Friday, April 05, 2013

Coping with comedy writer depression

This is a serious Friday Question. More humor tomorrow but today I need to address this. Usually I frown on Anonymous posters but not in this case. 

Here's his question:

Ken, I'm a mid-level writer and have been writing on sitcoms for about six years. Alan Kirschenbaum (pictured above) and Lester Lewis' suicides were chilling because I see how this job may have driven them to it. I see that kind of pain all around me, in other sitcom writers, in myself. How did you keep your head straight when you did your time working on staffs? Yes, I'm aware of how great the WGA's mental health benefits are, but aside from that, did you land upon an effective way to deal with all the lows? Sorry to be anonymous, but I'm sure you understand why.

First off, my heart goes out to you. And anyone who feels despondent in their life or life’s work. Depression can be a killer.  But therapy and proper medication have helped millions recover and go on to lead normal, healthy, happy lives. 

Besides advising you strongly to seek counseling I can only tell you what works for me. I’m not a medical professional, nor can I speculate on the reasons why Alan and Lester chose to take their own lives. My guess is their careers were a factor but there were others as well.   I didn’t know either of them very well. I worked with Alan briefly on a couple of shows; Lester I never met.

I can also point out that like any writer, I have weathered my share of disappointments, doubts, failures, and frustrations. They come with the territory.  There was one period, after doing the MARY show that I needed to drop out and not do anything for three months. So these are battle-tested methods, at least regarding me. I hate when actors give acceptance speeches after winning big awards and say, “This just proves if you love what you’re doing and stay with it you’ll make it.” Bullshit! You made it. You were incredibly lucky, were blessed with God-given talent, or your slept your way to the top, but don’t be giving advice to others as if anyone can follow your path.

Here was mine:

David Isaacs and I were just starting out. We had sold a couple of freelance scripts and were completely starry-eyed. And then we heard that a writer for ALL IN THE FAMILY, on his way to a Sunday rewrite after working grueling hours every day for weeks, felt chest pains, pulled off to the side of the freeway, had a heart attack and died. He was in his 50’s. This was a sobering moment for us. Even then, even in the euphoria of finally breaking into the business, we realized that literally killing yourself for the sake of a script was foolhardy.  As a result, our mantra has always been…

It’s just a stupid television show.

It may not seem it at the time of crisis but if you step back, allow yourself a little perspective, you’ll see that it’s true.

It’s just a stupid television show.

Yes, you want to make your show great. You want it to be something you’re immensely proud of, something seen by millions of people. You work your ass off, as you should. But at the end of the day…

It’s just a stupid television show.

A few years ago a writer killed himself after a bad table reading of a MR. ED reboot pilot. Can you imagine something that tragic and absurd?

Look for other things in your life that you enjoy or give you meaning. If as a God-forbid you have to get out of television, you will probably find that’s not the worst thing that's ever happened to you.  It might just be the best. Re-inventing yourself is not a bad thing. I will admit it’s harder to do that the older you get. Opportunities dry up with age. But it’s certainly worth exploring. A lot of my contemporaries have found satisfaction in other fields. One former comedy writer teaches Russian Studies in college, another is now an author, still a third runs a bed & breakfast in Vermont.

Is there something else you’d like to do? It may not even be a dream job, but if the stress is way less, if you go home at a decent hour, if you’re able to watch basketball for the first time in fifteen years, then maybe it’s worth it.

I got very lucky. At the end of that MARY experience I had an “Is that all there is?” moment and decided to chase my other passion, baseball announcing. It was a lark more than anything. When I went to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium with a tape recorder I never seriously believed I’d make it to the major leagues. The truth? After spending a year locked in a writing room, I was just thrilled to be outdoors. It worked out for me amazingly well, but that was just a bonus.

And then there’s Alan Ball. I’ve told this story before but he was on staff of CYBILL and was miserable. So at night, for his own sanity, he wrote a spec screenplay. That was AMERICAN BEAUTY.

I offer these merely as examples that there are alternatives. A lawyer I knew said “Fuck it” and opened a crepe restaurant. A former big league ballplayer is writing a musical. A former comedy writer is going to nursing school. What else floats your boat?

And finally, to the person I say, you are welcome to contact me. My email is I’m happy to sit down and have coffee with you and do whatever I can. Comedy is hard but shouldn’t be that hard.

My best wishes to all of you in this painful situation.

It's just a stupid television show.


Richard Y said...

You are a wonderful man Ken. I hope he takes you up on your offer.

Mitchell Hundred said...

If you're dealing with depression, this blog might help you out. YMMV, of course.

Carol said...

I think this is good advice for anyone. Thanks, Ken.

Dana King said...

Great advice for people in virtually any profession. There are very few of us who work in occupations where our jobs are a matter of life and death, but a lot of people treat them as such.

Roger Owen Green said...

Sound advice.
Wondered if you had any Milo O'Shea or Roger Ebert anecdotes to share.

Jack said...

I left my depression untreated for a long time because I didn't want to be medicated. Once I gave that foolish idea up and got my anti-depressants correct, my life became infinitely more bearable.

Obviously, what worked for me won't work for everybody because depression is such a personal thing...but there is more help available than you realize; you just have to find the strength to ask for it. (Which is, of course, the most difficult part.)

And to Ken, you're a good man, sir. My fandom has increased. :)

AlaskaRay said...

Very good comments, and very sound advice, Ken (and I am a medical professional). The only thing I would add to that is sometimes depression doesn't have to have an obvious cause, but it still needs to be addressed, so get help; a psychiatrist, psychologist, your family doctor, or just someone to talk to about how you feel.

Ben said...

I try and give almost exactly the same advice to my coworkers at times. I'm a director in that paragon of quality television, local newscasts. All too often, I'll find myself with a producer sitting next to me during the show who pounds his fist on the desk in frustration, or hear an exasperated "Come on!" or a phone call with the shouting of lots of words the anchors had better not say on television. And I'll look over at them and, as they're fuming about whatever has gone wrong to ruin their clever 'cast with its awesome alliteration and perfectly punny paragraphs, I'll just say "Dude--it's only teevee. It's not brain surgery, it's not life and death. It's only teevee." Sometimes that calms them down. Other times not.

But it's still true. It's only teevee. And it's not worth taking too seriously if two-thirds of it is "eeee".

Mac said...

That's very kind of you to help this person out, Ken.
I was in a situation where my "break" was guaranteed, but it meant working with a very nasty bully. I'd worked with this person before and felt (at the risk of sounding melodramatic) that my mental health was starting to suffer from the relentless viciousness, on top of the pressure of trying to do my best work.

So I passed on it, and my chance of a "break" isn't coming back. I could have done with someone to lend a sympathetic ear - but they're rare in an industry where you can be a nasty bully and as long as you score at the box office, no-one will notice.

I hope it works out for the poster and he/she finds a path through it. They're very lucky to find a decent guy like you who has nothing to gain, yet is willing to give your time to help them. Good luck.

MacGilroy said...

All very good advice, and let me add another personal anecdote that probably saved my life and may apply to a few others. In my case, a therapist who had diagnosed me with a clinical depression insisted I get a full physical to rule out any biological causes. Turns out I have Hereditary Hemochromatosis, a genetic condition that causes the body to absorb iron and deposit it all over the body. Too much iron can cause depression, liver cancer, heart issues, and more, but is completely controllable if caught early enough. And it's more common than most people realize. M2C. Thank you, Ken.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

My psychiatrist told me after two years to stop coming, because he understood my pain but said:"apparently you can handle it".

Brian said...

As someone who works in another part of the business and been asking "is this all there is?", and wondering what my next move should be, this post couldn't have come at a better time. Thank you, Ken.

I would also like to echo what Ken said - seek out medical attention immediately if your depression is really affecting you.

Brian Fies said...

Perspective is important. I write. Sometimes I have bad days. Then I think about my sister the nurse; if she has a bad day, somebody could die. And my old college pal who's a CIA intelligence analyst; if he has a bad day, thousands could die. My bad day, nobody suffers but me. I sit and type. It ain't coal mining. In the big scheme my problems are small, and I'm lucky and grateful.

mikeinseattle said...

Ken, if this is a subject you want to delve into more deeply, Dennis Palumbo comes to mind as a potential guest blogger. He's both a writer (My Favorite Year) and psychotherapist, former partner of Mark Evanier. I don't know Dennis personally, but I like his writing, especially his book Writing from the Inside Out.

Shan said...

Ken, great post.
Can I also say good on you to the writer who posted the question.
Your self-awareness is half the battle.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Woof. That's tough stuff.

Very kind of you to make contact with the writer. You're super.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...and even a crummy part-time job or two in Hawaii for awhile beats most full time stateside gigs...

worked for me. :)


BP said...

This blog really meant a lot to me, Ken. I'm an aspiring comedy writer - currently working as a script coord on a show that shall remain nameless but working around crazy hours, having zero control over my life and the chaos involved have literally made me sick. And instead of any understanding from my bosses, I get either ignored, shut out or the "you're not a team player" because I'm not willing to do this 24 hours a day for 11 months a year. Last night I became very depressed and thought maybe I'm just not good enough to be in comedy if I'm not willing to give my life up for it. Reading this on this day has made me see that that's insane to think that way and my life/health isn't worth losing over some stupid TV show. Now I just have to find a sane person to work for. You're awesome, Ken. Keep doing what you're doing. And to anonymous - my heart goes out to you. Just know you are not alone.

MikeBo said...

ForGreat post, Ken. It will probably save some lives.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Years ago legendary director Alfred Hitchcock was dealing with a "diva" actress. Lots of questions about her character and her motivation, etc. etc. etc. A pain in the ass.
Hitch looked and her and said, in his unique way, "My dear, it's on a movie."
That seems to say it all ...

Mr. Hollywood said...

Pardon me...Hitch said "It's ONLY a movie"!

Laconic said...

Great work Ken, I'm sure you just helped countless more people than you will ever know.

On a personal note I find that it's not necessary to leave "the business" entirely to reduce the stress.

Find another outlet unrelated to your work, perhaps making things by hand, using tools involves a whole other area of the brain. Any hobby that requires time, dedication and concentration works. You might start a whole new revenue stream and experience unexpected success and satisfaction, It happens.

If you volunteer to help others you invariably help yourself. There are countless great organizations that need volunteer. Don't be put off by lack of experience. Most hospitals except and desperately need unskilled help.

One more thing, it sounds counter-productive but isn't, if you join a group, organization or class to assist others entering your field, you may rekindle the enthusiasm and excitement that drew you in originally.

My Friday Question is, Ken, why don't you write about YOUR experiences and volenteer work helping others enter the business. I am not referring to the excellent writing class's you occasionally run, more the Thursday nights you give up now and then.

(say hi to MOC T.T. :- )

Laconic said...

obviously my other job is not proofreading :-)

Steve McLean said...

Had the opportunity to work at TV Guide back in the 80's when it was still a publishing powerhouse. During training, our instructor said, "Millions of people will see the result of your work every week. And every Friday millions of people will throw it in the trash."

The Editor said...

Awesome article. As a writers' assistant who has never broken through I can relate to a lot of these feelings and often question if I should continue putting myself through this. Your words really helped me get my head straight!

Portland Corey said...

This has always worked for me. Maybe it will work for "Anonymous". My mantra came from Bill Murray in "Meatballs". He was trying to give a pep-talk to the kids he was coaching (the prenial loosing team)and he closed with:



Bill Taub said...

The fact that anonymous is reaching out is the best sign of all. A long time ago I was taught the way I looked at life was my choice. I could choose to look at it bleakly or brightly. And was given what we dubbed the '30 second drill'. I had 30 seconds to spout off all the things that were shit about my life or situation, a job, a relationship, whatever. Then I had 30 seconds to expound on the good things in my life. I was healthy. I had good friends. I was financially doing okay. I was living in L.A. I could sleep late. Whatever...Then it was my choice -- which side would I focus on???...I recommend the 30 second drill to anyone in a time of crisis -- and even when not...

Harold X said...

One former comedy writer teaches Russian Studies in college, another is now an author, still a third runs a bed & breakfast in Vermont.

The third one suddenly woke up next to his first wife, and discovered that it had all been a dream.

(the captchas, particularly the numbers, and harder and harder to read. And as for the audio -- forget it!)

Justin Murphy said...

Writing four hours a day got to be too much for me after 7-8 years of writing professionally, 12 years overall.

I took a week long vacation from writing, and a week later started writing in a notebook an hour a day. Just freewriting without a pre-conceived notion for a story to be published or produced...I just wrote!

Continuing this method, I started writing a day session and a night session the following week. The next week I started revising these stories on my word processor, two day sessions and one night session.

And this week, I'm concluding a practice of going back to four hours a day before going on another week long vacation and starting over.

Of course there were countless times I was depressed and angry as hell over my writing before this...

...and speaking of writing, I need to get back to it...

Carmen Finestra said...

In Alan Kirschenbaum's case, things seemed to be going well. He was happily married, loved his daughter, and had just sold a show. He was a good and kind man. Don't be fooled that failure will lead to something tragic. Depression can strike those who seem outwardly happy, or have things going their way. Mental illness can strike any of us. Alan had good friends, and for one moment apparently fell through a crack. He had the kind of career most people would love to have, and was financially successful.

While all the advice you gave, Ken, was excellent, we should all remember how difficult mental health problems can be, and that we should try to be aware of what we're feeling and going through, and never be afraid to share those feelings.

Unknown said...

I think this scene from the movie Fame says it all .... Miss Berg drops freshman Lisa Monroe from the dance program. After hearing the bad news, Lisa goes to the subway station. Some of her classmates are also there, but they initially pay little attention to her. The subway races around the corner, and it looks like Lisa is going to commit suicide by jumping in front of the train. Her classmates run to save her, and then the subway blocks the camera’s view. When the train passes, we see that instead of jumping, Lisa has dropped her bags of clothing on the tracks. She shouts, “F—- it, if I can’t dance, I’ll change to the drama department.”

Mel Ryane said...

Excellent post!

ChicagoJohn said...

There are two things of comedy that aren't talked about enough:

1) Almost every person I've met who has embraced comedy has come from some circumstance where comedy was their outlet. Maybe it was a bad situation, a broken home. Maybe they were just socially awkward as a person. Comedy rescued them.
And anytime that someone - or something - rescues you? You feel let down when its not there for you.

Its the downside of comedy.
Which leads me to #2

2) I hate to get all Ying and Yang, but every high means that a low is going to accompany it.

I never understood why rock stars are so lonely after a show until I started doing improv.
I get up on stage with a bunch of very funny people and make an audience laugh. Afterwards, they tell me how great/ funny/ original I am. I go out with the rest of the cast, and we have a blast.

And then you go home. And its quiet. And no one is laughing.
Its not that anything is wrong... its just that it wasn't as great as it was 20 minutes ago, or 2 hours ago. The absence of all of that happiness makes it feel as though something is wrong, and if you're not prepared, you'll get hit with this wave of emotion.

Comedy is about dramatic highs of happiness. If you're not grounded, walking away from it for even a few hours can leave you feeling empty.

Norm said...

I spent the bulk of my "career" in the industry working as an Ex. Asst. to a number of high-level executives, mostly in Business & Legal Affairs.

Too many of them cared much more about the "sizzle" and totally forgot about the fact that the "steak" they were selling was hamburger.

In one particular instance, it got to the point where I said: Get me out of here before they carry me out of here."

In most cases, for economic reasons in particular, it is very difficult to walk away, but sometimes, you have to.

Brian Phillips said...

Thank you for a wonderful post. It can be applied to many situations.

Note to Portland Corey: Thanks for the memory, but the chant was, "It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!"

MJEH said...

A lot of good comments here. I am seriously considering moving to Los Angeles soon to be "in comedy" (stand-up/writing) and enjoyed all the advice and opinions.

Brian Yorkey said...

Ken, I've been a big fan of the blog (and the Mariners announcing!) for years, but I think this is the first time I had to leave a comment. Thanks for this post. Beautifully said, vitally important, and, much-much-needed. Thank you.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Roger Owen Green: last year at the film festival Roger Ebert ran ( in his home town, Champaign-Urbana, IL, Ebert decided to do an unusual thing for the final screening: he ran the movie CITIZEN KANE with his own DVD commentary rather than the movie's sound track. The Virginia Theater, where the festival is held, was about to shut down for refurbishment until this year's festival (which is the week after next), and he wanted to hear the sound of his voice in that theater for one last time. The commentary is, of course, knowledgeable and enlightening. After the screening, the DVD's producer went on stage to discuss the movie with a critic or three, while Ebert remained in the back in the special chair that was built to accommodate his painful back.

Ebert sent a note up to the stage with a request that it be read out. Partway through the movie, he had heard someone demanding their money back in the lobby. "There's this guy that just won't stop talking," the dissatisfied patron complained.


Jeffro said...

Ken said, "A lawyer I knew said 'Fuck it' and opened a crepe restaurant."

That reminded me of a memorable quote from this 1980s movie classic (

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Laurie Gelman said...

When I was in film school, taking a course on writer's block, one of the books on the required reading list was, "Compassion and Self-Hate" by psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin. I can't tell you how many staff jobs this one got me through.

Mark said...

Best post yet!

Thank you Ken.

Flaccido Domingo said...

I wouldn't recommend this for everyone, but my breakthrough came when I realized I hate nearly everyone else more that I hate myself.

Then my motive for living became clear: survival out of spite for the rest of the world.

lalalala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

Writing for a living, especially in Hollywood, seems like such a brutal and unforgiving profession. I remember listening to Dan Harmon talk about how he literally didn't leave his apartment for weeks after his show wasn't picked up... His depression ran so deep that he didn't even leave when he ran out of toilet roll.

I don't know how you're supposed to balance putting your heart and soul into something, while also maintaining the emotional distance that the business seems to require. Ken's attitude seems exactly right, though, and he's someone who appears to have been both successful AND happy in Hollywood.

I don't know if this is your experience or not, but I can partially relate to spending years working and working, sacrificing the other things in your life, with only your dream keeping you going: And then, against all odds, your dream finally becomes reality... Except now you're more miserable than you were before.

If you're anything like me, you may feel broken-hearted by the fact that your dreams have hurt you. And while you're feeling that, you can't even dream any more; You instinctively think all dreams will end up with hurt, so your brain shuts off that avenue.

No matter how bad you feel, you will feel better again, some day. And believe it or not, that hurt will eventually fade, opening the door for dreams again. Perhaps ones that will actually leave you feeling contented and happy.

I know it's cliched, but don't be afraid of making big changes. Your happiness is not tied to your status or how much money you have in the bank. I'm sure you know that, though.

Also don't be afraid of medication and professional help. They can work wonders for depression! (They have done for me.)

I hope you find some respite soon, and take Ken up on his offer.

Novak Jim said...

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