Zach Galifianakis paused onstage. He’d wiped away a few tears recalling the time he and Brody Stevens went to dinner and his best friend asked, “Hey Zach, now that you’re getting more work in Hollywood, are you more privy to UFO information?”
There was also the time Stevens got fired from doing Late World With Zach warm-up after an exec failed to understand how “Big Mac or Whopper, you make the call!” jokes hyped studio audiences. And the time they watched Margaret Cho on TV, Stevens fuming in silence before finally bellowing, “She has a sitcom?! Why come me don’t have one?!”
The sold-out crowd of 400 had gathered in the Comedy Store’s Main Room on Sunday, January 19 to celebrate the launch of a Steven Brody Stevens YouTube channel dedicated to preserving the memory of the bipolar comic who committed suicide last year.
Friend Don Barris remembered watching Stevens transition on and off different medications for years. Even amid his own struggles, Stevens helped talk comics like Esther Povitsky to Steven Randolph through difficult episodes. “He was so inclusive with everybody no matter what level you were at,” recalled Store regular Jeremiah Watkins. “You could be an open mic-er or you could be Dave Chappelle, and he would treat you the exact same. He was always looking for connections in the little things.”
Stressed Galifianakis, “We’re here to try to figure out how we can help people that need help. Someone like Brody was so many different things, and he never found that professional to talk to. He would say to me, ‘Zach, I have you to talk to.’ But I tell diarrhea jokes!
“If you or anybody you know is feeling weak, there’s no shame in getting help — none,” Galifianakis continued. “And I come from a family where you don’t do that. I once told my dad I was depressed, and he told me to go do cartwheels in the park and talk to old people.”
Richard Jeni died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2007. Robin Williams hanged himself in 2014 — as did Stevens on February 22, 2019. Whether suicide, accidental overdose, or other causes, until a year ago a comic’s untimely passing typically cued a respectful mourning period before business seemingly resumed as usual. But things feel different this time around. With a slate of new initiatives established in the wake of his death, Stevens’s lasting legacy encompasses both unconventional one-liners and a turning point in the L.A. comedy community’s perception of mental health care.
A void remains in the absence of Stevens’s amplified physicality and affirmative catchphrases. Yet his shirts, pins, and stickers are ubiquitously sported by performers and patrons alike. (Merchandise sales from BrodyStevens.com benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.) Mauricio Alvarado of RockinPins.com even redirected $4,000 of profits from the design he’d formally created with Stevens to fund a L.A. Parks Foundation memorial bench near a Reseda Park baseball field and Stevens’s Reseda High School alma mater. A plaque atop the bench reads:
Alvarado hopes the bench reminds others suffering from psychological disorders that they aren’t alone. “You’ve just got to stay positive,” he says, citing Stevens’s penchant for proclaiming, “Enjoy it!”; “You got it, yes!”; and “Positive energy!”
In clubs like the Comedy Store, where Stevens recorded his 2017 special Live From the Main Room, prominent flyers encourage comics in need to reach out to crisis lines. The Store also memorializes Stevens on its nightly lineups. On May 22, the date on which Stevens would have turned 49, the Comedy Store’s Facebook page recalled how Stevens closed out late nights in its Original Room’s “Kinison Spot.”
“Moving forward whomever closes The Main Room on our Headliner shows will be known as doing The Brody Spot,” the post read. “Happy Birthday Brody. We love you and miss you. Your positive energy will always be felt here.” All proceeds from the club’s YouTube launch event, which also featured Bill Burr and Greg Fitzsimmons, aided two organizations dedicated to removing mental-health stigma.
“Our objective is to start the conversation on mental health before it adversely impacts our lives,” says Jonny Boucher, CEO of Chicago’s Hope for the Day, which emphasizes proactive suicide prevention through outreach and education. “Sadly we live in a society where we’re still reacting. We’re waiting for another celebrity to take their life and we all rally around and the hotline numbers, but we don’t really do much for that pain, especially living in society today with the digital wave. It’s so hard to really take in trauma before we’re bombarded with some other tragedy.”
In Los Angeles, Comedy Gives Back offers guidance and grants to those faced with medical treatment, crisis management, and mental-health issues. Industry veterans Zoe Friedman, Jodi Lieberman, and Amber J. Lawson formed the nonprofit 2011, but recently pivoted their mission to include open town hall–style exchanges, 12-step meetings, and safe harbor rooms at festivals. Future ventures may include workshops, support groups, and even a senior retirement home.
Lawson calls Stevens’s death a tipping point, saying, “I do think there’s a shift in mental-health awareness. There’s really an effort to reduce the fears that you will be judged or not given a job or somehow black-marked against because you ask for help.”
Advocate groups decry romanticizing any vital artistic correlation between mental illness and comedy. Similarly refuting fears that therapy or medication will dampen joke-writing ability, recent specials by Gary Gulman (The Great Depresh) and Maria Bamford (Weakness Is the Brand) repositioned seeking help as a show of strength. And industry distributors like Netflix and HBO certainly haven’t shied from material tackling the topic head-on.
In June, Comedy Central’s Clusterfest incorporated a “Comedy and Mental Health: A Hilarious Conversation” panel and Stevens-themed “Festival of Friendship” activation area (named after Stevens’s podcast) featuring informational pamphlets and an “Enjoy It!” mural. A portion of industry ticket sales — which previously were comped — raised over $10,000 for the Comedians Assistance Fund, a joint venture between the Comedy Store and the Motion Picture & Television Fund. Shortly after, both July’s Just for Laughs Montreal and September’s Just for Laughs Toronto presented a panel called “A Serious Talk With Funny People: Mental Health in Comedy.”
Comedy Central later launched a “Be the Difference” PSA video in honor of October 10’s World Mental Health Day. The tagline, explains Comedy Central VP of Social Impact Erika Soto Lamb, derives from the Mental Health First Aid program run by the National Council for Behavioral Health, with whom Comedy Central partnered over the past year.
“It made sense for us to take on an issue that affects everyone,” says Soto Lamb, “one that is a public health crisis consistent with news reports about suicide being the second leading cause of death for young people.”
Not only are clubs, non-profits, and corporations engaging in dialogue surrounding mental health; comics have sought individual, grassroots outlets to make an impact.
Ryan Singer (Maron) organizes Stevens-inspired “Happiness Hikes” at outdoor locations across Los Angeles to promote physical health and camaraderie. At the close of his Doug Loves Movies podcast, Doug Benson has replaced a recurring “Shitheads” segment with a “Positive energy!” nod. Sam Tripoli, whose Tin Foil Hat podcast marked Stevens’s final interview, will hold his second annual Festival of Friendship tribute show March 10 at the Comedy Store to bolster the Comedians Assistance Fund.
Stevens’s advice for others was simple: “Stay positive and don’t burn bridges,” says Tony Hinchcliffe, who implemented a “positivity only” episode of his traditionally pugnacious Kill Tony podcast when Stevens died. “So much light was shed on mental illness from someone as great as Brody Stevens,” he says.
The collective shift in mental-health awareness and outreach “speaks to Brody’s true impact,” says Dave Rath, Stevens’s manager and Comedy Gives Back board member. “Brody did something different. In terms of onstage honesty, Brody’s brilliance was being able to use the most silliest, goofiest, dumbest jokes wrapped around this obviously hurting person.”
Rath envisions the YouTube channel comprising existing TV and podcast episodes, archival stand-up material, and new, previously unseen social content. An earlier Brody Stevens catchphrase app will be again available for download, plus catalogued personal memorabilia offered via online auction … all preserving Stevens’s work while ensuring future generations of performers benefit from funds raised. He was a comic who influenced others while alive, and whose death won’t mark the end of his contributions.
Or as Rath puts it, “There were two categories: everybody else, and Brody Stevens.”