Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Comedian and wrestling super-fan Marty DeRosa’s Wrestling With Depression is a consistently great but under-appreciated podcast overshadowed on one side by DeRosa’s comedy partner and good friend Colt Cabana’s wildly popular inside-wrestling podcast The Art of Wrestling (the WTF of the wrestling world) and Paul Gilmartin’s essential and endlessly fascinating The Mental Illness Happy Hour on the other.
It doesn’t help that DeRosa put the podcast on hold for an indefinite hiatus last year after he moved from his hometown of Chicago to Los Angeles and only resumed podcasting after he returned to Chicago. And while his guests are almost always open and engaging and entertaining in discussing their battles with depression and anxiety and grief and mental illness of all stripes, they tend to be Chicago comedians and not the kind of big names that can attract new listeners to a podcast they might not have heard of.
On paper, Wrestling With Depression shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does. The show’s three dominant obsessions – wrestling, comedy, and mental illness – might seem to cancel each other out. It’s safe to assume that some wrestling obsessives might not be overly intrigued by stories of battles with depression and ennui and substance abuse and all the other quirks that make humanity so delightful. Similarly, it stands to reason that people fascinated by comedy and mental illness might be a little put off by the wrestling element.
But Wrestling With Depression is surprisingly cohesive. It helps that the wrestling stuff is never pushed too hard, and when DeRosa does interview wrestlers it’s fascinating even if you aren’t interested in wrestling (in much the same way Sklarbro Country is a delight even for non-sports fans), like a recent episode where he interviewed Gregory Iron, who has achieved substantial success as a professional wrestler despite being 5’4” and having Cerebral Palsy. The episode was not only riveting but also poignant and even inspirational.
Like Gilmartin, DeRosa has a sonorous voice and soothing presence that makes delving deep into deep, sometimes disturbing subject matter more palatable, and like Gilmartin he leads by example by being very open and forthcoming about his own battles with depression and frustration and the bottle. But the tone is lighter and breezier. It’s a place where irreverent jokes are always welcome, and never seem to stop the flow of the conversation, no matter how heavy or intense it might get.
The Wrestling With Depression episode with Erica Clark is lighter than most because Clark seems like an extraordinarily functional and put-together person. Like many of the podcast’s guests, she’s a Chicago comedian, and if her name isn’t immediately recognizable there is a very good chance that you’re familiar with her father: Mr. T.
Mr. T is such a huge camp icon, mega-celebrity and human cartoon character (the man had his own cartoon, cereal, and dolls, after all) that it can be hard to imagine him as a human being, let alone as somebody’s dad. He wasn’t just a guy who wrestled alongside “Hulk” Hogan in the first Wrestlemania, with Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka in his corner, and counted Junkyard Dog, King Kong Bundy, and Andre The Giant among his professional colleagues: he was also the guy dropping his daughter off at school.
DeRosa leaps right into Mr. T’s wrestling prime, which coincided with the early heyday of the WWF, when it was a huge pop-culture juggernaut. He’s as excitable as kid on Christmas morning to be talking to someone with a very direct connection to so many cherished names from his (and an entire generation’s) childhood.
Though it probably felt normal to Clark, her childhood can’t help but come off as pretty surreal. Every question prompts a fascinating and improbably anecdote about T’s crazy life and times, from the two-year gap between an unknown Mr. T filming Rocky III and the film’s predictably blockbuster release, during which he continued to work as a bouncer while anxiously awaiting his star-making turn, to a relatively puny T (for all his muscles and swagger, he is only 5’10”) getting in between his friend “Hulk” Hogan and his professional nemesis “Rowdy” Roddy Piper when Hogan wanted to beat up the kilt enthusiast.
T emerges as both a weirdly human figure, a guy who, when he’s out of the spotlight and not in public, likes nothing more than smoking weed and watching movies at home, and a larger-than-life, iconic presence whose home is filled with ancient Wrestlemania scripts and whose presence in a wealthy, more or less all-white suburb during Clark’s childhood was damn near mythical, the kind of thing awed children gossip about in hushed tones.
Clark is also fascinating discussing how her father’s pride has not only harmed his own career, but hers as well. His questionable moves include everything from turning down a half-million dollar payday for a two-minute cameo in the A-Team Movie, which would have come with a small role for Clark as well, to burning bridges by boasting that he helped Sylvester Stallone’s career by appearing in Rocky III (never mind that T was a bouncer and Stallone a world-famous, Oscar-nominated superstar when the film was made) and wasn’t about to help him out again by accepting the role Stallone offered him in The Expendables movies because he didn’t want to associate with a bunch of has-beens.
T also screwed himself over by not paying off a pair of important business associates for their help in his career until it was too late, and they successfully sued T’s common-law wife for their cut of his fortune after he declared bankruptcy and put all of his belongings in his partner’s name in an unsuccessful attempt to hide his assets.
Clark says a lot of her conversations with her stubborn, sometimes self-destructive dad are arguments, and considering that he’s never seen her do standup (although, to be fair, she’s never watched a full episode of The A-Team), repeatedly turns down reasonable requests for favors and discouraged her from entering show business, that’s easy to believe.
Clark is such a funny, bright, and appealing presence, and has such an interesting background – in addition to being a comedian and Mr. T’s daughter she’s also worked as a teacher for children with autism and Down Syndrome – that it’s almost a shame the interview doesn’t focus more on her own life, but the Mr. T stuff is so crazy and fascinating that focussing on him makes sense. Duncan Jones may be a talented and interesting filmmaker with Moon and The Source Code among his credits, but an interviewer would have a hard time not asking him a whole bunch of questions about what it’s like being David Bowie’s son, just as the audience would understandably be fascinated by the Bowie connection as well.
This episode of Wrestling With Depression is light on depression where the interview subject is concerned – dysfunction, yes, crazy family dynamics, sure, wild stories of super-fame of course – but it’s utterly riveting all the same, and would be a fine introduction to a terrific and underrated podcast.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.