The Funny Thing About Depression Is …
THE HILARIOUS WORLD OF DEPRESSION
By John Moe
Not every book is for everyone, and not every book on depression is for every depressive. But the question that might be asked of any mental health book, regarding its raison d’être, is: Can this help someone?
“The Hilarious World of Depression,” by John Moe, the veteran NPR host and creator of the podcast after which this book is named, could be a particularly useful tool for those who grew up in homes where seeking therapy was seen as weakness, those who don’t have the language for mental illness, and particularly for men age 50 and older. If you’re looking for a Father’s Day book for a depressed dad who is aware of his condition but averse to seeking treatment, this is the one.
Tonally, the book may be best described as “jocular Americana,” rife with vintage cultural references like “The Carol Burnett Show,” the original “Match Game,” Dick Cavett, Fleetwood Mac, the Coneheads, “Hogan’s Heroes” and Glenn Frey. “Rather than tackle the past,” Moe writes of his early unwillingness to delve into his trauma, “I was willing to settle for a tense cease-fire with it, letting my life be like Middle East countries that hate each other. There would be car bombings, but a homeland is a homeland.” In his search for a 12th therapist — one with whom he can finally have a long-term relationship — Moe’s criteria stipulated that candidates had to offer a cognitive behavioral approach, and that “they couldn’t be, like, 23 and/or named Kristi.”
Moe’s humor is more universally astute when describing the depressive’s propensity for faulty reasoning, particularly in terms of negative self-attribution and self-defeating thoughts. One problem with clinical depression is that it speaks in what sounds like the sufferer’s own voice; thus, even in spite of therapy, proper medication and self-awareness, a person with depression can still find it difficult to discern a distorted thought from an objective truth. Moe captures these blind spots well.
On being hit by a car in seventh grade, he says, “Yes, I’m blaming myself for getting hit by a car.” On having contemplated suicide on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle: “Jumping would mean doing something. Doing something was not really my thing.” In describing his time working as a senior editor for Amazon’s e-cards initiative during the first dot-com bubble, Moe recalls reasoning that if no one said the cards sucked, that meant they sucked.
This exploration of impostor syndrome is where the book really shines. He employs tidbits from his years’ worth of interviews with comics and artists like Neal Brennan, Maria Bamford, Jeff Tweedy, Jen Kirkman and Andy Richter to convey the way a person with depression may perceive tomorrow’s success as an antidote to his or her suffering, only to discover that no amount of achievement ever feels like enough. As Richter says to Moe, “The hole will never be full.”
Unfortunately, these sound bites often feel cursory — small blips in Moe’s overarching narrative. The book would be better served if it included longer, deeper takes from these podcast guests.
Yet the message of the book is a good one: that mental illness is not a cause for shame, and that sharing honestly (and even humorously) with fellow sufferers can be a path to healing. If there are readers out there who still believe, as Moe once did, that “mental illness is for people in the booby hatch doing sad craft projects with safety scissors” as in “Girl, Interrupted,” this book could be their path to deeper understanding and openness, by way of laughter in the dark.