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.

You mention that you self-medicated your depression like I did by smoking pot for many years. Then, after moving on from that dead-end solution, you took up cognitive therapy and martial arts training. When it got bad again, you accepted a pharmaceutical solution with antidepressants. What resources would you recommend to someone experiencing a bout of clinical depression?

Find a therapist. Talk therapy is a great place to start. The first time I went into therapy for depression, I was an adult. I came out of the very first session feeling better. Not cured, but hopeful that I might be able to see my way clear of it. Talk to the therapist honestly about what’s going on. Be open to the idea of medication if that’s what your therapist suggests. This is the real thing: You have to be open to help in whatever form you can find it. You have to remain aware that despite the lies that depression tells you, it can be pushed back. You can walk in the light again, and the very circumstances that you thought were causing the depression will begin to right themselves. 

As a Jewish man and a pacifist, you have written about your pain over the latest spurt of violence from the Middle East. In addition, the only thing bold and in a larger font in your blog is the following sentence: “If you believe that peace is not possible, surely you won’t put effort into working toward it. Feeling that peace is worth working toward, I must proceed with the assumption that it is possible.” 

What does this mean from both a personal and a societal perspective? How often do you think macrocosmic events generate microcosmic responses from people that evolve into mental heath issues? In The Modern Depression Guidebook, an entire chapter is comprised of a single sentence: “Depression provides the clarity of vision to recognize the simple fact that life on Earth really, really sucks.” So, how do we stay sane in an insane world? 

The bolded sentence that you quoted I think holds the answer to the question. And the single sentence chapter in the book is the crux of the depressive equation; that’s the ironic take on the same idea. There’s a lot in the world that’s problematic. I could run the litany of war and famine and injustice and racism and sexism and homophobia and religious intolerance and poverty and global warning and the denial of global warming and the death of Robin Williams and the continuing life and career of Gallagher and so on. The depressive mind sees these things and thinks, “It has always been thus and it always will be thus.” 

The depressive mind says, “A sane man must look on these things and weep.” The thing is though is weeping does nothing whatsoever to solve any of these things. Weeping without end is a childish sort of indulgence. The active, non-depressed mind sees all the horrible things and is capable at least of imagining a different world. If change is possible, if peace and justice and equality are just possible, then they can become goals rather than just imaginary ideals and then they can become worth working towards. We stay sane by taking action to resolve those issues that cause us sadness rather than succumbing to a false inevitability. 

For the record, I am not suggesting that anyone do away with Gallagher. I am suggesting that you not go to his shows because he harms melons in lieu of having talent. 

You once wrote, “A few years ago my depression got so bad that I mistook it for a dark suit. I wore it around my home until every day became a quiet funeral for an extended family of fallen minutes, a holocaust of seconds, each death mourned in silent anguish. I buried the killed time in dutiful solemnity. Apparently, this was not what my wife had been looking for in a husband.” From your experience, how does depression affect relationships? If someone is in a relationship with a depressed partner, what should they do?

Twice, the impetus to get treatment has come from my wife and both times she was right. Depression is very difficult to live with in a partner, and it’s exhausting. You find yourself walking on eggshells but you will never walk softly enough because everything, everything is perceived through the shit-colored lenses. The depressive knows that and the sense that he or she is unpleasant to be around, the sense that he or she is a burden on a partner can not only deepen the depression, it can be a justifying principle in suicidal ideation and action. If your partner is depressed, tell them! There’s a chance that they don’t even know it’s going on. Tell your partner that you recognize their behavior as depressive, that you love them, and that you will still love them when they find their way out of it. Suggest that they see a professional to help them figure out what’s going on. 

And I would also suggest that you give them a copy of my book, The Modern Depression Guidebook. If you can broach the subject with humor AND I can make a sale, that’s just a win-win right there, which by the way is also the name of my imaginary Panda, although he spells it nguyen-nguyen because my imaginary Panda is Vietnamese on his father’s side.

You describe in your blog how Paxil helps keep your depression at bay. In a sense, it gives you a little breathing room from the suffocating darkness. Do you believe the treatment of depression should involve the taking of pharmaceuticals? As someone prone to clinical depression, I have found pharmaceuticals to be a huge help. Beyond the basics, do you believe in the possibility of a happy pill like Soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? If actually available, would you take such a pill?

First of all, yes, I do think pharmaceuticals play an important role in the treatment of depression. But I am not a doctor and I don’t want to pretend to be an expert in these things. I know different drugs work differently for different people. I know the first I tried was Prozac, and it was awful for me; really almost catastrophic. Paxil seems to be the one I’m attuned to and it work wonders for me. I once tried to wean myself off of it and I literally could feel all the darkness of the world crawling in from all the corners in all the buildings to climb my spine and infect the crevasses of my brain. 

Aldous Huxley’s Soma has sort of become a touchstone for a lot of people that want to believe that depression is necessary or feel that people should just be able to suck it up or think their way clear of the problem of depression or what have you. The idea Huxley was working with was that people could be given drugs to prevent them from giving a shit about the horrors of a political system that did not serve them. I don’t think anyone wants that. But I think that’s part of the romanticization of depression that says without it we would become compliant and passive. In truth, I think it’s just the opposite. Depression leads to a state of inactive passivity, a hopeless paralysis. Only when there’s light at the end of the tunnel does one begin to walk toward it. The antidepressants that have worked for me, the antidepressants that work best for whoever takes them are those that alleviate the paralyzing depression, not ones that make you invulnerable to feeling. As far as I know, nobody is prescribing happy pills; nobody is trying to prescribe happy pills.

You've talked about the frustration you experienced when a well-known comic stole one of your jokes. Isn’t plagiarism the ultimate form of flattery, particularly when it comes from someone like Bill Maher? When you told Wil Shriner that a young kid had stolen his material and asked him what he was going to do about it, he said, "Write something new. We can write, Dylan. If he’s stealing from me, it’s ‘cause he can’t. I’ll come up with something else.” What spiritual lesson did you learn from these experiences?

No, plagiarism is not flattery. Plagiarism is theft and imitation is the sincerest form of mockery. 

When Wil had this incredibly effortless and forgiving response to a theft, though, he reminded me that I can disapprove of someone’s actions without making it an ongoing drain on my energies, a continuing source of resentment. These are the choices we make every day. “That guy cut me off in traffic.” Do I do something dangerous to get around him so I can get in front of him and slow down in an act of pointless vengeance? Do I use my energy and time to imagine that I might do such a thing, to harbor a fuming grudge against a stranger I feel wronged me? Or do I just figure he’s got his own thing going on, him cutting me off in traffic cost me almost nothing – perhaps a moment of startled adrenaline or a sense of my own manliness for that moment or some such – and get on with the things I need to do today that will all go better for me if I do them cheerfully rather than grumpily because I’m still reviewing that moment when the stupid guy in the grey Mercedes shifted lanes in a way I deemed inappropriate?

If we can remember to be forgiving, generous, kind to those around us, our lives go a lot more smoothly. It’s not always easy to do because a lot of people in the world are tremendous assholes. Nut Jean Renoir said, “The real hell of it is, everyone has their reasons.” Or maybe that was Dick Van Patten. I always get those two confused.

The Modern Depression Guidebook is described on your website as, “A masterful parody of the self-help book, promising not to help you out of your depression, but rather to sink you deeper into it. Mr. Brody promises to help you commit to your depression getting the deepest possible lows, the darkest possible blues.” What was your goal in writing such a book? Who is the targeted audience? 

Originally, my goal was to write myself out of a deep, deep depression as if such a thing were possible. At that moment, I thought it was. I thought if I could root out the joke in every truth I could identify in my experience, I could heal my psyche. I also thought this might lead me to a vastly lucrative bestseller. If I could manage both of those things, I could make my imaginary panda very happy. After it was done and I had gotten into therapy, I began to realize that the book might open up this discussion of depression in a way that nobody had before. It was at that point that I started to really try to find a way to get it into the world. 

The book is a parody of the self-help genre. I am not parodying depression, but the genre that tells you that you can solve all your ills – financial, medical, marital, sexual, psychological, whatever – if you can just find the right book of ten easy steps in this one special section in the bookstore. Really the book is for depressives who have realized that self-help books aren’t the way to go. The book is for those who know that depressives can’t figure out how they think. The book is for self-help addicts, who have a sense of humor about their own dependency on, uh, give me a second; I need to find a way to make this sentence work.

Do you mean it’s for the self-help addict who’s trying to find an external answer to an internal question?

Ooh, that’s nice. Yes, for self-help addicts who think they can find an external answer for an internal question that they are certain will come in self-certain literature by under-qualified authors. So, the book is for depressives who have realized that self-help books aren’t the way to go. The book is for people who know depressives and can’t figure out how they think. The book is for self-help addicts who have a sense of humor about their own dependency on the self-help sections of bookstores. The book is for anybody who has ever spiraled into the darkness and anybody who has ever come close to doing so or considered doing so.

The Modern Depression Guidebook is a dark comedic look at depression. Was writing it a cathartic experience for you? What kind of responses have you received from other people who have suffered similar challenges?

I hoped the experience would be cathartic. It wasn’t so much. What I keep hearing from people is that one segment in it or another was exactly their experience. I love to hear that. It suggests that I really was tapping into themes and thought processes universal amongst depressives.

In the preface to the book, you write, “With useful exercises to help you improve your sense of self-loathing, easy-access listings of worldly injustices to ponder and helpful hints on how to break your personal hygiene habit, this book is sure to have your mood spiraling downward like Larry Flynt at the Guggenheim.” You comedically offer the reader self-loathing exercises and sleep skewing exercises. Could such a take end up doing damage to someone in the grips of a clinical depression? Has this possibility ever worried you? In past editions, did you ever receive such feedback?

I worry a little bit about it, not a lot. I think the satire is clear enough and the jokes are strong enough and the slant is obvious enough that almost anyone would read the book and be more likely to gain insight and self-awareness than seek out ideas for how to be more miserable. One publisher asked me to cut the part on suicidal ideation and I did not agree with that. I very clearly express in the book the idea that people should not kill themselves, but because suicidal ideation is such an integral part of real depression, I think it would have been intellectually and artistically and comedically dishonest and unfair not to include it and grapple with it in the same tone that characterizes the rest of the book. 

The final quote in your book is the last words of Pancho Villa - “Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”  Given such a statement, any closing thoughts?

Yes, if any reader of this interview finds him or herself falling into depression, talk to people about it. Find a therapist. Tell the people that you love. Not everyone will listen, not everyone will know how to respond or how to help, but falling into silence will not help you and will not protect them. Talk to more people, talk to people until you find one who will reassure you and advise you and help you find your way back toward the light. You will find your way back toward the light, but you have to look for it. You have to look for it actively and don’t die if you can help it. Sometimes I get sad and it might help me a lot if you’re still around to talk to. 

John Lavitt is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about Robin Williams.

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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 with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.