Ever Depressed? Try The Dylan Brody Formula

By John Lavitt 09/05/14
Robin Williams called fellow comedian Brody "brilliant." So's his new useful book on depression and comedy. Brody goes wise, deep and funny in The Fix Q&A.
Dylan Brody

As a humorist, Dylan Brody’s work has hit the mark with the most brilliant and messed-up comic minds of his generation. The result of the messed-up part is that many of those minds have not survived. From Robin Williams commenting after a set that, “The writing is brilliant!” to George Carlin describing him as, “A very funny political comic," Brody has spoken in a voice that resonates with his peers and offers a certain solace. Unfortunately, given a bent towards depression, Brody has not always been so gentle with himself. 

Brody has released five CDs on the Stand Up! Records label since 2009 and he now has a new deal with Rooftop Comedy for the digital release of a comedy album, perfectly titled Dylan Goes Electric, this month.

On your own website, the first testimonial about you is Robin Williams commenting that, “Your writing is brilliant!” Given your personal experience with depression, why do you think he took his own life and what steps could have been taken to prevent this tragedy from taking place?

Robin and I did not have a friendship—We had a passing professional acquaintanceship. This, by the way, made his testimonial, offered conversationally when we worked together, all the more meaningful to me. I believe he took his own life because the darkness of depression exacerbated by the Parkinson’s diagnosis, possibly by the Parkinson’s itself, put him in a place that felt hopeless and inescapable. Now please understand that I am not judgmental about suicide. Genuinely, I do not see it as a sin. I don’t see it as inherently selfish or naughty or whatever it is that makes people get so angry and defensive about it. 

But I do see it as is tragic. I see it as tragic that anybody experiences such tremendous psychic pain that its influence can exceed that of the natural instinct to survive. That is a tremendous darkness to deal with and while I don’t think anyone should be forced to live with that kind of darkness, I would much prefer that people find a way toward recovery from it, rather than escaping by depriving the rest of us of their presence. 

In a recent article, you wrote, “Robin Williams’ death hit me hard. It hit a lot of people hard… We all knew, to one degree or another, of his struggles with depression and with substance abuse, but that a man of such energy, such productivity, such genius could reach a point of suicidal despair came as a shock. His death feels like a loss. His death by his own hand feels somehow like a betrayal, as though giving in to the power of his darkest demons is something this wonderful man has done to us, rather than something he has done to himself or, even more accurately, simply done.” 

Should people take his death personally? How do you distinguish between actual mourning as opposed to problematic boundaries when someone takes another person’s tragedy and makes it their own?

I tend to get a little bit snarky when people get all broken up over the death of a celebrity. Was Larry Hagman really that big a presence in your life that you have to carry on about your sense of grief on Twitter for three days? With Robin, I found it happening to me. I worked with the guy once, I met him a couple of times, and yet I felt this profound sense of loss. I am narcissistic enough that when something affects me, I think it’s okay, but when it doesn’t, I can be judgmental and dickish about it affecting other people. I didn’t realize just how douchey I was being about other people’s reactions to celebrity deaths until Robin’s touched me so deeply. 

It wasn’t because we were close, it wasn’t because I knew him well: We weren’t and I didn’t. It was because I loved his work; I idolized him in my early years as a comic because his form and his vulnerability were so powerful in his work and in his performances. I can fully understand how people who never met him, who never encountered him other than in the distant way that any celebrity is encountered through his or her work, might have felt the same sense of loss that I did. To me, this was not the loss of a friend. This was the loss of an icon that held a very special place in my personal pantheon. 

We are a very celebrity obsessed culture. We feel we know these people who we really only encounter through the media, television, film, what have you. We develop attachments that are largely projections, but when those attachments are severed, we can feel really great and real grief. I’m sorry because I digress.

The reason this question has been so thoroughly on my mind lately, is that I am an entertainer, an author and in large part because I blogged a bit about how I was affected by Robin’s death, I’ve been asked to be on the radio, asked to do this interview. I think it’s good to talk about depression, to crack that conversation open. Also, I like to be on the radio, to do interviews, to get my name out there. The idea that Robin’s death led to that happening so much creates a dark ambivalence. The last thing I want is to use this painful tragedy to advance my own career. Maybe, if I’m brutally honest about it, that’s the second-to-the last thing I want. Maybe the last thing I want is to be perceived to be using this to advance my own career. 

On the other hand, real opportunities to publicly discuss depression, to actively raise awareness, to talk about my own struggles at a time when the topic is on people’s minds and airwaves and blogs are pretty rare. I hate to pass it up and I fear I am co-opting the loss of a beloved performer for my own selfish ends. I’m struggling with exactly those boundary issues you describe and it makes me wonder if you’ve been bugging my therapist’s office.

Do depression and mental health challenges go hand-in-hand with comedy? Do you have to be “crazy” to be a great comic?

NO! That is part of the lie that depression tells, not only to comics but also to artists and activists and just about anyone who suffers from depression. There is this romantic notion, largely propagated by authors of beautiful novels and poets and art students, that depression is necessary to the craft, that without it inspiration would fail, passion for a cause would falter and so on. I’m pleased to report that it’s utter nonsense. I’m now medicated to stave off my own depression and I remain able to write funny stuff, to perform in ways that seem to delight audiences.

I think artists and passionate activists tend to be hypersensitive, hyper-aware of the inconsistencies in the world around them, the hypocrisies, the ironies. Being hypersensitive and passionate also tends to go along with depression. So there’s this correlation between depression and creativity that can be misinterpreted as causality, particularly by the depressed creative person. And if that is what the depressed creative person perceives, that is what the depressed creative person expresses beautifully and convincingly so that it becomes the accepted wisdom despite being complete crap, just like racial stereotypes or trickle-down economics.

I want to talk about the re-release of your comedic book, The Modern Depression Guidebook, but first I want to look at the issue from a more sober perspective. You do this yourself in the article you wrote about Robin Williams in the Huffington Post. You wrote, “I have faced and continue to face my own battles with depression. I have felt the certainty that the world and my loved ones would be far better off without me, have made the shift from looking at the stack of bills and thinking about expensive things that I own and could sell to looking at the swimming pool and thinking about heavy things that I own and could tie to my feet.” What are those battles like and how do they inform your work?

For a long time, for years, I smoked pot all day, every day, and I didn’t know that I was self-medicating. I genuinely believed that I just loved to smoke pot. Depressive episodes still occurred but they were blunted by the blunts. At a certain point, the pot stopped making a dent in the depression so I had to get help from a therapist. I didn’t know until I quit smoking pot how much I was inhibiting my own emotional and psychic growth through the constant use. My therapist suggested that I forgive myself for this because during those young, uninsured days had I not self-medicated in some way; he felt I was likely to have become suicidal. 

I also found martial arts training to be a valuable tool in battling the depression for more than a decade. Then eventually, no matter how hard I trained, no matter how hard I meditated, that no longer cut the sadness so I went back into therapy and got myself medicated with modern pharmaceuticals and I am okay now. But I remain constantly aware that the depression could come back, that if the medication stops doing the job, a new weapon will need to be found with which to carry on the fight.

Here’s the thing: When I was depressed, I would become hypercritical. I wouldn’t realize it was happening, but no matter how good something was, all I could see was the flaw or the imperfection. I would write a beautiful script and refuse to send it out because there was this one line on page 38 that didn’t have the rhythm I was looking for and I couldn’t figure out how to get it right, and I was sure that one line would make the script unsellable and ruin my career. Or I would get a really good tape of a 45-minute headlining set as a comic on the road, but there would be this little three-joke run in the middle that didn’t get the laugh I wanted, and I was afraid that bookers would see that and would decide that I couldn’t work their club. 

At the Taekwondo studio where positive reinforcement is everything, all I could do was pick apart the work of my students and my own work. I couldn’t see the beauty of a form. If a stance was just a little bit off, it was that on which I would focus. I suspect depression retarded my career progress even as it told me that it was the only thing protecting me from career sabotage. When it told me that it was the fuel for my craft, when it told me that I would be lost without it, depression became a lot like a horrible girlfriend or a narcissistic parent. It swears that it is doing what is best for you and all the while it is undermining your greatest efforts.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.