Interview: Dylan Brody on Comedy, Depression, and Robin Williams

Posted on August 29, 2014 at 8:06 am

copyright Dylan Brody 2014
copyright Dylan Brody 2014

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?”

Copyright 2012 Autharium
Copyright 2012 Autharium

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.

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Interview Writers

Opera Flash Mob at a London Grocery Store

Posted on August 29, 2014 at 8:00 am

Sacla staged an impromptu Opera in the food aisles of a London grocery store.

They planted five secret opera singers who were disguised as casual shoppers and store staff amongst the groceries who broke into song bringing the foodhall to a standstill with a rousing rendition of the Italian classic Finiculi Finicula. Enjoy!

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Music Shorts Smile of the Week

Exclusive Clip: Juliette Lewis in “Kelly and Cal”

Posted on August 29, 2014 at 6:00 am

Juliette Lewis stars as a rocker-turned suburban mother of a newborn in “Kelly and Cal.”  Here she tries to make friends with the other mothers, who treat her like mean girls shooing off a freshman who wants to sit at the cool table.

And here’s the trailer:

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Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Love is Strange

Posted on August 28, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Love is strange.  As this movie opens, a deeply devoted couple of more than three decades wakes up and prepares for a big, important, emotional, happy occasion.  They bicker a little bit, but it is clear to them and to us that these are reassuringly familiar rhythms for them, almost a contrapuntal love duet in words.  Later in the film, two people who admire and care for each other deeply but are getting on one another’s nerves, converse in terms that are genuinely thoughtful and polite, and yet it is clear to us and to them that they are seconds short of wanting to throttle each other.  One of them will tell his husband in a phone call, “When you live with people, you know them better than you want to.”  That is, unless you share a true, romantic love.  That’s what’s strange — how it is that other people’s quirks that would annoy us if we spent too much time together somehow seem endearing when it is someone you love.  Love is what makes us not strange to the special people who truly understand us.

Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures Classics

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, a comfortable but far from wealthy couple who have lived happily together in New York, in a life rich with art, culture, friends, and family.  Ben is an artist.  George is a choir leader in a Catholic school.  As the film opens, it is their wedding day.  Gathered in their apartment afterward, they are toasted by their loved ones, including Ben’s niece-in-law, Kate (Marisa Tomei), a writer, who makes a beautiful speech about how seeing them together, when she was dating their nephew, showed her what a loving partnership could be.

But their marriage is too much for the bishop who oversees George’s school, and he is fired.  Ben and George go into financial free-fall.  They can no longer afford their apartment, and they call on their friends and family to help them while they try to find something less expensive. Everyone wants to help, but this is New York, where space is very limited, and no one can take them both. (A niece who lives in a large house in Poughkeepsie keeps offering, but no one considers that an option.) Ben goes to stay with his nephew, a harried documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Kate, and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). He will be sleeping in Joe’s bunk bed. George will be sleeping on the sofa in the small apartment of friends, another gay couple, both cops, who have an active social life.

What “Brokeback Mountain” did to convey that movie romances between gorgeous, glamorous movie stars do not all have to be heterosexual, this film does even better for showing us that the real love story is the one that stretches over decades. Lithgow and Molina exquisitely capture the intimacy and interdependence that only those in very long-term relationships understand. They lightly touch on past disappointments, even betrayals. They tenderly support one another’s vulnerabilities.

The brilliant timing and wit of the scene where Kate is trying to get work done while Ben is cluelessly trying to be a good guest by making social chit-chat is a highlight. Tomei is outstanding, as always. Tahan is marvelously open as a good kid who understandably feels crowded to have a 70-something uncle in his bunk bed. Writer-director Ira Sachs has enough respect for his characters and his audience to allow everyone to be nice. There are no bad guys here (except for the off-screen bishop). But that just makes clear how precious those moments are when we experience the love of those to whom we are never strangers.

Parents should know that this movie is rated R for language only.  There is a sad death.

Family discussion:  What would you advise Ben and George to do?  This movie shows small moments many movies overlook and skips the big moments many movies would include – – why?

If you like this, try: writer/director Ira Sachs’ other films, including “Married Life,” and the classic 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow.

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Family Issues

See Great Directors — in TV and Music Videos

Posted on August 28, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Top directors do more than movies.  Take a look at these clips from Emmy-nominated television series and these music videos made by some of the most talented directors working in Hollywood, including Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), David Fincher (“Fight Club”), and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “The Master”).  Taylor Swift’s new Shake it Off video was directed by Mark Romanek, who also directed Johnny Cash’s classic “Hurt” and Michael Jackson’s “Scream” as well a films like Robin Williams’ “One Hour Photo” and the haunting “Never Let Me Go.”   He said that the ideas were Swift’s, but explained how he added his own thoughts.

We met and she told me that she wanted to make a sort of paean to the awkward ones, the “uncool” kids that are actually cooler than the “cool” kids. She said she wanted to shoot all these styles of dance and then be the individualist dork in the midst of these established genres. And that she somehow wanted her fans involved. I loved that idea, so over the following week or so, we narrowed down our choices for styles of dance. I think she imagined it in more natural settings and I suggested giving it a starker, more minimalist look. And I suggested the idea of incorporating her fans as a climax, for the ending as a kind of surprise.

Did you know that Fincher directed Madonna’s “Vogue?”  It is a lot of fun to see directors freed from the structure of narrative arcs, having fun with the visuals and the music.


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Directors Shorts Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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