Brody Stevens is a comedian who has made a career of being manic onstage — he's wide-eyed and almost panicky, moving the microphone away from his mouth so he can shout more dramatically. He scolds the audience; repeats certain catchphrases and mantras about his area code, his exercise regimen, or how many Twitter followers he has; and then yells and insists everyone laugh. They often do.
So what happens when someone whose career is based on seeming a little crazy apparently goes actually crazy? That's the premise of Brody Stevens: Enjoy It!, a documentary-ish series airing in one-hour blocks on Comedy Central at midnight on Sundays (the premiere aired last night). Two years ago, Stevens abruptly stopped taking antidepressants and went into a tailspin. Call it a breakdown, a meltdown, a manic episode, a psychotic break — whatever it was, Brody began acting unhinged, tweeting semisensical thoughts 24 hours a day, antagonizing strangers at 7- Eleven and Starbucks, getting arrested but sweet-talking his way out of it. But then he started tweeting about having a gun, and threatening to hurt himself and other people. In reflective interviews, Stevens's friends, such as Zach Galifianakis (also a producer on the series), Jen Kirkman, and Sarah Silverman, recount their confusion and horror watching his behavior escalate during this period, as they genuinely could not tell if it was real or an attention-generating put-on. Eventually, Stevens's friends called the police and Stevens was held in a UCLA psychiatric facility for seventeen days. The show intercuts Stevens's and his friends' interviews with footage Stevens himself shot during his breakdown. It's at times frightening and disturbing, sometimes just baffling, and occasionally sad. The story of said meltdown takes up the first two of the twelve episodes; from there on, the show focuses more on Stevens's ostensible recovery and his attempts to rebuild his relationships and career. But BS:EI! is not a redemption story.
Stevens still resents his forced hospital stay and the havoc he says it caused in his personal and professional lives. (He lost his apartment and had to move to a crappier one, a point he harps on repeatedly during the series.) His relationship with his sister remains strained and odd, and even as he tries to mend some of his fractured friendships, it's hard to know what mental wellness would look like for Brody Stevens, exactly. His friends say on the series that they've never, in twenty years, known him to date anyone; they say they have always found some of his behavior odd. He gives many of his present-day taped confessionals while bouncing on a mini-trampoline or pedaling away on a stationary bike, and he stares into the camera making deadpan proclamations about his accomplishments and mind-set. ("Positive energy" is something he says a lot, even though he does not seem like a particularly positive guy.)
The traditional breakdown-comeback arc requires starting out in a decent place — or at least a stable, desirable one. A series of maladies push our hero off his path, but through diligence, talent, and a renewed sense of self, he climbs back, triumphant, to his throne. This is not that. Stevens is in many ways off-putting, and the presentation of him before 2011 and now, theoretically healthy and stable again, don't look like models of mental health. In the throes of his psychosis, Stevens bragged over and over about how he was hosting segments for TMZ, and how that was indicative of his current and future success. In later, post-breakdown footage, he's still bragging about this former gig. (The latter mentions seem more tethered in reality, but not tremendously so.) He repeatedly boasts of his roles in Hangover and Hangover 2, but both roles were bit parts. So is that bragging ironic? Is Stevens joking? My thoughts through the entire series were some variation on, Wait, is this serious, or a put-on? I've watched the first six episodes, and I'm still not sure.
Are Stevens's awkward-funny conversations with his mother an act? Is he more "real" onstage than off, or are both genuine — or is neither? There are facets to the show that can feel alarmingly intimate, but those moments of seeming candor are then instantly reframed as part of a bit. A big "look how far I've come!" monologue halfway through the series feels authentic and heartfelt ... but then, in the background, Zach Galifianakis beeps his Vespa's horn, Stevens turns around and leaps on the back, and off they go in a comic exit. Which part of that is the bit? Everything? Is the self-reflection merely part of a sketch, or are we supposed to find honest moments of clarity in the show?
The show can be frustrating and confusing, and there are long stretches of discomfort for discomfort's sake, segments where the sensation of phoniness becomes far more substantial than any emotion or epiphany ostensibly being portrayed. At its best, Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! taunts viewers into wondering if sanity and insanity are both merely artifice, and proves that in the hands of a capable enough performer, they're often indistinguishable from each other. The show is definitely interesting. I'm just not sure how entertaining it actually is.