Many comedians and comedy writers have battled depression. They have a knack for talking about it in a way that makes it easy for people to relate to. The Hilarious World of Depression, a podcast sponsored by HealthPartners and Make It OK, looks at depression through the eyes of eight comedians. It uses humor as another way to start a conversation to help end the stigma of mental illness. The podcasts are available on apmpodcasts.org, iTunes or other podcast sites.
When it comes to depression, everyone’s story is different. But a lot of time, the stories can be pretty similar. In this podcast, there are common themes that rise up in conversations with comedians.
Some people are as young as five when they first feel depression. Some are as old as 21. But there is a pretty specific age range that it hits during for most people. And that’s when it hit for the majority of the comedians featured in this podcast. We’re talking about the cracking voice years. The unexpected hair years. Yes, we’re talking about that delightful time in adolescence known as puberty.
Jake Weisman, standup comic
Jake is based in LA and one of the writers and stars of “Hampton Deville,” an up-and-coming sitcom on Comedy Central.
“The first time I had depression was when puberty hit in seventh or eighth grade. I remember feeling very dark thoughts all the time. Like not wanting to be alive. I remember being kind of an asshole. I remember having this layer of sludge over my brain every day. I felt stupid and unworthy of everything I had. And I hated myself so much. I would be really sarcastic to people.”
Awareness of how much you can hate yourself comes up a lot when you reflect on the first time you felt depression. The theme of how much you could detach from the world is also common. Sometimes you see it as how much you didn’t want to be around anymore. And oftentimes it centers on how you had confusion about what was going on. When you first feel depression, you don’t have life experience to identify it. You’ve never felt anything like it before.
Mike Drucker, standup and a writer
Mike has worked with Jimmy Fallon and on Saturday Night Live. Currently he’s co-writer of Bill Nye’s upcoming show for Netflix. But before all that, he was a confused teenager.
“I think in high school I was a glum kid. I had one or two good teachers who said, ‘I think you have depression.’ I said, ‘No I don’t.’ As if I had something to gain by denying it. I knew I did have it. But I thought that’s like something you see in really bad commercials. I thought, ‘I’m not like some woman looking out the window during a rain storm feeling bad about myself.’ I just thought, ‘I just don’t want to be alive.’”
Denial is another recurring theme. Denial is a product of stigma. Even kids get the sense that they shouldn’t talk about mental illness. Society says it’s bad and wrong. You think you’ll get locked away and have to wear a strait jacket in a padded room. So you think, “I will convince others and I will convince myself that I’m fine.”
But then the idea of suicide comes up. For people with depression, it’s always out there as a visible path. For Mike, these thoughts are always top of mind.
“High school was also the first time I thought about suicide. Nobody in my family had a gun. But whenever we talk about gun laws, I say, “’If my parents had a gun, I would have killed myself by now.’ It sounds like I am saying that in a joking cadence. But people should not underestimate the difficulty of trying to dissuade suicide to someone who is thinking of suicide. If it’s inconvenient you won’t do it, at least you won’t do it in that moment.”
Jordan Carlos, standup comedian
Jordan has appeared on MTV, “The Colbert Report” and “The Nightly Show.” His story shows how privilege – or in his case, lack of privilege – affects the way a person addresses the stigma associated with depression. If you’re not part of a group that routinely get discriminated against, you can be out and proud about your depression. You’ll have people to support you. But if you are part of a group that faces discrimination, you might not have that support.
“I recognized something was wrong with me. But therapy is not something big with black people. We don’t do it all that often, or it’s not spoken about. It’s definitely stigmatized. So speaking my truth and going to a therapist was very difficult for me. But I did it.”
But Jordan didn’t originally want what therapy actually is. What he wanted was a cure.
“I thought my therapist would say ‘Take a little Zoloft, take a little Xany and you’ll feel better buddy’.”
If your leg is broken, you go to the hospital. If your mind is out of whack, you also go to a doctor. So, several people in this podcast wanted to treat their mental illness the same way. They thought they could have someone set it right, let it heal and forget about it. But that’s not always the way it works.
Michael is part of a comedy group called The State. He’s also been on TV shows like “Ed” and in movies like “Wet Hot American Summer.”
“What I was looking for was a magic pill. I was looking for some sort of antidepressant that would alleviate the symptoms and allow me to go about my life in such a way that did not require therapy. I think, ultimately, I was just afraid. I was afraid to dredge up whatever there was to dredge up.”
Michael did get pills. But they weren’t a quick-fix cure.
“Whatever antidepressant they put me on seemed to work. In a couple of weeks, I definitely felt better. I was on that for a while, then I let the prescription lapse. I went years before filling it and in those years, I got depressed again. I’m back on medication and have been for years.”
Figuring out whether you want to use medicine to treat your depression is a bit like choosing whether to own a car. Is what you get worth the cost of owning one? Or can you get by riding public transportation and walking? You evaluate your needs and lifestyle, and then you make a call.
Jenny Jaffe, comedy writer and performer
Jenny is currently writing for the TV show “Big Hero 6.” And she is the founder of You Are OK, a nonprofit dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental illness for young people.
“I’m a big proponent of medication. For me, taking meds is like the first time I put on eye glasses as a kid. I thought, ‘Wow! This is the level of detail that other people get to see the world with.’ That’s what taking meds felt like for me. My brain can process things as they come in and not necessarily need to look at everything as another reason to have a panic attack. I’m able to let go of thoughts more easily and I’m not necessarily wanting to kill myself. Meds don’t change who you are. They just level your personal playing field a little bit. ”
Jenny uses meds to treat her depression and her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). She came to terms with her OCD after listening to comedian Maria Bamford talk about the disorder. It’s super common for people to carry anxiety disorders around with their depression. In fact, it’s a theme that depression almost never rides alone.
Sara Benincasa: writer, comedian
Sara is the author of a one-woman show and book called “Agorafabulous.” It’s about her struggle with agoraphobia, the fear of going outside. When Sara was a 21-year-old college student, depression treatments did not work for her. And that’s when things started falling apart.
“I was afraid of leaving the house. I was not eating because it’s really hard to access food when you don’t leave the house. I was at Emerson College and half way through my junior year. Agoraphobia is like painting yourself into a corner. For me, the desire for suicide became this ceaseless drum beat. I lost a bunch of weight. When you’re not eating, your brain gets pretty stupid, pretty fast. Eventually I became afraid to leave my bedroom. I lived in a one room studio apartment in Boston and I was not functioning. My friends called my parents and said, ‘You need to come and get her.’ It was a terrible time.”
Her parents came and got her to a doctor. They helped her recover. And today she goes to colleges to talk about mental illness. A common character in these stories is the helpful parent. That character helps a lot.
Bill Corbett, writer and comedian
Bill Corbett is known for his work on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” where he was the voice of a robot puppet that made fun of terrible movies. In the ‘90s, the show was a huge hit. Bill was on a press tour in New York where he was supposed to appear at the Museum of Broadcasting to cement the show’s historical importance. He knew about his depression, but had blown off treating it. On this tour, he drank and partied his way through the city. What happened next may not surprise you.
“I think we did the national CBS show. I never made it to the Museum of Broadcasting. I woke up on the day we were supposed to go and I couldn’t get out of the hotel room. I couldn’t bring myself to move or do anything. All I could do was feel like I wanted to cry. I got myself to Newark Airport shaking and got myself home. I managed to white knuckle out of it.”
Later, when Bill was home in Minnesota, he really considered killing himself. He couldn’t go on as he had been any longer. He checked into a hospital for a few days instead and got some treatment and was better after that.
“I started doing a couple of core things to manage my depression. Exercise and meditation were both big for me. But I would have a few high-functioning months at a time, and then I’d crash a little bit. I was resistant to trying medication. Years ago I had tried it and I gained a lot of weight. I had felt sluggish and thought it wasn’t for me. So until the last year, I always said no to trying it again. But meds have come so far in the last ten years. And now finally, a couple of months ago, I got back on them. And when I did I thought, ‘This is the thing that I needed.’”
Aparna Nancherla, writer and standup comedian
Aparna works in New York. She’s worked on “Late Night with Seth Myers,” and she’s appeared on “Conan.”
“When I first started performing, I took it really hard. I would get very frustrated. Part of it was the depressive’s mindset that says, ‘Oh you’re just wasting everyone’s time.’”
Aparna says being on the road can get pretty lonely.
“Sometimes when I’m on my own, I get very existential. I’ve been finding ways to cultivate a better mood. But I have to be constantly vigilant that I don’t go into that mind set of constantly questioning, ‘What is the point of any of it?’ I find that meditation helps a lot. It helps you calm down. Exercise helps maybe more with anxiety, but it also helps with depression. I focus on the mundane details of daily life, which grounds me.”