Full disclosure: Dylan Brody is a personal friend. He is also a very nice and funny man who has done anything and everything in the comedy world. Dylan recently sat down with me for an in-depth discussion of his career, his artistic principles, and the “entertainment industry.”
America’s Comedy: When did you start doing stand-up professionally?
Dylan Brody: I started when I was 17, which was in the summer of 1981, doing open mics in New York. I got on at the Improv as a developing regular in New York. I did stand-up in England when I studied at the Royal Academy of the Performing Arts.
AC: What was the stand-up scene like in those days?
DB: I started right before the real comedy boom, which took off in about 1985. The myth at this time was that if you got into a good club you could have a career as a comic. Then Punchline came out and totally reinforced that myth. It confused a lot of people into thinking that stand-up was very easy.
At the same time stand-up was becoming a vehicle for television in a way it hadn’t been before. So stand-up was not considered easy to do, but a stepping stone to fame and fortune. This led to comedy becoming very generic. Everyone wanted to be Jerry Seinfeld.
AC: So you are not a fan of Jerry Seinfeld?
DB: I think that as an entertainer, Jerry Seinfeld is one of the best we’ve ever had. However as an artist, he has very little to say, and I am a big fan of comedy as an art. I don’t think he is evil in a way that some merely for-profit comics are. I don’t think of him as a sellout or a bad guy.
I just don’t look at what he does and think ‘that’s what I aspire to,’ even though I understand how some people look at his success and aspire to emulate that. I aspire to a raising of consciousness through laughter and humor and things that appeal to me as an artist.
AC: You have said that your honor as an artist has cost you career opportunities. Could you expand on that?
DB: Let me give you an example. When Jay Leno was substituting for Johnny Carson, before he got the Tonight Show, I used to sell him jokes through his company, Big Dog Productions, which was supposed to be my in for a full-time job if he got the full show.
Now I’m a left-leaning guy, probably further to the left that most people. They wanted me to write balanced jokes, some bashing the left and some bashing the right. I wasn’t comfortable with this so I said that maybe I would write my jokes and another writer could do the left bashing jokes to find the balance. But they weren’t interested and said I should not submit (jokes) any more.
AC: Isn’t writing for the Tonight Show a dream job for most comedy writers?
DB: Yes. But I was stoned enough at the time to be self-righteous without caring about how it might affect my career.
AC: Do you have any regrets about that? In retrospect would you have made the same decision?
DB: I still feel good about the decision. I’m not sure I am strong enough today to make that decision again if I had the same opportunity.
AC: Are you a Jay Leno fan?
DB: I was a fan of Jay Leno as a comedian. When he was out there working his material and finding his voice, he was one of the best. But when he got the actual Tonight Show slot, it was as if he made a decision to never have an opinion on anything ever again. I would rather he take a position on something I disagree with than to remain ardently neutral.
To me that is the antithesis of viable and fun comedy. The fun of comedy is the risk involved.
AC: Did Jay screw Conan?
DB: No. No, no, no. I’ve said this before. People come to L.A. thinking that this is where people find success and an audience. That’s a myth. Los Angeles is the heart of the entertainment industry. Entertainment is a word people use when they don’t want to take responsibility for what is being said through their art.
Entertainment is the manufacture and sale of media content. Los Angeles isn’t looking for artists. It is looking for craftsmen who can keep manufacturing this stuff.
AC: So is it possible to be successful in the entertainment industry if you don’t sellout?
DB: I’ll have to let you know, personally. But I don’t think Steve Martin has ever sold out. I think he has always stayed true to who he is. Roseanne Barr has stayed true to who she is, even though she has taken some hits for it. Garry Shandling has stayed incredibly authentic to who he is and his voice.
So it is possible, but it’s very difficult. You have to understand that a very small percentage get uber-successful, even if they do sellout. The message that I would like to get out is that it is possible to be artistically successful without being what is considered financially successful. You must be willing to find success on your own terms rather than the terms that are thrust upon you in a culture of greed.
AC: How would you define your comedic legacy? Do you consider yourself underrated?
DB: (LAUGHS) Oh, I don’t know. I think people who love my work overrate me a little bit. I think people who don’t like my work underrate me vastly. I think people who have never heard of me have no way of rating me. I think I am very good at what I do as a storyteller now. I am very competitive.
Not as far as who makes more money but who gets more “oos and ahs” from the audience. It’s a weird sense of competition. I get more work than many people I know. In the L.A. comedy world I feel respected, which pleases me to no end. I don’t think anyone thinks I have soldout, which pleases me to some degree.
AC: What is the The Modern Depression Guidebook?
DB: The Modern Depression Guidebook is the opposite of a self-help book. It is meant for people who accept that depression is a part of life, and as my wife says in bed, “If you have to do something anyway, you might as well give it your best effort.” This book will help you fully achieve your lowest lows and your bluest blues.
AC: Obviously you have suffered from depression. Are all artists emotionally damaged or is that just a stereotype?
DB: Here’s my thing. To pursue any career in the creative arts requires a certain amount of observation and introspection. It is an intellectual pursuit.
The creating of something from nothing but thought. So if you are in that space, there is a tendency to find one’s way into depression. When you think like that you realize and are troubled by the discord between reality and pretense, between culture and nature.There is a huge cognitive dissonance that goes unnoticed when one is not thinking.
Now I do think it is possible to be creative yet not tormented. Much of my therapy has focused on the fact that the creative process is inherently anxiety producing. So when your creation comes from your own thoughts and you do not feel fully supported, it feels like a personal attack.
So until it is fully internalized that success is from the creative process rather than the exchange of money for the creation, the very act of surviving in capitalism can lead to constant negative input and that can certainly lead to depression. So it is not necessary to the creative process, but it can be a natural result.
AC: Last question. What is Thinking Allowed?
DB: It’s a show I do every month at the Fake Gallery. The point of the show is that I believe there is a place for people to laugh who are pleased to be smarter than a fifth grader. This is not the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. This is spoken-word storytelling, poetry, generally with a humorous bent, although that is not a requirement. And the audience seems to really appreciate it.
You can find Dylan Brody on the web at DylanBrody.com and follow Dylan on Twitter @DylanBrody. The Modern Depression Guidebook is for sale at Amazon.com. Dylan Brody hosts Thinking Allowed at the Fake Gallery on Melrose every month. Check out his website for dates. You can also visit Dylan Brody’s Neighbor’s Couch for the full, unedited audio of this interview.
About the Author: Darren Staley is the host of Atari-winning podcast Dylan Brody's Neighbor's Couch, based out of North Carolina or Los Angeles. He is known in comedy circles as "Who?" or "Oh, That Guy." Darren's two biggest fears are spiders and Paul Provenza.