My World of Flops Positive Energy Yes! Case File #114/My Year of Flops #11 Brody Stevens: Enjoy It!
When cult comedian Brody Stevens committed suicide last month at 48 I was saddened but not surprised or shocked. I knew and enjoyed Stevens from his podcast and TV appearances and general being, but I was not terribly familiar with his work. I was familiar enough with it, however, to know that Stevens wrestled with overwhelming, soul-consuming, unrelenting despair in his art and in his life.
Stevens was all about “positive energy” because it seemed to be the only thing that could keep the raging darkness within from devouring him whole. Stevens rejected his diagnosis of Bipolar even if it seemed to define the rhythms and cadences of his stand-up, which alternated between agitated yelling, baseball-announcer style mock boisterousness and a depressive, self-loathing softness. Stevens was ecstatic and angry, enraged and overcome with joy, Mr. Positive Energy and a Demon of Dark, Angry Rage.
I wanted to know more about Stevens so I decided that I’d watch his 2013-2014 reality show/documentary series/mockumentary Brody Stevens: Enjoy It!, which deals with Stevens trying to rebuild his career and life after a manic episode that landed him in a mental hospital, complicating, if not destroying, many of his most important personal and professional relationships in the process.
Enjoy It is a fascinating and sometimes excruciating psychodrama to watch in light of Stevens’ suicide. But it must have been a tough watch at the time of its release as well. Enjoy It ends with a joke about it being Comedy Central’s first drama that’s ultimately not too far from the truth.
It feels like they set out to make a cute realityish show about a lovable eccentric who just so happened to be a good pal of executive producer, co-creator, costar and guardian angel Zach Galifianakis, who showed up all the time to see what kind of wacky adventures his good buddy Brody Stevens was up to. What they ended up with, however, was a sometimes funny but often punishingly intense, frequently brutal exploration of Bipolar disorder, suicidal depression and agonizing loneliness.
The riveting drama of Enjoy It! is not professional. It’s not whether Brody Stevens will land a role in The Hangover 3 or get cast as the wacky neighbor in a successful sitcom. It’s whether a profoundly troubled, genuinely brilliant man will win his life-or-death battle with mental illness. Enjoy It! goes out of its way to end on a relatively up note, lest it be unbearably bleak, but the most hopeful answer it can come up with to the question of whether Stevens and his friends will be able to keep him embracing oblivion is a cautiously optimistic, “Maybe?”
Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! opens with loving testimonials to its subject’s genius and originality that also uniformly express concern for his mental health, well-being and personal safety. To love Brody Stevens was to worry about him. Galifianakis did much of that worrying, but widespread and intense concern for Stevens was a burden shared by much of the comedy elite, including people like Sarah Silverman, who recounts Stevens having a manic episode at one of her parties that scared even comedy lifers, for whom eccentricity, mental illness and drug use are the norm.
It’s unusual for a reality show to seem so scared of its subject. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it’s rare for a reality show be so scared for its subject. Why shouldn’t it be? Almost immediately, Enjoy It! plunges audiences into the deep end of Stevens spending seventeen days in a mental hospital after a two day manic episode, conducted largely on and through Twitter, resulted in Stevens’ friend and benefactor Galifianakis calling the authorities and Stevens being institutionalized and being diagnosed as Bipolar.
That’s some heavy shit that costs a long, dark shadow over everything in Enjoy It! The show becomes the story of Stevens’ life post-breakdown and post-manic episode. In reality show fashion, the writers and producers come up with all manner of cutesy/funny/dramatic/contrived things for Stevens to do.
In one episode, Stevens apologizes to, and try to reconcile with Chelsea Handler after blowing up and angrily quitting Chelsea Lately, where Stevens was a long time warmup comic, in a rage. In another, Stevens apologizes and tries to reconcile with Teina Manu, a Samoan ex-partner he’d previously bombarded with racial slurs during a manic episode and promised a writing job, presumably on Enjoy It! without delivering.
In still another episode, Stevens apologizes to, and attempts to reconcile with, the entire Los Angeles comedy scene, and the city of Los Angeles, and all of the people of Los Angeles after a manic episode that very publicly found him acting out of sickness and mania in ways that justifiably terrified the many people who loved him. It similarly led them to worry, justifiably, that the comedian’s fans and talent and friends and support system might not be enough to keep him from killing himself.
How do make a comedy show about a man whose friends and management are terrified might kill himself, based on unnerving firsthand experience? How do you get a mainstream, Comedy Central audience to laugh at a show about a man who explodes at the crew of Enjoy It! with such misplaced anger that it bleeds into the show itself and becomes part of the overall narrative of Stevens’ moods and rages and selfishness negatively affecting the people around him, even as his kindness and creativity enrich and enliven their lives?
Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! is about dealing with intense, life and career-destabilizing mental illness from inside and out. It’s about the massive toll bipolar disorder takes on Stevens’ life and career and psyche. Bur Enjoy It! is also acutely aware of the toll loving Stevens through his moods and his manias and his eruptions of uncontrollable, vitriolic, often ugly and extremely personal anger and rage takes on the people around him.
From a certain angle, Enjoy It is a deeply emotional exploration of Galifianakis’ heroic, kind and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save his friend from himself, his demons and a capacity for self-destruction on par with his creative genius and originality. Few artists embody the Gift and the Curse of Genius and Madness like Stevens did.
If Comedy Central ordered and aired twelve episodes of Brody Stevens talking about being institutionalized and going off his meds, and being confused about his sexuality after a visit to a trans bar in Thailand during the filming of The Hangover 2 in a wide variety of settings, many of them wildly inappropriate, like first dates, that’s probably because one of the biggest movie stars in the world was spending a whole lot of time in front of the camera driving Stevens places and showing him edits of Enjoy It! and generally serving as his loyal, understanding sidekick and comic foil.
Galifianakis’ love for his friend is palpable. Making Enjoy It! happen for Stevens was an act of devotion, of kindness that may have backfired dramatically by playing havoc with Stevens’ already fragile sense of reality and self at an unusually vulnerable and dramatic period in his emotional and professional development.
In one of the show’s most powerful moments, Stevens tells Galifianakis how hurt he was that even though Galifianakis drove him home from the mental hospital after his release, he did not stay with him through the night, or arrange for someone else to do so, so Stevens’ first night of freedom was lonely and miserable.
It’s Stevens and Galifianakis’ friendship in a nutshell: Galifianakis does everything in the world for his exhausting, demanding, mercurial friend but it can never be enough. Zach apologizes sincerely for not staying with Stevens that first night out. It’s a moment of incredible tenderness between two men who love each other. But is this something that should be filmed and shown to the public? Later Galifianakis confides that co-creating, executive producing and starring in a show for his desperate, success-obsessed friend has actually hurt their relationship by making it more of a business arrangement and less of a friendship.
Stevens’ act was big on catchphrases and bits, one of which involved rattling off his credits, most notably bit parts in three Zach Galifianakis movies—The Hangover, The Hangover 2 and Due Date—and Galifianakis himself. It might seem weird to list a human being as a credit but it’s also, in Stevens’ case, true. A lot of what Stevens accomplished in show business came from a dude who gets paid tens of millions of dollars a movie thinking he was a genius and wanting to share him with the world.
Stevens was unusually obsessed with his place in the pop culture hierarchy, which is one of the reasons social media was such a toxic presence in his life. So it must have hurt on some level that Galifianakis, someone he considered a peer, a kindred spirit and a fan, was a rich, powerful movie star who headlined blockbusters while he slept on an air mattress and lived in the kind of spare, depressing studio apartment people get post-college as a daily reminder of their lowly place in the world. It can’t be easy to have so relatively little while someone so close to you has so much.
Enjoy It is a reality show that isn’t sure whether it should exist. For all the love and admiration and good intentions behind it, Enjoy It! may have ultimately done Stevens a disservice by treating his harrowing depression as the subject for wacky television comedy
Did Enjoy It just exacerbate an already explosive situation? Was this the one time fame and attention and scrutiny and being the subject of a reality show’s hounding, ubiquitous cameras proved not to be beneficial for a fragile entertainer’s mental health?
Enjoy It! tries to leaven the pummeling psychodrama of Stevens’ personal life by transforming him into a literal cartoon throughout, animating particularly bleak or surreal anecdotes or riffs. Alternately, the wild-eyed late comedian with the long, lanky frame and intimidating intensity appears in fantasy sequences where he’s the cornball patriarch of a 1970s-style family sitcom. Neither of these elements work particularly well. They’re distancing techniques that comment ironically on Stevens’ real life anguish instead of allowing audiences to feel Stevens’ pain and confusion unfiltered.
In one of Enjoy It’s hokiest reality show elements, Stevens goes on several dates but he can’t help but lead with his time in the mental hospital, going off his medication and the various mental illnesses he’s been diagnosed with. His overwhelmed dates look at him with an expression common among people who interact with Stevens here: deer-in-the-headlights confusion that implicitly asks “Is this guy for real?” and then once they realizes he is, either pleasure or a pragmatic desire to leave as quickly and diplomatically as possible.
Stevens hurts a lot of people over the course of Enjoy It, and not in minor or insignificant ways. He’s a raging cyclone of destruction, much of it self-inflicted but a lot of it directed outward as well. Stevens is angry at the world, angry at the entertainment industry, angry at himself and angry professionally, angry onstage, angry offstage, angry as a bit and angry for real. Yet he was also angry in a way that he managed to alchemize into joy, into positivity, into creativity, into laughter, into light.
After taking audiences on a rollercoaster of highs and lows, bleak emotional nadirs where Stevens seems on the point of giving up completely or becoming unemployable and giddy highs like a successful Conan appearance and Comedy Central special Enjoy It! ends on an optimistic note. Stevens is overcoming obstacles, possibly getting laid with an attractive woman who digs his comedy and hosting a birthday party that doubles as a celebration of his life.
Even here darkness is everywhere. Stevens asks the crowd how many of them visited him in the mental hospital when he needed them most, pushing people away and confronting the ugliest parts of his tragicomic existence even during a celebration of his life.
So while Enjoy It! chooses to fake a happy ending, the update that closes the series complicates that narrative to the point of exposing it as fiction: we close by learning Stevens is no longer in therapy, rejects his Bipolar diagnosis, continues to smoke pot against his doctor’s orders and has had another falling out with Manu, who he is no longer speaking to.
The series ends with the accidentally haunting words “Brody loves his mother and her dog Daisy.”
That’s the kind of line they put in obituaries that break your heart. It seems like a strangely appropriate, appropriately shattering way to end a complicated, deeply sad and ultimately very moving elegy for Stevens’ unique life and magnetic, larger than life personality as well as a tribute to the love and devotion of friends who tried so hard to save Stevens from himself but ultimately could not.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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