Podcaster John Moe on Why Comedy and Depression Often Go Hand in Hand

Depression "is not a mood, it's a psychological disorder," says John Moe, radio personality, podcaster and author of the book and podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression. It's like saying, 'Just go for a nice walk and you won't have such leukemia. Think of all the people who love you, and you won't have broken collarbone anymore.'" In this excerpt from his book, Moe discusses why so many people suffering from depression are drawn to comedy and the importance of medication for those with mental illness.

People with minds that have been disordered from depression often find solace in comedy. That's both strange and logical at the same time. Comedy, much of the time, is built on disorder. The Coneheads on the old Saturday Night Live are aliens with tall pointy heads attempting to blend in among the regular people of the suburbs.

Plenty of us have felt like Coneheads. We know we are alien to the society in which we're attempting to pass, and we struggle to understand the customs and behavior that come easily to everyone else. We see ourselves in those Coneheads (or in their neighbors). When we make that identification, we feel less alone, and we also get some laughs that make the dissonance of the characters (and ourselves) less jarring.

It's not especially revelatory that people who eventually become comedians enjoyed comedy as children. Still, during our first season of the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression (THWoD), I was stunned by just how often The Carol Burnett Show came up in conversation, almost as if it were a symptom of depression as much as it was a treatment.

Comedy is intoxicating to a young mind in distress. You see these famous people pointing out the ridiculousness of a world that you've never been able to make sense of. Comedians offer the hope, the chance, however slim, that it's not you that's broken but the world. I can't say for certain that depression leads to a career in comedy, but it seems like the path is smoothly lit and well paved.

The advantage of talking to comedians about depression is that good ones are highly skilled at talking about complex issues in a clear and compelling way that cuts through the fog of everyday life. Audience members then realize that the comedian has described something they didn't know anyone else thought or felt. They realize they're not alone in having this often worrisome thought; they have some company, they are okay. And that's when the laughter happens. The laughter is an exhalation of relief.

Out of the Mouth of Comics Acclaimed public radio personality and podcaster John Moe shines a spotlight on depression, why comedy is a treatment and the benefits of medication Illustration by Alex Fine

Depression Craters Self-Esteem

On the first episode of my podcast THWoD, I talked to Peter Sagal, best known as the host of the NPR show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me. He went to Harvard, is a successful playwright (in a field in which almost no one succeeds) and has been hosting a hit radio show for decades. He is among the smarter and more successful people I know, but that doesn't matter to depression. Peter's festering depression has been dormant for years until his divorce.

Prior to talking to Peter, I had harbored a semiconscious thought that if I had what he had, if I had his accomplishments (minus the divorce), I would be happy all the time. It's not true.

Novelist John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars among many other mega-selling books, has struggled with this for years. "There is this weird perpetual hope," he told me, "not just among people with mental illnesses—I don't know if it's American or if it's human or what—but there does seem to be this perpetual hope that if I just get this one thing that my life is missing, the hole inside of me will be filled."

"That hole will never be full," says Andy Richter, actor, talk show sidekick and person with depression since about the age of 4. "The main thing you can do is be comfortable with that knowledge."

Andy says the presence of that hole, that pit, that cavity, is extremely common among performers with depression. Depression is what made the hole in the first place, and it did so by clearing out stuff like self-esteem, a full range of emotions and shame about wearing sweatpants in public. The problem for people with depression is that the things you try to put in those holes don't fit. You can't shove a career achievement into a self-esteem-shaped hole. Pound it with a hammer all you want, it won't go in.

"In fact," says Andy, "the more you try to shove things in the hole that don't belong there, the bigger the hole gets and the harder it is to ever fill."

Antidepressants Aren't a Superpower

For people I talked to, meds weren't a ticket to some superpower; they were a ticket to being human. Comedian and writer Jenny Jaffe remembers what happened when she got on a good prescription that worked for her. "It felt like...I've worn glasses since I was a little kid, and the first time I put on a pair of glasses and looked around I was like, 'Oh my God! This is the level of detail with which other people get to see the world!?'"

Fellow comedian Jen Kirkman said medication "stopped me from going way under. I was under sea level and it brought me up to sea level. It didn't bring me above it, I was not happier than anyone else, I was just able to cope." The general public doesn't understand depression meds, and when people don't understand something, they fear it. And when they fear it, they mock it and/or attack it.

Medications aren't one thing. You don't get a bottle that just says "meds" or "antidepressants" on it. There is a seemingly endless variety of prescription drugs available for those who suffer from depression, including Zoloft, Prozac, Fluoxetine, Cyndaquil, Celexa and Paxil. Admittedly, one of those is actually a Pokémon and not an antidepressant.

In reality, antidepressant medication is pretty much a chemistry experiment, and a ton of things can influence the efficacy of medication. What works for one person might not work at all for someone else. The wrong dosage, too high or too low, can make you a total wreck. Taking the meds inconsistently can be as bad as not taking them at all, or sometimes worse. In my case, I've been on some that worked like a charm for years, and then suddenly—plop—they were a total disaster.

Stand-up comedian Maria Bamford, who made me laugh so hard when I was interviewing her that I could not continue, has been diagnosed with bipolar 2. She's in a good, healthy, productive place now, but 10 or so years ago, this was not the case. She had a breakdown and went to inpatient care.

She wanted to "get on a new medication, try this new mood-stabilizer thing, but still make my shows in Chicago next week. I was just there for three days, and the hilarious part was that the psychiatrist, despite YouTubing me during the session, gave me a mood stabilizer whose primary side effects are cognitive, making it impossible to think or talk. So by the time we were in Chicago I was not able to think or talk."

Striving for Normalcy

Jen Kirkman recalls her first experience with meds being remarkable. It was at Christmas, a time she generally hated. "And I just remember one day not minding the Christmas music. And it was so extreme. It felt like I was dancing in the street like Scrooge. All I did was feel not bothered by every single thing. I was not happier than anyone else. I was just able to cope."

I talked with Andy Richter for the first season of the show. Andy's somebody I had admired for years before ever getting to know him. While he was always funny, he also seemed smart and honest and like the kind of sensible midwestern friend you want to have around. He's been taking antidepressants for years. "People have a natural aversion to the notion of being on psychotherapeutic drugs," he says. "They will say when I talk about it, 'Well, do you think you're going to have to be on them forever?' Which, I just kind of feel like you wouldn't say that if I was talking about Lipitor or insulin or, you know, freaking baby aspirin."

Like me and like a lot of other people, Andy has had the experience of a medication working well for a long time and, suddenly, not. "It came back. The hopelessness," he said. "It doesn't matter how nice the day is. It doesn't matter how much I love my wife. It doesn't matter what kind of fun thing I'm doing at my well-paying job. It doesn't matter that my beautiful children fulfill me. And even in the misery of it, even in the real kind of emotional misery of it, I'm still going like, 'Damn it. Let's just get these pills working again.'"

The way I see it, introducing meds into a depressed person's daily routine is like how it would be if someone introduced you to a toothbrush for the first time. "Here's this thing that you have to use every day," they say. "Sometimes you'll need to go down to the drugstore and replenish." You can reject it and walk around with stinky breath and rotting teeth, or you can just do it because it produces a good result and it's really not that hard or inconvenient.

From THE HILARIOUS WORLD OF DEPRESSION. Copyright © 2020 by John Moe and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.