For me and many other comedians, comedy means life or death.
Image: Kane Reinholdtsen
Brandon texted me, "Good luck tonight!"
I didn't have any shows booked on my calendar so obviously I thought he was giving me shit. Also, Brandon is one my closest friends in comedy. We're supposed to give each other shit. But the truth was, my calendar was empty. My wallet was empty. My stomach was empty. I was struggling.
I called Brandon and he said a comedy club just tweeted that tonight, I apparently had an audition for a prestigious comedy festival. I immediately called the comedy club to verify their tweet. "Yes, Mike Brown is scheduled to perform on tonight's 8 pm showcase," they said. I was so happy that I forgave them for not following me.
Let's be clear, I deserved that audition. I'm pretty funny. My first time doing comedy onstage was at my fourth grade talent show. I killed it, but came in third because the judges were idiots and there was no liquor allowed at the venue. Performing isn't new; it's just that this audition came out of nowhere. Still, the validation was amazing.
It felt like all of the years of writing jokes no one hears, appearing in sketches that no one watches, recording podcasts that no one listens to, I finally had a chance to showcase how funny I am. Oh the sweet, sweet validation. Still, I struggled to believe it. I called the other comics on the showcase (yes, we all know each other) and they all got ample notice about their audition. I, on the other hand, got a text from a friend who wasn't even connected to the venue.
At this point, all I could do was think about the showcase. Until the gig, I would spend half of my time writing and re-writing setlists and the other half fantasizing about the opportunity to audition. Maybe there was a more successful comedian who would take me under their wing. Maybe the club would instantly add me into their roster. Maybe a talent agent would love my stage presence, thus spiraling me into Aziz Ansari-style ubiquity, complete with a Netflix series glamorizing my relationship quirks.
At 7:30 pm, I was exiting the subway station a short distance from the venue when I got a slew of texts from other friends in the community. It turned out there was another comedian named Mike Brown, they told me. It was his audition. I stopped walking towards the club. I turned around instead and walked along Broadway, many miles away from my apartment.
I really wanted to perform anywhere—a comedy club, an open mic, maybe even a crowded subway car—but I was too broken to find a stage. I didn't want to do anything. I didn't even want to exist. I wanted to die.
I walked across the street without any regard to traffic lights. I thought about how I would never make it in comedy and didn't have a purpose to live. My family, friends, fellow comics—I didn't think about any of them. I was too absorbed by the thought that I, Mike Brown, wasn't the Mike Brown who got the opportunity to change his life. Instead I was the Mike Brown who was struggling with suicidal thoughts and depression.
This wasn't my first time having suicidal thoughts. I've been battling depression my entire life. It went from wanting to die after coming in 3rd place. I wanted to die when I moved into my dad's house and started high school (I called my dad "father" for our first two years living together as if it was theater). I wanted to die when I was losing so much interest in college, I eventually got kicked out. Yet, during all those times, I wrote and produced comedy.
Overall, writing comedy is better than dealing with life's bullshit. When I'm getting laughs onstage, it's like validation of my ideas, theories and experiences. A joke says, "Hey, isn't this thing with the world wrong?" and a laugh says, "Yes! Totally agree." Plus, if I'm focused on comedy, I'm not dealing with my problems.
Depression and anxiety aren't foreign concepts to artists, especially comedians. "When it comes to comedians, it's been reported they're most unique in the entertainment industry because they write their own material and perform it," says Deborah Serani, a psychologist who's practiced for over 25 years in New York, treating many performers and artists along the way. "Writers and composers create material, whereas actors, dancers and musicians interpret or perform what's been created." For comedians, our art and performances are both tied to our personal essence.
Comedians are extroverted by profession, but offstage, research shows they are more likely to keep to themselves. Serani says that in her experience with patients, comedians are often the most introverted of creative artists and "being onstage is liberating and empowering for the comedian, but offstage, they may be filled with deep thinking and preferences to be alone."
For some, the depression came after the fame. Others used their career as a way of coping through trauma. John Minus, a fellow comedian and my touring partner, turned to comedy years after his mother's suicide when he was 23. "My own symptoms started getting worse," he says. "When I was 27, I had a lot of anger toward everybody and everything. I wasn't an angry person, so I didn't know how to deal with it." He had suicidal thoughts and voluntarily admitted himself into a psychological facility.
"A lot of the things that make me funny and creative are the things that make it so I can't function in life, so it's like a blessing or a curse sort of thing," Minus says, reflecting on the passion he has for his work, which involves giving a lot of himself, emotionally.
I've seen therapists through the years, mostly as an adolescent. After six years of comedy, I've decide to find help coping with the emotional rollercoaster of seeking success. The "audition" was an opportunity I didn't get. I remind myself that everything is transient. Some comedians have opportunities, find success, and then have their opportunity taken away.
Comedian Jordan Carlos starred in the MTV show I Just Want My Pants Back. When it got cancelled in 2012, it resulted in a reality check. "There were some things that I got, and I was like 'I'm still working.' But I had a thing were I felt like I wasn't where I wanted to be. And I didn't like where I was and I needed to talk to someone. I wasn't growing, I wasn't reaching out to my friends and my family, so I had to go and talk it out." He met with a therapist who helped him cope with his condition, something called "relative deprivation," which is "the perception of an unfair disparity between one's situation and that of others." In short, a person believes they're entitled to something other people have. For comedians, it can be a spot at a comedy club, a late night TV appearance or a TV writing job.
Carlos later became a correspondent on Comedy Central's The Nightly Show, which was also eventually cancelled. By then, he says, his outlook had improved. He told himself, "This isn't the last time [I'll] ever work. You find a new way, man. You're publicly unemployed. It's like, 'I hope you get another show.' And you're like, 'Thank you, bus driver.'"
"There's a lot of data that says the early life of many comedians is marked by sadness, isolation and feelings of deprivation," Serani says. "And that being in the funny business is actually hard on one's heart and mind. While this may not be the case for all men and women in comedy, for those who've experienced such hardship, humor becomes the way to survive and even thrive."
The day after my "audition" I got an email from the festival organizers about the mishap. As it turns out, I was the Mike Brown they were looking for and they invited me to audition that same night. And so the rollercoaster continues.
For me, and many other comedians, comedy means life or death. I want to make sure to seize the opportunity, enjoy myself and end on a huge laugh. Everyone says comedy is hard. You know what's really hard? Facing problems head on. Fuck that, shit. I'm writing jokes.