As host of the hit American Public Media podcast “The Hilarious World of Depression,” humorist John Moe spends a lot of time talking to funny people about their mental health. Until recently, Moe hasn’t spent a lot of time talking publicly about his own lifelong struggle with clinical depression, but in his forthcoming memoir, which shares a title with his podcast, he decided that the time was right.
For years, Moe rarely talked about his family history of mental illness and addiction. Then his older brother died by suicide in 2007, and he decided that it was important to end the silence. In recent years, Moe’s work on the podcast helped him to feel even more confident talking about his own depression and his work to recover.
The book — which Moe explained to me that he wrote “here and there,” between seasons of the podcaset, or on weekends, when he’d take “six hours of just writing and pound out a bunch of pages” — takes a deep dive into his painful past and blends it with wisdom gleaned from high-profile podcast participants like Dick Cavett, Maria Bamford and Margaret Cho.
The result is part memoir, part self-help, a distinction that Moe said he was surprised by at first, but has now learned to embrace: He hopes that others will seek help after reading his story.
“I don’t know if any of this book will surprise people about me, because I don’t know how much other people know about me or even think about me,” Moe said, wryly. “I try not to think about that. But I think if it sheds some light on something that resonates within that person or someone they know, I’ll be really happy.”
On a recent morning, Moe and I met in his sunny office on the third floor of the Minnesota Public Radio building in downtown St. Paul. He was excited to talk about his latest project.
MinnPost: What made you decide you wanted to write this book?
John Moe: I’m really interested in intimate spaces when it comes to what I’m making. Originally I was in theater. When I got into radio, I really liked the idea that you’re talking to one person. When I coach people on radio reads, I say, “Get the person across the table from you to be as fascinated by this as you are.” I really liked that and then I did “Wits” for a while, and that was usually on a stage, so this book brings me back to that intimacy.
MP: I suppose “Wits” didn’t feel that intimate.
JM: It was a different kind of fun, but with this book I can reach that one-on-one connection, which I think, really helps in encouraging an open dialogue about mental health. Reading a book can be an extension of that. It can be a more intimate, less guarded situation. I’ve become very interested in the intimate places in which we listen: Headphones. In a car. A book seemed to kind of match that.
MP: So you wanted to do a more intimate, personal story about your experiences with depression?
JM: My story is the one I never tell on the show. I sometimes drop in bits and pieces, but I don’t really get into it. And I don’t necessarily feel a need to tell my story, but I think from having done all these dozens of interviews, I’m familiar with the universal parts of a story can really reach other people and maybe help them see the commonalities in their own experience.
Depression is an illness that has a pathology. Everybody’s situation is different but there’s often going to usually be an adolescent onset, right around the time of puberty. Then there’s a period of reckoning with it, of trying to figure out what it is. Some people nail that at 16, and some people like me take until their mid-30s. And there tend to be crashes. There tend to be crisis moments. There are attempts to deal with it that are unsuccessful. These are all common through lines. I talk about my through lines as a way to open it up and invite people to see their own experiences.
MP: Did the experience of interviewing so many comedians who have struggled with depression and other mental illnesses make you feel like it was OK to be more open about your own mental health?
JM: I actually started opening up before that. My brother died by suicide in 2007. In the book I describe being at his service and nobody talking about his addiction and his mental health and even his death. After someone dies, there’s always a tendency to talk about the great parts of a person, about when they were doing great. But to me his story involved parts that weren’t great, and the heroic struggle to stay around as long as he did. It was at his service where I said, “Screw it. If everyone else is going to be quiet about this, I’ll talk 10 times as much.”
I started to tell people on Twitter, and wherever else I could, about the importance of getting help. But it took years before I added, “And I struggled with this, too.” I was concerned about discrimination. I didn’t want people to lose trust in me. I didn’t want to lose out on future opportunities. I didn’t want my employer to be afraid of me. It was all fear.
MP: But then you went ahead and wrote this book anyway.
JM: When I made that decision, I went to someone in HR here and said, “I’m thinking about doing this,” and they said, “You should. We’re behind you all the way.” With that at my back, I came forward.
I acknowledge that it’s easier for me to do this because I am in a position of privilege. I have the trappings of society to back me up as a straight, white man. If I were part a group that has been routinely discriminated against, I might not come forward and give myself one more vulnerability.
MP: Maybe it’s because I’ve written obituaries for family members, but I was really interested in the part in your book where you wrote the obituary for your brother. You mentioned his mental illness, addiction and his death by suicide in your first draft, but your family asked you to take that out. Did you feel like your original obit would have done a better job of explaining your brother’s life?
JM: To me, if you can say, “Here’s a person who struggled with addiction and depression, and this was the direction it took and they died by suicide. This led to their death. This explains this person,” it helps to say that out loud because a world where someone just dies at 43 is a bit terrifying. Anyone could die at any moment, but to know that a thing happens because of another thing helps the world make more sense.
It’s like exploring childhood trauma, which is a thing that jerks dismiss, like, “Oh, you had an unhappy childhood …” Well, these things happened when I was young, when I was being formed, and because of that this is happening now. That’s just good information. And for a depressed person who lives in a world that can feel chaotic and extremely dangerous, seeing cause and effect is stabilizing.
MP: Was it helpful to make connections between your childhood trauma and your mental health? When did you figure that out?
JM: It happened later. For years, I sort of knew that if you’re an adult child of an alcoholic you might have trouble with relationships. So when I’m thinking, “Why am I having such a hard time at parties, or really trusting friends?” that might have something to do with it, but it honestly wasn’t until I got into really good therapy in 2018 that I finally started connecting all of these traumas to how I am now.
I always thought, “When I got hit by a car, that’s trauma. But my father’s drinking, that’s not really trauma.” But it is. And it’s complex trauma. It’s something that isn’t as momentous in a single event, but that stretches out for years.
I make myself crazy worrying about my kids and being there for them at all times and wearing myself down in the process. It took a therapist saying, “Why do you always have to be there?” I was like, “Well, in order to be a good dad, you always have to be there.” She said, “I think you’re probably a pretty good dad already. Why do you think you always have to be there?” It was one of those a-ha moments when I said, “Because my dad wasn’t there and it screwed me up. I usually couldn’t count on him to physically be there and I certainly couldn’t count on him to mentally be there. So I need to do everything for my kids all the time.”
It turns out there’s a pretty broad middle ground that I could’ve been in.
MP: This book is really different from your other books.
JM: Yes. It’s the one with “hilarious” in the title that doesn’t have as many jokes.
MP: But there are still some funny bits in there.
JM: I think it is important to have that. That’s the audaciousness of the podcast and the book. It’s funny. The situations that you end up in are so ridiculous. It’s inherently absurd. When I interviewed Dick Cavett, I asked him, “Is depression funny?” He said, “It’s more ridiculous than funny.” Everything would be fine if you could just get up and get dressed, but with depression, somehow you can’t. It’s a comic situation.
MP: That’s the whole concept of gallows humor: You’re at the lowest point in your life, but yet you’re somehow finding something funny in it. Like your sister carrying your brother’s ashes and saying —
JM: “He ain’t heavy …” [laughs] When I talk about that experience, I try to stress that humor didn’t make what was going on any less horrifying. It’s no less tragic, no less devastating. We’re still messed up for the rest of our lives. But it can coexist with something being funny.
MP: You and your siblings may be messed up for the rest of your lives, but do you think that being able to have a sense of humor anyhow can be healing?
JM: What’s healing and healthy about humor to me is it’s an interpretation of current events, an interpretation that helps you look at something from more than one way. I think I said on the first episode of the show, “Laughter isn’t the best medicine. That’s penicillin or the polio vaccine. But it can make a big difference.”
MP: Sometimes I watch a comedian and I realize that to do their job well, they have to be incredibly intelligent. A good comedian is getting at levels that you can’t get at with an earnest essay. If you can make somebody laugh, you are opening a door into their brains that you can’t do any other way.
JM: For the same reason I’m always dubious of gifted programs in schools, or grades or test scores, I think there are many ways that intelligence can operate. In my career, there have been two people who made me laugh so hard it was difficult to continue the interview because I couldn’t form the words — John Hodgman and Maria Bamford. They both have this gift. John has never dealt with depression, but he finds imaginative ways through intellect or just through imagination to spin a situation into these remote recesses of thought. Maria does the same thing about all sorts of stuff, but one of them is mental illness.
I think you’re right about the intelligence. One of the funniest people in the world is my son, who is 19, and he is super-smart. He’ll toss off a joke almost under his breath about whatever is happening that I find so funny I just stop in my tracks. It’s what you always hoped for, that your kid will be funnier than you — at least in our family. If he’s more successful, fine. He’s funnier. That’s important.
MP: Your kids are a big part of your book. Did you let them read it ahead of time?
JM: No. I talked to them about what I was going to say about them. And on the real personal stuff I got their permission because they are going to have to live with this stuff as adults. But they didn’t decline anything. I didn’t really want to make them major characters in the book because I don’t know if they are going to want to choose that public of a life.
My wife is much less interested in being famous than I am. She drops in a little bit more, mostly to move the story along and be the smart one in the family.
MP: She comes across looking great. I’m sure that’s exactly how she is in real life.
JM: She’s terrible. [laughs] Everybody hates her. It’s funny, though. There are these incredibly wise, helpful things that she says in the book, and when she read them, she said, “I never said that.” And I said, “Yes you did. I remember you saying it.” She’s all nonchalant: “I guess I don’t remember.”
MP: Do you feel like people will react differently to you if they read the book? Will they have more understanding of who you are, your motivations?
JM: I hope that sometimes they can understand themselves — or somebody they know that’s going through this — better. When we launched the podcast, we said, “Maybe some people will listen to it and we’ll feel good about ourselves. Then we’ll move on.” But it really took off in large part from people who had someone in their family or circle of friends who is dealing with this and they are able to understand them better. Then it starts getting recommended. That’s how you catch fire. That’s what happened with us, fortunately.
MP: Your book starts to feel really helpful toward the end.
JM: That’s funny because in the first draft it didn’t. My first trip through the book, it was a lot of reporting and anecdotes, but it wasn’t a lot of statements about how depression works. It took reassurances from my editor and my therapist. Psychiatrists would write in to the show and say, “I really want to hear your thoughts about how this works.” People would say, “You’ve done so much research on this. We want to know what you found out.” Eventually I was able to overcome my “I’m just stupid” worries and start sharing my experience. I did want to reflect in the book how in the woods I’ve been for most of my life and how I’ve started to put things together and understand how things work. Depression will break down the very parts of you that make you most able to fight it. You can anthropomorphize it as an evil, twisted bad guy — or just a really bad collision of circumstances that makes it so powerful.
MP: In many ways your writing is so revealing. While we’ve been talking today I realize that I feel like I know so much about your life. More than I usually do when I start out an interview.
JM: I realize that when the publicity kicks in in earnest and I’m on book tours, people are going to feel like they know me — and that’s good-ish.
I give a lot of speeches where I tell my story. Afterwards people will come up to me and want to talk. I call it hand-holding time, where they shake my hand, but they don’t let go. They’ll stand there and tell me the worst things that have happened in their family that relate to depression. God bless ‘em. I love them and am glad that they’re looking to connect, but if I hear all that every time I tell my story, I’m taking on damage. It’s in my rider now that after my speeches, I’m gone. No sticking around. I’m legitimately concerned about how to build the right boundaries so I don’t get hurt. Because I am crazy, as documented.
MP: Your book has a hopeful ending. I don’t know why, but I was a little surprised.
JM: I was committed to making it an honest ending. All the way through. I’m like, “If I have to hand off the final manuscript today, what would I say?” For a lot of the book it wasn’t going to be very good. I might’ve said, “I don’t know if I’m getting better. This is how it’s always going to be.” For a long time I thought that. I compare it to knowing what brand of refrigerator you’re locked in. It’s interesting to know, but it is not going to get you any oxygen.
So I finally did get to the end of the book only very recently. It ends on Labor Day 2019. And things are more hopeful now. More and more, and more since then I’ve found this different way of seeing the world, because I’ve unlocked a lot of it and I’ve gotten some tools. Your house is better if you can fix up all your major appliances.
MP: Did the process of writing this book get you to that more hopeful place?
JM: Only a little, in that I got through two seasons of the show and I thought, “It’s too late for me, but I hope this helps other people.” Depression’s got its grips in me really good, to the point where I’d given up on improving. I just thought I missed that boat. And finally logic was able to penetrate that and I was able to say, “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
I had the book deal and I was in the early stages of the writing process. I’d heard so much about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): I talk to people who’ve tried millions of different approaches, but I’ve never heard somebody say, “I tried CBT and it didn’t work.” CBT comes up a lot and it’s always positive. I thought, “What I need to do is find a therapist near my house who can take that approach.”
Therapy isn’t something that just happens to you. You need to do work and it’s hard work. I was finally able to do that. I got to the point of not just reaching out for help, but knowing what my role was. That made a difference. Writing the book and the stress of knowing I have to do this massive deep assessment of my life led me to think, “Well, therapy will help unlock some of that information.” And along the way it just made me feel a lot better.
“The Hilarious World of Depression” is scheduled for release May 5, but is available now for preorder. A live book-release event will be held May 8 at the Fitzgerald Theater. Tickets for the event go on sale Feb. 25.