Sunday, April 7, 2013

By Ken Levine: 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.


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