” Cayton-Holland said. “And they spoke to me, so I tried it, and from the first time I tried it, it felt good to me. It didn’t feel too triggering or indulgent. It felt right.”

Although he says the show is still a work-in-progress, Cayton-Holland is excited to perform his one-man show, Happy Place, at the Just For Laughs Festival this July. He anticipates an enjoyable return to the city of Montreal.

“I look forward to speaking broken French,” Cayton-Holland said. “I’d say I know 100 words of French and I don’t know how to conjugate verbs so I’m really fun to be around as I blatantly try to be a gross American speaking French everywhere I go.”

On stage, however, Cayton-Holland has found audiences are in tune with what he is saying. Mental illness is a topic he finds meaningful to discuss on stage, and he finds a lot of power in sharing his story.

“[I] can’t leave the venue because everyone wants to talk about their experience,” Cayton-Holland said. “You learn how prevalent mental illness, depression, and suicide are. [….] There’s no six degrees of separation when it comes to [this] stuff. It’s like everyone knows someone. Why, in 2019 when we’re all so ‘woke,’ there’s still a stigma about suicide is beyond me.”

After one show, Cayton-Holland was approached by a military veteran who provided a particularly meaningful message. 

“This was a dude who was a veteran [who] had a lot of friends [commit] suicide,” Cayton-Holland said. “And he basically said ‘I can’t believe you talked about mental illness for an hour and I was laughing the whole time.’”

Cayton-Holland wants to use his show as an avenue for addressing and coping with difficult topics.

“[The] spoonful of sugar is the comedy, so I try to make it funny,” Cayton-Holland said. “My goal is funny first. I don’t want it to be this gut-wrenching thing you have to endure. I want you to laugh and be like, ‘Holy shit, we just dealt with some heavy stuff.’”

Happy Place, after all, is a tribute to Cayton-Holland’s little sister and her role in his life. Cayton-Holland told the Tribune that his show has given him the opportunity to be the most himself, and the most open he has ever felt on stage.

“My little sister Lydia and I were very funny together, and I think a lot of my sense of humour came from her,” Cayton-Holland said. “When you’re brother and sister, you run weird little bits. You just have a way of joking that’s very, you know, you have a shorthand with one another. And, so, I feel like doing it on stage is almost like an attempt to recreate that a little bit with her.”

Adam Cayton-Holland will perform Happy Place at 8:30 p.m. on July 23-25 at Le P’tit Impro. Check hahaha.com for more info.

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