As I caught up on this week's episode of "Broad City," titled "Abbi's Mom," I was struck by Ilana's (Ilana Glazer) story line. The show focuses on two late twenties best friends who get in to hilarious antics in New York City. While Abbi (Abbi Jacobs) and Ilana are both pee-your-pants funny, Ilana tends to be the goofier of the two. With wildly curly hair and a penchant for crop tops and fanny packs, Ilana is the risk taker of the two. Abbi tends to be the rational thinker and her obsession with Bed, Bath, and Beyond adds to her more straight laced persona.
In this episode, we saw a different side of Ilana. Instead of talking Abbi in to getting out of her comfort zone, she needed Abbi to talk her out of a depression. We learned Ilana has Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depression that comes on as the weather changes. She decided to wean herself off of her anti-depressants in favor of using light therapy--a bright light that, for some, has the same mood boosting affects as the sun. Though her depressive episode was exaggerated, it felt authentic. We saw the energy drain from Ilana with each interaction she had with people, then saw her use her lamp to re-charge to continue working.
"Broad City" is not the only comedy to touch on depression. We have recently seen it popping up in the storylines of "You're the Worst," "BoJack Horseman," and "Blackish" recently touched on postpartum depression. The podcast "The Hilarious World of Depression" is focused on comedians living with depression. Host John Moe is able to laugh and cry with his guests as they discuss living mental illness.
We all know the old sad clown depiction, but why does mental illness and comedy go hand in hand and why are modern TV shows finally getting it right?
When we see depressed characters in comedy, we see the multi dimensions of depression. Depression is not just sadness, and you can't necessarily see it unless you look and listen very closely. Depression is something more. It takes over your mind and body, it is mentally and physically exhausting, and though we may not feel like our "normal" selves during a depressive episode, we may appear to others as our "normal" selves.
Like Ilana, the Gretchen character (Aya Cash) from "You're the Worst" has an outgoing personality and DGAF attitude about life. Her depressive episode seemed to come out of nowhere and was a shock for her partner. Gretchen stayed on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, as life moved around her. Her partner's confusion and denial of this being "the real Gretchen" added another, very real layer to the story.
In a drama, depression can feel like something meant to move along the plot and make you feel empathy for the main character. When it is portrayed in comedy, the exaggerated nature feels as though it's sending a message to those who don't suffer from depression. It's a wave of the arms, yelling "do you see me?! this is how I feel!" It gets across to those who don't understand what we often cannot. Instead, when asked how we are we reply "fine" and expect our partner or friend to know that means "I literally cannot feel anything or make my body move."
The portrayal of depression in comedy helps to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness. It lets others know their funniest friend may be the saddest. The one making a table of people, or a comedy club laugh may have barely made it out of their house because they couldn't make themselves feel anything but numb. Shows like "Broad City" help us redefine what depression looks like, because it never looks the same. It reminds us to look closer and listen better--to be the Abbi that turns up the LED lamp and the Ilana who accepts the help and honesty of a friend.