Your Life is Not a Joke


I'm obsessed with podcasts, and staying home with Solomon this semester has allowed me to feed the addiction. I've listened to S-town twice, I'm 100 episodes away from being completely caught up on TAL (This American Life, for the layfolk), and I listen to more news and commentary than there are actually occurring events in the world (slight exaggeration).  So when I heard about The Hilarious World of Depression -- a podcast that features famous and obscure comedians talking about their "struggles with depression" -- I opened up the ol' podcast app and hit subscribe.

Here's the thing, though: the podcast isn't at all funny. Depression, it turns out, is a serious downer of a topic, and -- for me -- it's actually kind of draining to listen to people talk about it. 

Which is weird, because I'm also kind of obsessed with depression.  For reasons I won't totally go into here (in keeping with the general thesis of this post), I've had enough personal experience with depression to want to really understand what the hell it is. It can appear in real life like this baffling, beastly, invisible madness, and demystifying it seems like one of the only ways to really fight with it head on. Since this podcast literally just consists in a bunch of talented public speakers opening up and sharing their experiences and insights into this mental strangeness, I thought the result would be a clear-headed take on something I've struggled for years to even understand.

But it wasn't. 

Instead, it comes across as a series of interviews with people I don't relate with on many levels, talking in general terms about a thing that's impacted their life in predictable ways. They're brave to do it. They give good advice (even if a bit simplistic: meds can help, other people don't really get it). But there's about the whole way the discussion unfolds. Something, I think, that had to do with a bigger cultural gap in understanding when it comes to mental health and mental pathologies.

Okay, so the podcast sort of fell flat for me. Not a big deal. But then, the other day, I came across two related bits of cultural commentary. The first was a comedy special called "Three Microphones" (it's on Netflix), where this guy -- maybe he's a famous comedian, I don't recognize him -- does stand-up mixed with what is literally him talking into a microphone as if reporting on the contents of his therapy sessions. The second, a comedy special by Chris Gethard on HBO called "Career Suicide," features a comedian telling sad stories with funny moments in them about the progression of his depression and mental illness throughout his life.

Two things before we move on: (1) I only comment critically on these specials because they are comedy specials. Public objects of entertainment / art that have been created an offered as such by their authors. (2) In critiquing these objects, I don't mean to critique the experiences of the authors, and certainly don't mean for my comments to be taken to apply more generally, to the experiences of individuals who have not created and offered such art objects. Okay. The critique:

I don't like these comedy specials. And not just because they aren't funny (which they aren't, really). They are self-indulgent and boring, for one thing, and they seriously lack perspective. In short: they are exactly what one should do in therapy, and exactly what one should *not* do on a stage in front of a bunch of people. That's not to say that one shouldn't talk about things like depression. Obviously not. And it's not to say that one can't joke about it, or even joke about it in an insightful way (Louis CK's got some incredible bits in "2017" -- also on Netflix -- where he takes on exactly these issues), but I don't think these specials do anything to advance the cultural conversation on depression and mental illness. Of course, there's the obvious point that we shouldn't be afraid or ashamed to talk about mental illness, and some might argue that these comics are doing just that. But we shouldn't be afraid to talk about science or 19th century horticultural technology, but that doesn't mean anyone who gets up on a stage and does so in the name of comedy is offering us something of value.

I want to reiterate the narrowness of my original point: I just didn't think these specials were funny. But now I want to make it slightly broader: I think this has something to do with a failure to understand -- to really grasp -- what depression is. I don't think we know as a culture. I think we're in a sort of odd position with respect to it. The symptoms -- sadness, a felt absence of meaning, a lack of joy -- seem more human, more like a moral or spiritual problem, than the pathologies we're used to treating. That's not to say that it's not a mental illness, that it doesn't have physical causes, or that it can be explained in any psychological or scientific terms -- but it does seem deeper, more messy and human and bound up in the lived social experience of being a person than, say, a bacterial infection. Anyways, these specials illuminate just how poorly we understand the condition, but they do so, unfortunately, by demonstration. 

I think the problem may be as simple as a mismatch in media, and a failure to pick the right venue to deliver an important and heartfelt message. That doesn't excuse the artistic shortcomings of the specials (which I think are hard to get through, and which I don't particularly recommend), but it may make it easier to appreciate the good intentions that went into their production.