Why are entertainers so depressed? Comedian John Moe has been asking for years
Five years ago, John Moe started asking himself what he was doing with his life. A successful public radio reporter, for five years he had hosted the live comedy show “Wits” — first onstage, then on radio and as a podcast, attracting big names like Zach Galifianakis, Maria Bamford and David Cross. He published a book of satire, “Dear Luke,” in 2014.
“I was doing a lot of comedy and that was fine,” Moe says. “Making some people laugh is valuable, but I still wondered: What am I accomplishing?”
Moe had spent decades battling depression before it was finally diagnosed in 2006. The following year his brother, Rick, died by suicide. Moe began to rethink his career. He decided to use his interviewing skills to advance the public conversation about depression. It was a ripe moment for the subject: Comedians including Bamford and Marc Maron were discussing, even embracing, the way anxiety and mental illness shaped their life and comedy. Moe decided to focus on those with whom he felt kinship: entertainers, especially comedians.
“I could talk about depression with someone from the Mayo Clinic or with Maria Bamford,” he says. “People are going to download Maria more. It’s putting the pill in the ice cream,” just as he used to do with his daughter’s antibiotics.
In late 2016, he launched a podcast called “The Hilarious World of Depression,” interviewing guests such as Neko Case, Jeff Tweedy, Gary Gulman, Pete Holmes and Jen Kirkman.
Moe’s new memoir might share the podcast’s title but, unlike the interview show, it turns fully inward, plumbing his own experience with depression. He spoke by phone about the particular joys and challenges of writing the memoir.
If John Moe, author of this new book, appeared on John Moe’s podcast, what questions would you ask him?
“Why would someone need to read this book about something that’s such a bummer?” It’s actually like something I asked an author years ago, where I said, “Why should anyone care about you,” though I think I phrased it more politely.
What made you decide they would?
I was never against revealing things about myself. I just assumed that other people are more interesting than me. But when I had written before about Rick, about the wreckage that led to his death and also the wreckage he left behind, people really responded heavily. I think there’s a huge hunger for this issue to be brought to light.
What I want to bring out is the process of depression itself — what happened to me, why am I doing that, how is that shaping me. This is happening for everybody below the surface, but it doesn’t get talked about. I’m hoping that people will see some of themselves in what I’ve gone through, to know you’re not so special — that allows you to get help and be more comfortable in the skin you’re in and the brain you have.
Was it therapeutic for you?
I didn’t set out for it to be therapeutic, though I hoped it might, in some form, be cathartic. There are all these little obfuscations and dodges I’ve been doing my whole life, and I had to blow those up. That was daunting. I don’t know that I had catharsis, but I think I had acceptance that it was an honest and good thing to do.
Did you read any memoirs about depression to prepare?
I’d read William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” because Maria Bamford mentioned it in our first season. I read more music biographies and memoirs than anything. Bruce Springsteen’s writing in “Born to Run” about depression was amazing.
Your memoir is definitely funnier than “Darkness Visible.” How tricky was it to find the right balance?
After the first draft, I got two big notes from my editor: more humor. And more analysis and observation on how depression works. Both of those notes spoke to an insecurity I had going in.
This is a heavy topic, and I felt the need to approach it from an appropriately sober vantage point, but what makes the show work and made my voice unique is that I do think it’s funny. Depression is Groucho Marx and the rest of the world is Margaret Dumont trying to have a lovely state dinner. He’s doing a lot of damage and he’s morally indefensible, but the disruption is inarguably funny. Or depression is a toddler behind the wheel of a car. Everything is now under threat, but it’s inescapably funny. And my stories are funny, even scattering my brother’s ashes has funny parts.
As for the analysis, I’m told I disclaim too much — I’m not a doctor, not a psychologist — but a friend said, “You’ve done dozens of interviews and thought about depression for years and years,” and that relaxed me.
Has writing your story shaped how you interview guests now?
It has affected the questions I ask. It used to be a more theoretical topic, about the connection between the entertainment industry — comedy especially — and depression. Now when I’m talking to people I get pretty quickly to, “What happened to you when you were a kid?” And sometimes the answer is that things were pretty great. For Mark Duplass, everything was working out great but depression came for him anyway.
I’ve become more interested in trauma as an inciting thing. Depression might be due to genetics or other factors, but the more I hear people’s stories, the more I point to trauma. It can be one specific horrible incident or a long series of unfortunate things that caused a lot of damage. It’s so mysterious too — it’s hard to connect how something from when you’re 5 or 10 or 20 will lead to strange behaviors 30 years later. But it can make a lot of sense; we’re not just stretching a line to connect unrelated things. If you live in a state of peril as a kid, of course you catastrophize things because any threat can destroy you.
Did you warn your family or seek their blessing beforehand?
I told them I was writing it after I agreed to write it. My sisters were really great about it. My mom was nervous; she’s from a generation and culture that doesn’t talk about these things. She was concerned about how my dad would be portrayed because he was an alcoholic. I said he wasn’t an alcoholic; he was a person with alcoholism who was also a lot of other things. I told her I’m not interested in making anybody a villain; I’m just trying to help people. She says she’s going to try to read the book.
Miller is the author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports.”
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