Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
If you’re anything like me, you love comedy podcasts and have spent your life wrestling with mental illness. So I suppose it should not come as a surprise that I particularly love comedy podcasts involving people wrestling with depression, including Marty DeRosa’s terrific Wrestling With Depression, which is about depression, but is also about wrestling on a non-symbolic level.
There’s just something about the intimacy and the candor of podcasting, the sense that the podcaster is talking directly to you in a voice that’s friendly and approachable but also honest and real that makes the medium perfect for frank conversations about what’s really important in life.
In that regard, it does not seem like an accident that one of the first podcasts to really blow up and conquer the mainstream was WTF, which isn’t a podcast about depression in the same way Mental Illness Happy Hour is, but nevertheless tackles depression and mental illness on a regular basis. Hell, my favorite era of WTF is the very beginning, when Maron’s depression and rage and envy and resentment were at their fiercest and the show was, on a very real level, about Maron’s psychological struggles.
So when I heard on my beloved Mental Illness Happy Hour that public radio fixture John Moe was launching a new podcast called The Hilarious World Of Depression with guests like Peter Sagal, Maria Bamford, and Dick Cavett, you better believe that I subscribed.
The Hilarious World Of Depression begins with a question rooted in the podcast’s title and conception. The question “Can depression be hilarious?” is answered convincingly, “I think it’s funny in the way that death is funny in that it’s not, but you cope with it by laughing.”
As someone who has wrestled all my life with depression, I can vouch for the truth of those words. Depressed people learn how to be funny as a survival tactic, because if you don’t find a way to laugh at your darkness, and the darkness all around you, then it’s easy to let that all-consuming blackness swallow you whole.
Moe talks at the beginning of the episode about how he has had two companions his entire life: comedy and depression. Since a boy, he has been driven to both laughter and light and joyless despair. He lays out his comic education with palpable affection, touching on all of those magical names and people who showed us a different way of looking at the world, whether they were George Carlin or the comedy anarchists of early Saturday Night Live.
Moe wasn’t clinically diagnosed with depression until he was an adult and discovered, to his surprise and delight, how cathartic and healthy it is to be open about mental illness. Moe talks about how his public radio colleague Peter Sagal told him that he wanted to be on The Hilarious World Of Depression and despite Moe being an actual friend of Sagal’s, he was surprised to discover that Sagal was a depressive.
That response is understandable. On Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, Sagal sure seems cheerful and spry but within the context of depression, how things seem on the surface don’t always matter that much. As Moe quips here, depression is not just for mopers and people with The Smiths t-shirts. It affects a broad cross-section of humanity, including people who seem happiest.
Sagal falls into that category, and at the beginning of his interview here he concedes that this is the first time he’d discussed depression with anyone other than medical professionals. To use the terminology of Comedy Bang Bang, it is a true “Sclusy.”
Sagal was never diagnosed as a clinical depressive by psychiatrists. He more or less figured that out on his own terms. Like a lot of creative people, Sagal grew up feeling uncomfortable in his skin. He was self-conscious but discovered that comedy and theater gave him the tools to escape the prison of self and manage his depression.
The episode focuses on Sagal’s divorce, something that is handled with a sense of sensitivity befitting the acoustic-guitar-filled tastefulness of public radio, but also with a certain candor as well. Sagal’s divorce is described as a “living nightmare” that involved what I imagine ranks high on the list of every parent’s worst fear: Sagal was told his daughters did not want to speak to him anymore.
This unfolding familial tragedy gave Sagal a sense of perspective. When the most important thing in your life is falling apart, it makes daily injuries to your ego seem not only unimportant but wholly inconsequential. As with Maron in the early days of WTF, Sagal is refreshingly willing to give names and images to his insecurities, like when he talks about how dealing with anger from his children made him realize that it ultimately did not matter whether Ira Glass liked him enough to have him on This American Life any time soon.
Sagal says that medication saved his life, and that if his depression had not been treated he would have pushed right past that cliff and onto oblivion. People who wrestle with depression frequently feel like they have to “perform” the role of a non-depressed person for the benefit of their friends and family and coworkers and bosses. Sagal is in a relatively unique position in that his mastery of his job – and he is a master at what he does – relies in no small part on his ability to make the world seem like a bright, goofy, fun place. Sagal needs to be chipper and pleasant and upbeat to make a living and afford all those divorce lawyers.
The Hilarious World Of Depression feels very much like a product of public radio (by way of American Public Media). It is heavily produced in a way that owes far more to NPR than it does to podcasts like Mental Illness Happy Hour. It’s not hilarious, to be brutally honest, nor does it particularly aspire to be, but in the space of a mere 38 minutes it says an awful lot about the disconcertingly ubiquitous contemporary plague of depression in general and Sagal’s mental illness in particular.
Early in the podcast, Moe says of his podcast’s subject, “Depression wants you to stay quiet. And alone. And ashamed. That way it can fester. Diseases love to fester.” Consequently, part of The Hilarious World Of Depression’s extraordinary value lies in the way it invites people dealing with depression to speak their truth, to let audiences know that this pain that sometimes feels like it is our burden, and our burden alone, is actually surprisingly universal. But its value also comes from some of the practical tools it offers for coping with depression.
Thanks to John Moe, there is another excellent podcast about depression out there, and that is a cause for rejoicing indeed.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.