Interview: Dylan Brody on Comedy, Depression, and Robin Williams
Posted on August 29, 2014 at 8:06 am
Dylan Brody is a comedy writer and stand-up performer dubbed “brilliant” by Robin Williams. It was Williams’ tragic suicide that inspired Brody to write a moving essay about his own struggles with depression. Brody generously took time to talk with me about the connection between comedy and clinical depression, the best — and worst — things to say to someone who is struggling with depression. Brody currently writes and performs regularly for the David Feldman show on KPFK(Pacifica Radio) in Los Angeles., The Drive with Steve Jaxon on KSRO (Sonoma County) and is a regular contributor to John Rabe’s OFF RAMP on KPCC, NPR’s Pasadena affiliate. His material runs on XM/Sirius Satellite Radio’s comedy channels, Pandora and he is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. He has written for dozens of comedians, including Jay Leno, who has used Brody’s work in his monologues on NBC’s The Tonight Show. In 2005, Dylan won the Stanley Drama award for playwriting. He is a thrice-published author of fiction for the Young Adult market with one of his books, A Tale of a Hero and The Song of Her Sword finding a place in the curriculum at several public schools in the U.S. His book, Laughs Last, is a novel about a stand-up comic. And The Modern Depression Guidebook is a humorous take on how to be depressed, a parody of a self-help book that guides readers to have the biggest, bleakest, most depressing depression ever. Brody was thoughtful, insightful, very funny, and a lot of fun to talk to.
I heard a report on NPR that the only stand-up comic that they’ve identified who was not struggling with some kind depression, OCD, or anxiety issues was Jerry Seinfeld. Do you think that’s true?
That might be true. I don’t know if Jay Leno does. Like any other group of people, comics are all different and I’m sure there are some among us who have found a way to function in the world without also being subject to its sadness. But I think that certainly our profession involves an awareness of every irony, every hypocrisy, and we tend to lean into depression. Both humor and sensitivity are associated with being gifted so there’s likely to be a lot of overlap between those who find their profession in humour and those who find themselves frequently depressed.
Tell me a little about the response that you got for the piece that you wrote and in tribute to Robin Williams and about your own experiences with depression.
The response to that has been sort of extraordinary because first of all I didn’t realize that there were people that I knew very well who had no idea that I struggled with depression. And I suspect part of the issue with depression is that we don’t realize that it’s not as visible as it feels. So there have been a lot of people reaching out saying, “Are you ok? Do I need to be worried about you?”
And no, I’m fine, you don’t need to be worried about me. And so there’s a lot of that coming from people who I actually know. And there’s has also been an unexpected number of direct messages and emails and stuff of people saying “Thank you for saying this.” In the days immediately following Robin’s suicide there was an outpouring of sadness about the loss of Robin and a great number of people, myself included who sought the proper way to pay tribute to him by speaking of their experiences of and with Robin Williams. “This is the man I knew and how this is how his death affects me.” But when I put out that piece which came a couple days after my initial response I was really beginning to think about the larger picture of depression in the world and the need, the real need for people to be open to one another’s suffering and open to what help might be available. The difficulty I think with depression is that in some way it’s like a virus and it is self sustaining and self supporting. It is an illness that wants to survive, the illness itself wants to survive so it tells the sufferer all these lies about how impossible it is to change, how little interest anyone has in hearing about it, it creates within the sufferer the belief that the depression itself is necessary. I got emails from comics saying, “You’re not depressed — how come you’re still so funny?” People have difficulty believing they can remain creative or productive if they’re not driven by depression because depression is telling them this lie. And so to me the real benefit that came out of writing that piece is that it caused people to get in touch with me so I can then say, “No, you can be all right and still be all right. You can be undepressed and still do the work you love and still care about politics and still worry about your loved ones and still have an emotional life without the constant sorrow of alienation and disaffection that comes with depression.”
I was so struck in the beautiful tribute that Letterman did to Robin Williams and at the end the last thing he said was “I didn’t know the man was in pain.” What is the best way to make people feel all right about sharing their experience with depression and what is the best way for the people around them to respond to them?
I think any illness, any disability the natural response is to find coping mechanisms. You can’t function daily if you’re constantly sobbing, you can’t go to a job interview and talk about how miserable you are all the time. There’s a need just to function in the world, there is a need to repress and suppress the outward symptoms of depression and that can become habitual. Many depressed people, I think, do not realize they’re depressed. In 1994, when I went into therapy for the first time in a long time, it was because I had spiraled into a depression. I hadn’t realized it. My wife said, “You have to talk to somebody. You’re absorbing all the light in our home.” And through therapy and martial arts training I was able to quit smoking pot because that was no longer working as self medication. And so I was able to find a way past depression that served me well for 10 or 15 years and then it came back. And I didn’t realize it had come back until I realized the people around me didn’t like me. They were starting to feel like I was being a jerk. And I was being a jerk because I was miserable. All I could see in my work or anybody else’s work was flaws. So instead of being supportive and energetic and enthusiastic when I went into the studio all I was doing was correcting errors. And I never noticed the transition.
Andrew Solomon who I think writes better about depression than anybody said that the problem with it is that it feels knowledge. It comes to you from the same parts of your brain that tells you that it’s time to eat or you shouldn’t cross the street because there’s a car coming. And it’s that same reliable use of speaking to you.
That’s right and it’s very difficult to recognize it as a lying voice, as a voice of an unproductive perspective as opposed to a voice of fact. I know a lot of people who are deep in depression and tell me all the reasons that I should go off my medication. Because they are aware, they feel they’re more aware than I am of all the wrong in the world, of all the political injustices that need to be corrected and so on. There’s a wonderful comic named Rick Overton who talks about how people medicate against depression, if you get shot in the ass with an arrow, you want to go to a doctor and have the arrow taken out, you don’t want to just take something that makes you say, “Oh, what a nice place for birds to perch.” Because he genuinely feels as though the depression is telling him about things that need to be fixed. And if he meditates against the depression he won’t be fighting the fight against these things in the world. And I understand that feeling so well. And all mental illnesses tell you to get off your medication, every one of them, schizophrenics and bipolar and clinical depression everyone of them. There’s something in your brain that’s constantly saying, “Well, you’re fine now, you should get off this medication, you’re fine now, you should go off the medication.” We want to be able to think our way out of the illness. For some reason with mental illnesses you want to get off it, you want to get off the medication, you want to get back to who you’re supposed to be or something. One of the things that has kept me able to stay on my medication is reminding myself that I have remained productive, that I have remained politically engaged, that I’ve remained passionate about things about which I have always been passionate. I just don’t feel hopeless or helpless about them.
What are the helpful things to say to someone who is struggling with depression?
Years ago when Nancy Reagan started her “Just say no” campaign I used to say on stage, “Trying to cure clinical addiction with ‘just say no’ is like trying to cure clinical depression with ‘just cheer up’. ”
The thing that a person can say are these: “You need to see a professional.” “I will still love you if you’re not unhappy.” “You need to find out what’s wrong,.” “You don’t need to be this sad.” In 1994, when I went into therapy at that time I literally came out of my first session feeling as though there might be light at a distant end of a tunnel. I wasn’t better. I wasn’t undepressed. I wasn’t just fine from one session but having talked to somebody who was trained to help with this was enough to tell me that it was possible to see hope and just the possibility of hope can be enough. When engaging someone with depression, I think the words they need to hear are the possibility of hope. “You can let go off your depression and remain yourself. Your depression is not integral to your personality or your humanity.” And everybody needs to be reminded whether depressed not, everybody needs to be reminded constantly that despite their perceived, self-perceived flaws and failures and inadequacies they’re loved and will continue to be loved.
What do you hope people will get from reading your parody self-help book, The Modern Depression Guidebook?
There are a bunch of layers to that book. First of all I wrote it when I was in a deep depression. I really thought if I could get every possible laugh I could get out of this sensation I would cure myself. It did not work. But it did create what I think is a very funny, very truthful book. And a short book, an e-book. In print it won’t be more than 90 pages, maybe less. It is not making fun of depression as much as is making fun of the self-help industry. The premise of the book is: I am not going to cheer you up. If you’re going to be depressed you might as well do that well.
So the book is designed to help you get the lowest possible lows and the darkest possible blues. It has handy exercises to improve your self-loathing, it has lists of things to ponder that will make you feel bad about the universe. It is designed to help you get your mood spiraling downward. It’s like my grandfather who told me, “We’re Jews, we don’t believe in tragedy. We believe in horror, atrocity and injustice and we recognize them all as inherently hilarious.”
There is such stigma attached to depression that nobody knows how to even broach the subject. And it is my hope that through this book and ultimately I hope through the screenplay that I’ve based on it, I can crack that conversation wide open. That by allowing it to be something that can be approached with sense of humor and a sense of irony and awareness of the absurdity that we’re all experiencing the same life on the same planet and some of us can see in it only the darkness, maybe I can create a new pathway towards healing for let’s say even two people. If it’s hundreds or thousands that will be great but two would be a good start.