“How are you doing?” comic and scene-stealer Michelle Buteau asked Neal Brennan.
“Clinically depressed but not bad,” Hollywood’s Secret Comic Whisperer responded, with the kind of tossed-off nonchalance that suggests this is a joke but also not a joke.
It’s hard to imagine a more natural kickoff for the star-studded panel “Comedy and Mental Health: A Hilarious Conversation.”
The event took place over the weekend at Comedy Central’s Clusterfest, which sounds not so much like a three-day comedy festival as what an oncologist privately calls a clump of polyps. Comedy Central partnered with Mental Health First Aid, part of the National Council for Behavioral Health, to address mental health in the comedy community (and beyond!) during the festival. As tired as the sad clown trope has become—“but doctor, I am Pagliacci”—it still holds truth. The people whose jobs consist of making other people laugh all too often have tangled with depression. Earlier this year, for instance, beloved comic Brody Stevens joined an unfortunately growing list of comedians whose depression led them to take their own lives. This panel provided an opportunity for comedians to not only open up about the mental health risks endemic to their own lives, but to translate them in a universal way.
Buteau hosted the hour-long panel, which in addition to Brennan included Tig Notaro and Jeffrey Ross, with Rainn Wilson Skyping in briefly to do a pre-taped promo for his upcoming comedy/mental health documentary, It’s Not That Funny. Although the conversation was refreshingly non-preachy, here are five tips for mental wellness that emerged during it:
1. Remember: It’s not just you
“I feel like everyone’s depressed and comedians just have a microphone,” Tig Notaro said at one point. “But if you gave a microphone to anyone—a mail carrier, next-door neighbor, possibly someone in this audience—you’d find that everyone’s struggling.”
Everyone on the panel certainly copped to having struggled at one point or another. Brennan devoted a large chunk of his Netflix special 3 Mics to his battle with depression.
“I realized [I was depressed] early in life, but didn’t start medicating until age 24,” he revealed during the panel. “Back then, I just thought I had a New York attitude. Then I realized, no, I need medicine for this.”
2. Literally fake it until you make it
“A fake smile, I know this sounds corny, but I’ve experienced this sometimes visiting very sick people in hospitals: A fake smile, for five seconds, turns into a real one,” Ross suggests. “You almost have to trick yourself.”
Sometimes the most clichéd advice becomes a cliché for a reason, and this panel seems to agree.
“Fake it ’til you make it,” Buteau says.
“That’s biologically proven, by the way,” adds Brennan. “If you fake-smile, your body will be like, ‘Wait, I guess we’re happy. Fuck it: Release some endorphins real quick.’”
3. Provide a holding space for a friend in crisis
What made this panel so effective wasn’t just that the participants seem so authoritative on the topic—which they do—but that they are able to build laughs into such morbid, taboo subject matter. In the middle of a long discussion on suicide, Brennan advocates for the idea of “holding space” for an at-risk friend, just being there, physically and mentally present, to take some of the burden off of them in a crucial moment. It’s a nice thought, which immediately gets some of the air drained from it.
“I’m doing a show at the Holding Space at 4:30 p.m.,” Ross said.
“Holding Space is the nickname for my vagina,” Buteau chimed in, before adding, “Tig, your turn.”
“I don’t get it,” Tig declared, in her signature deadpan.
4. Struggle makes you stronger
When failure, rejection, or tragedy darken your door, it’s tempting to let them weigh you down entirely. Ross suggests, however, that simply keeping moving is the antidote to letting your misfortune consume you.
“I think you take everything that happens to you with you, and you have to carry it,” he said. “And it’s not that it gets lighter, but you get stronger. I can carry all that shit with me now, and sometimes I can carry Neal’s shit, too.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Neal Brennan responded.
F—ing stay off social media
For anyone trying to ward off negative emotions by curling up with an iPhone for some Insta-stalking, Brennan had a word of advice: Don’t.
“I’ve started thinking of social media as like, we’ve all become like a lifestyle brand,” he said. “That’s especially what Instagram has done. We’re all individual lifestyle brands, and we’re looking at other people’s lifestyle brands, so it’s not even fun, it’s just opposition research. So just fucking stay off it. I’ve never seen someone go like, ‘You look great, what’s your secret?’ ‘Isn’t it obvious? I’ve just been online for 9 straight hours.’ It’s not good for us. It’s not healthy. It’s not productive, and at this point, it’s got so little upside. Social media is basically like cutting.”
“Fuck,” Buteau replied. “Put that on a magnet.”