Paul Gilmartin on The Mental Illness Happy Hour and getting vulnerable
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Comedians give audiences thousands of trails into madness and neuroses. Publicly mapping a way out might be self-defeating for someone with a long-running stand-up career, and Paul Gilmartin’s way isn’t Marc Maron’s firestorm of old wounds and eventual atonement. When he began his podcast, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, last year, Gilmartin set a tone of calm and vulnerability, interviewing fellow comedians (including a few, who, like him, lost their jobs hosting TBS’ canceled Dinner And A Movie) and support-group friends about depression, childhood sexual abuse, addiction, and all the other “battles in our heads.” It could easily have become a self-indulgent morass of sordid details and drawn-out wallowing; but it turns out that Gilmartin is a patient and empathetic interviewer who spins the episodes toward how things can improve. His stated goal, in fact, is to get listeners to seek help and therapy. It probably also helps that Gilmartin’s mild-mannered style doesn’t scream “trouble.” Shortly after releasing The Mental Illness Happy Hour’s 65th episode, Gilmartin spoke with The A.V. Club about keeping the podcast focused, and how working on it has drawn him away from stand-up.
The A.V. Club: How did you decide that discussing mental-health problems was a need you could address through a podcast?
Paul Gilmartin: I could look at someone like Jimmy Pardo and Never Not Funny and say, “Well, what is the point of me doing a comedy podcast? Because it’s never going to be better than his comedy podcast.” So I didn’t want to do that. And then I happened to go off my meds, which a lot of people who take meds will do every once in a while—they think they’re cured, so they go off ’em—and my depression just went off a cliff. Just awful, awful. Intellectually I knew, “Oh, this is my depression speaking to me, this darkness, not wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to be alive. I need to go back on my meds.” Then I thought to myself, “I remember what it was like before I knew that was the darkness talking to me, when I thought that was reality.” I thought, “That is what I should do a podcast on,” interviewing people who have learned to identify the voice of darkness in their lives and separate it from reality, and talk about how we deal with darkness… Whatever battle somebody’s having, I thought it would be fun to have a show that deals with that as openly and as honestly as I’ve experienced it being dealt with in support group. I thought, “Let’s bring that rawness and that honesty into a podcast,” because I knew the podcast medium was inherently intimate. What I’ve always disliked about comedy clubs is that you can’t really get vulnerable in a comedy club, because people are drunk; but in a podcast, you can.
AVC: So in your own mind, how did you focus the idea?
PG: I wasn’t sure. I thought, “I’ll just start interviewing friends of mine that I’ve had these conversations with when the mic’s not on, and we’ll just have them again with the mic turned on, and I’ll begin to find where it is.” One of the things I knew from doing stand-up is, you can never figure out exactly what something is, or very rarely figure out what it is, before you start doing it. It usually is just a process of it emerging. And so if you listen to the first maybe five or six podcasts, I say quite frequently, “I still don’t know what the tone of this thing is, I am kind of feeling it out as I go, so bear with me.” I try to keep that open-mindedness about it even today, because I do want it to be able to stay fresh down the road.
AVC: You recently said that reading a long book about depression wouldn’t be good for a depressed person. How do you ensure that a long podcast about depression avoids that same pitfall?
PG: The difference with doing this is the connection, the interchange between myself and another person is enlivening, whereas sitting and thinking about my depression will often do just the opposite. That’s one of the messages I hope to get across in this podcast, is that the solutions to what we’re going through almost always can be found through connecting to somebody else who is appropriate, and connecting to them in an appropriate way. Not sitting in our La-Z-Boy trying to think about it and come up with some type of epiphany. I tried to do that for years, and it almost killed me.
AVC: What mistakes did you make when you first started the podcast?
PG: I would say interrupting people. I wanted to finish people’s thoughts. I was so excited in the first 20 episodes, because I had this life experience where I was absolutely convinced I was going to kill myself. I was so unhappy and life was so flat. I couldn’t feel any joy in my life, and I was convinced that was reality, and I was ready to kill myself. Well, when you begin to work through those issues and find out, “Oh, this is depression, this is addiction, this is cycles of negative thinking, this is the darkness talking to you,” when you begin to see those truths and dispel those myths, you can’t wait to share that with somebody else. So the first 20 episodes, I was trying to cram in everything I’d learned, as if I was never going to have another chance to do another podcast. I’m not a very patient person. So it was just me trying to jam everything that I’ve learned too quickly. I would cut people off, I would try to finish their thoughts, and sometimes I would put words in their mouths. Having the survey on the website where I get people’s feedback, and having an email address that people can email me at, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and a consistent note that I got was, “Let people finish their thoughts.”
AVC: Each guest seems to have different boundaries to what they’ll talk about and how much humor they’ll go along with. How do you gauge that for each one?
PG: I don’t really know if I have an answer for that. I just kind of go on my instinct, and sometimes I make a terrible mistake. There was an episode with Tyler Smith, I think he was one of the first half-dozen episodes I did, and he is not somebody that I knew very well, and he was talking about his relationship with his mom, and I made an incest joke, and it was uncomfortable. He and I joke about it now, but that was the first moment that I began to notice that sometimes I would cross this line, and I would bring the show to a screeching halt. The listeners actually came to enjoy those moments when I would kind of screw up and call attention to that and laugh about it. I think that speaks to the point that what people love about a podcast is its warts, its imperfections, its humanity. Anybody that listens to radio knows it’s a dinosaur because it’s been combed through by the corporate guys who are so afraid of offending anybody. Well, people are dying to be offended, or at least hear something that might offend somebody, or might be over somebody’s boundaries. We want something out of our comfort zone. We’re tired of our comfort zone. Our comfort zone, in many ways, is killing us and making our lives feel small and unexciting.
AVC: Have you been surprised that people have been willing to talk so openly about things like depression, sexual abuse, and suicide attempts without a lot of teeth-pulling?
PG: I wasn’t surprised with people I knew from support groups, because I’d had those conversations with them before. But I was surprised by people, especially people that I had never met, just other comedians. That has been really cool. The thing that that kind of confirms in me is, everybody has, most people I should say, have a really deep-seated need to be heard and understood. They just need a safe venue to express that. That’s hopefully what my show provides, a venue where people can feel safe. That’s why I don’t bring up politics, that’s why I try to avoid any issues that are divisive. It’s why I don’t let people rag on somebody that isn’t intimately involved in their life. Sometimes I’ll even, like if somebody starts ragging on a sibling, I’ll cut it out, because I feel like a sibling didn’t get to decide whether or not they were going to be your sibling, but your parents got to choose whether or not they were going to be your parents. I feel like parents are fair game, but I try to have a good vibe about making sure it doesn’t become a shitting-on-people-that-can’t-defend-themselves podcast.
AVC: Does it help that you don’t immediately come off as a particularly troubled guy?
PG: I never really thought about that. I guess it’s good because you need the dark to make the light work and you need the light to make the dark work. If I didn’t have any kind of recovery or experience of having moments out of the darkness, it would have a certain hopelessness to it that I think wouldn’t be as effective. But because I have had long stretches of feeling really good and recovered and at peace and whole, then the yin and the yang are kind of there, and I think maybe that’s what gives it some balance. If I had it totally together, I also think it would be a little boring. What I thought was lacking in the self-help genre—I cringe even using the word, because it’s got so many connotations to it—it was all either New Age-y and precious, people talking about releasing their buttocks into Mother Earth, you know, all that other shit that makes me cringe, or it was kind of somebody speaking from the mountaintop that had learned it all in a textbook like Dr. Phil, and neither of those could I relate to. But I could relate to people in my support groups, who were just like me, so I thought, “Why don’t I bring that dynamic to talking about mental illness or just battles in our heads?”
AVC: Where do you draw the line between an episode that you don’t find interesting enough to put out and an episode with a subject like Doug Benson, who talked about pretty mild problems?
PG: I think of them as palate-cleansers for the show. If every show was super-dark and super-heavy, I don’t think it would be as effective as occasionally having a guest who has a healthy relationship with their parents, who didn’t grow up in a completely chaotic environment, and anywhere in between on that continuum. Bald Bryan [Bishop], his episode I thought was really important, because here’s a guy who’s been thrown an incredible curveball, he’s living with an inoperable tumor, and he has this beautifully positive outlook on life, and you can see that it was instilled in him as a kid, because he grew up in a nurturing, healthy environment where he was close to his family members. I think that’s as important of an episode to have as the one where somebody was completely abused and abandoned. What determines what episode I put up every week, I think of it in terms of the listener who listens to every episode. That’s who I gear the show toward.
AVC: There’s an opposite end of the spectrum, with the Mike Carano episode or the Vietnam veteran Bobby T episode, where guests are more in the throes of whatever it is they’re dealing with. Is it a challenge for you that they’re still figuring out how to articulate their problems?
PG: It is because I want to make sure that I’m not exploiting them, and that’s a really fine line. That was one of the reasons I hesitated to have Bobby T on, is I got the sense that he was still processing this stuff, and I didn’t want to interfere with that. Ultimately, he asked me to take the episode down, but I was still glad that I put it up, and I think he was glad that it was up while it was.
AVC: Carano even told you that he had speakers going in his apartment, right then, to screw with his neighbor. Did that throw you at all?
PG: It did, a little bit, because he’s in the middle of a lot of emotionally intense feelings, and he’s feeling emotionally overwhelmed. For a second I was like, I hope I’m not interfering with this guy’s process, but ultimately what that episode was about was encouraging him to get help and to share my experience with him and how much I failed trying to deal with my issues on my own. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Dr. Drew has been begging him to go get help. It didn’t feel exploitative to me, but it came pretty close.
AVC: How do you feel about trying to involve more experts in the show, now that you’ve had a psychotherapist, Dr. Jessica Zucker, on for a couple of episodes?
PG: I haven’t figured out what the frequency would be, and I would like to have other experts on, but yeah, I’m still finding that. What I do know is, in my opinion, there are enough expert-only venues out there for dealing with this stuff, and there’s not enough for somebody who has lived it, and is still living it. I wouldn’t have a therapist on who hadn’t listened to the show and wasn’t familiar with the tone of it, because they could be very off-put by me cracking a joke in the middle of, you know, talking about sexual trauma. The one thing I’ve learned from my support groups is, laughter about really dark shit is one of the most healing things you can experience, and much like when somebody has cancer, you think, “I can’t crack any jokes when I’m around this person because this disease is serious.” No, quite the opposite, because this person is longing for some type of humor… Nobody understands that line of when you can crack a joke about something tragic like somebody who has experienced that same tragedy. Friends of mine who have been sexualized by a parent or had a parent attempt suicide or all this stuff that I’ve been through, we crack some really dark jokes around each other, and it feels great, because it’s really cathartic, and that’s the other thing that I feel like a Dr. Phil could never do, because he hasn’t lived it. He hasn’t earned the right to crack those jokes, in my opinion.
AVC: How has your unemployment, which you discuss sometimes, affected how you approach Mental Illness Happy Hour?
PG: Well, it’s probably affecting my mood more than I think. I know that if I didn’t have this podcast, I would probably be, maybe not freaking out, but I would be very agitated and I would be very anxious, and my self-esteem would probably be much, much lower than it gets. But there is a feeling that I get doing this podcast that makes me feel like everything is okay, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that this is where I’m supposed to be. And I’ve learned, being in therapy, being in support groups and all that other stuff, I’ve realized when I am at my most centered and comfortable is when I’m feeling, when I’m not questioning where I am at that very moment. To me, life is about stringing as many of those moments together as possible. I’ve been in recovery now long enough to know that you don’t stay in that place, ever. It’s a constant sliding back into anxiety, self-doubt, maybe trouble getting out of bed, and then I do use some of the tools that I’ve learned and I get back to that place where I’m connecting to people, I’m not obsessing about the future, I’m okay exactly as I am in this very moment. That, to me, is what the podcast gives me. Every single time I’m interviewing somebody, I’m in that place where I’m completely present, and I don’t care that I’m unemployed, and I don’t care that I have almost no money coming in. I just feel in sync with the universe. [Laughs.] I know that sounds New Age-y and all that other stuff, but that’s the truth.
AVC: How does working on the podcast compare to doing stand-up or having another regular gig?
PG: It’s about 1,000 times more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done. I love doing political satire. That’s probably the most creatively rewarding comedy that I’ve done. I do this satire on this Republican character. I started doing that in 2004. That actually came out of getting sober and having the confidence to take a risk creatively. That brought a lot of critical stuff my way, positive critical stuff, a lot of attention from the industry, stuff that I felt like I would never get. It just kind of confirmed in me that it’s important to follow my gut instead of acting out of fear. This podcast was the second thing that I did where I followed my gut instead of coming from a place of fear. Because if I’d come at this podcast from a place of “Well, is it going to be successful? Will I ever be able to support myself?” I would have never attempted this. But something in my gut told me that people would get something from this and that I would enjoy doing it, and so I just kind of winged it and tried it. So that feeling that I get, the creative reward that I get from doing this, even though it’s not making anything more than grocery money for me, it’s just really, really, really, really deep. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it’s life-changing.
AVC: How successful have you been at bringing in money for the podcast?
PG: I think about it. I try not to obsess about it, but I know that the financial landscape with podcasting is changing every day. Podcasts are only going to get bigger. I just hope that my show is one of those shows that will grow. I feel like if I could get, oh, maybe six or seven times the listeners that I have right now, I could probably do this full-time and make a living at it. I could be wrong. I’m starting to get some people who donate monthly. That’s bringing me a lot of satisfaction—I don’t know what the word would be. It’s making me feel really good. It’s making me feel like there’s a possibility that I could reach my dream of being able to do this full-time and support myself from it. I try not to think about what I will do if I can’t do that, because then I’ll be sitting and staring at the wall with my mouth open every day for three hours, and then I’m not of much use to anybody. I guess I’ve just got to trust the process, but I think it’ll happen.
AVC: And that’s going to require you to be more entrepreneurial, right?
PG: Yeah, and I hate it.
AVC: What’s the toughest aspect of that for you?
PG: Asking people to donate. Having to think about a guest bringing me new listeners, as opposed to whether or not a guest is helpful to listeners. I don’t like having to make that trade-off, but that’s one of the realities; I need to grow the show. I would never have somebody on who was a totally inappropriate guest just because they’re huge. But there are compromises made where I will air somebody who’s well-known over somebody who isn’t just because I feel like the show needs a bump that week. One of the things I also think about is forming a non-profit corporation and then soliciting corporations to donate to the podcast, and then I could just do the episodes based on what is the most helpful to listeners and not care about how famous somebody is. That would be nice, but by the same token, if the show didn’t grow as much, not as many people would hear it. I guess it’s a constant trade-off, but I guess I’m kind of riding that line as best I can, growing it while trying to keep it as helpful as possible. And interesting. There are people that listen to the show that don’t necessarily need it. They’re just entertained by it. They’re fascinated by it. Or they lived with somebody and it helps them understand that person more. I had a guy who emailed me who had gotten a divorce and his ex-wife killed herself, and he was wracked with guilt. It happened, like, six months ago. He emailed me and said, “Thank you, I now understand what she was going through, and I won’t agonize about what happened. I know that it wasn’t my fault.” The feeling I get, as sad as I am that that woman killed herself and that that guy went through that, the feeling I get that I helped bring somebody a little bit of comfort, is so much better than the feeling I got where my Comedy Central half-hours aired, or I did the Aspen Comedy Festival with my political character.
AVC: But because you make yourself accessible, does that open you up to people trying to get too much out of you personally?
PG: Yes. I’m learning to detach when I need to. I engage when I need to, and I detach when I need to. Each one is based on what I need, what my relationship with my wife needs, what my relationships with my friends need, what the podcast needs, and then what the person emailing me needs. If I am just about serving every single email that I get, I would probably end up in a psych ward within six months. I get some really intense, super-long-winded emails from people, and I can’t respond to each and every one of them, because some of them are looking for an intimacy with me that would not be healthy for either of us. I have to use my judgment and sense, “Is it okay to respond to this person? Is it not? Or do I just not have time?” Sometimes I just don’t have time. But all that being said, I deeply, deeply enjoy getting the emails and the feedback from people, and corresponding when I can with them. But I am worried, one of these days, that I’m going to make a mistake and something ugly is going to happen. But I can’t live in that place. I feel like my role is to convince people to open up to other people, to consider therapy, to consider support groups, and if necessary, to consider medication, and to stop trying to do it themselves, and to know that they’re not alone. I’m unafraid to do that with anybody, because I know you can’t go wrong with that kind of advice. You just can’t. Sometimes people will send me an email, “What should I tell my brother? My sister-in-law says this and that,” and I’ll usually email them back and say, “I’m not an expert. This is a complicated issue. This goes over my head. But I encourage you to open up to those that are close to you and seek their advice, or go to therapy or something else.” Every once in a while it’ll be something that I feel I can give advice on, but I have to be really, really careful to not begin thinking that I am a qualified therapist.
AVC: Does the podcast tempt you to have more dark and personal material in your stand-up?
PG: No, it really doesn’t. In fact, if anything, it’s taken away my desire to do stand-up comedy. The things I’ve talked about on the show are what I’ve always wanted to talk about in my stand-up comedy and I never could do it in a way that got laughs in a way I was comfortable with. I suppose I could have sucked it up and gotten comfortable with the silence, but I’m too insecure of a person to be one of those people that can do what Richard Pryor did.
AVC: Greg Behrendt has been saying something similar on Walking The Room—he’s less interested in regular stand-up and more interested in what he can do with the podcast and live versions of it.
PG: It’s exactly what I feel. My dream is to do live versions of the show. I don’t know what that would look like, but that is a burning desire of mine, to maybe begin to do speaking engagements, maybe to go to colleges and talk to kids about mental health, talk about how it’s okay to feel fucked-up inside, that it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s okay to have to go to therapy, that it’s okay to have mental illness… That’s my dream, but I’m really afraid to do it. I’m afraid I’m going to fail at it. I’m afraid it’s not going to be good enough. I’m afraid it’s going to be overwhelming. I have a hundred different fears about it. But hey, it gives me something to talk about on the podcast, I guess.
AVC: Have you found much of a link between politics and mental health? Your Republican Congressman character, Richard Martin, says some pretty twisted, manipulative things, like asking liberals if they want him to build offshore platforms for hoboes.
PG: Richard Martin, when I perform as that character, it’s basically me saying the opposite of everything that I believe… There are things that I feel about some liberals, some criticisms I have, some things they do that annoy me… For the most part, it’s just my id run loose, which to me makes for great comedy. The id is certainly the funniest part of the brain.
AVC: Are you going to try and do more with that character, since this is an election year?
PG: Well, I was supposed to do a bunch of stuff with Funny Or Die, and we taped stuff and we talked about some stuff, and then it’s kind of fallen by the wayside. I’m not good at saying, “Hey, hey, let’s pick this back up.” I’ve made a couple of phone calls. I don’t know if they’re unhappy with what was shot, or they’re just too busy. So, yeah, there is a desire to do more stuff with that, but I’ve been uninterested in jumping through the hoops and doing the pushing and the elbowing necessary to get it to the next level. I’ve had, over the course of the eight years I’ve been doing the character, a bunch of meetings with people, getting ready to sign a deal, and at the last minute, they always step forward, and they say, “Oh, we want to own the character outright.” Even though I would say, up-front, I would say, “Please don’t waste my time. I’m not going to give up the rights to this character. I worked very hard to create it.”
AVC: Your tagline for the podcast is “You give us an hour, we’ll give you a hot ladle of awkward and icky,” but that’s not actually the tone you strike in the interviews. Do you feel you have to be a little flippant at first to draw people in?
PG: Maybe I’m afraid that some of the stuff we talk about on the show makes people so uncomfortable that they’re just going to immediately turn it off. But when I get anxious, my default is to put myself down. I think calling the show awkward and icky is my way of making fun of me, or giving people the chance to make fun of me.
AVC: What do you plan to do in the future with the reader mental-health surveys you have on the site and read on the show? Are they popular?
PG: The one about babysitters and boys has been taken by 85 people. The one about shame and secrets has been taken by over 2,000 people, and the basic survey has been taken by almost 4,000 people. I might take that one down soon since it’s already answered a lot of the percentages questions I had. The first two interest me more because they ask a lot of open-ended questions that get answered essay-style, and that’s where I find the most interesting stuff.
AVC: You’ve recently been recruiting volunteers to help transcribe episodes of the show. Is that part of embracing vulnerability for you?
PG: Absolutely. I was feeling overwhelmed by what needed to be done, and it dawned on me I should ask for help. I tell people to do it, maybe I should try it. The response has been really gratifying. But I was afraid at first because I didn’t want to appear needy, or selfish, but then I remembered how good I feel when I help someone else, so I started asking. I’ve currently got about eight people working on transcribing and three or four culling audio clips for future montages or themed shows.
AVC: Who are some upcoming guests you’re excited about?
PG: I recorded with a woman [recently] named Nadareh who has a harrowing story about living in Iran during the 1979 revolution and running from the newly elected fundamentalists who saw her Marxist party as a threat. She fled underground while six months pregnant, and most of the members of her group were caught and executed, including her husband. She sought asylum here but had survivor’s guilt and many other battles. She is a listener who found the podcast two months ago when she was despondent and Googled “mental illness” and “happy.”