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Friday, September 18, 2015

Talking Depression with Comedy Legend Award-Winner Brian Copeland

Posted By on Fri, Sep 18, 2015 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Brian Copeland is happy to receive the Stand-up Comedy Legend Award at the 35th annual Comedy Day on Sunday. - PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS
  • Photo by Joan Marcus
  • Brian Copeland is happy to receive the Stand-up Comedy Legend Award at the 35th annual Comedy Day on Sunday.


Following in the footsteps of Will Durst and Robin Williams, acclaimed local comedian, playwright and KGO talk show host Brian Copeland will receive Comedy Day's Stand-up Comedy Legend Award on Sunday. This year's edition of the 35th annual comedy festival will also feature Marga Gomez, Will and Debi Durst, Tom Ammiano, Mark Leno, and more. SF Weekly spoke to Brian Copeland about the honor, his struggle with depression and the project he's working on to help heal the lives of fellow sufferers.

What does receiving the Stand-up Comedy Legend Award mean to you?

I have gotten awards for a lot of things that I've done over the course of my career. I won an Emmy for my television work, I've won radio and television news director awards for my radio work, I've written plays that have been acclaimed. As much as I'm honored by all those things, nothing I've ever done means as much to me as this.

I started in standup here the week after I graduated from high school, at 18 years old and got on the stage and tried it and fell in love with it. I never in my wildest dreams thought that someday I'd be looked at as having made such a contribution to comedy. When I found out, I just got tears in my eyes. I was so honored. So many people who I look up to have gotten this award: Robin Williams, Pat Paulsen, my friends and mentors. To be mentioned in the same breath as these people — I'm in shock.

While your first love was comedy, you also became a famous talk show host and playwright, beginning with Not a Genuine Black Man. What inspired the leap into theatre? 

I went through this life transition in 2001. I got divorced and I suddenly had custody of three kids by myself. Prior to that, I had been on the road three weeks out of the month opening for Ray Charles, Donna Summer, Ringo Starr, Lionel Richie and Aretha Franklin. Suddenly, I'm a stay-at-home dad, so I started climbing the walls, and my life became about making lunches and the carpooling.

Then 9/11 hit, and there were a lot of stories that broke our hearts. The one that was so devastating to me was I was watching 9/11 and they were talking to a CEO of corporate firm Cantor Fitzgerald. He was generally the first person at his desk, but this day was his son's first day at kindergarten and he didn't want to miss it, so he was out when the plane hit. He literally lost 98 percent of his employees.

I remember they went to a commercial break and they showed a montage of his employees, them at company parties or working at cubicles or whatnot. I watched this, thinking about all the things they thought they were going to do next, but they went down to work, and they were dead. So I started compiling what now would be called a bucket list. At the top of the list, I put, do a one-man show, 'cause I had spent 20 years doing standup, which is all about joke, joke, joke, joke, and I wanted something where the jokes would be there, but I'd have their attention between the jokes to talk about things that mattered. That's really how the transition began. I hooked up with David Ford at The Marsh, and we came up with Not a Genuine Black Man. It was supposed to run for six weeks, but the six weeks ended up turning into two years in San Francisco, and then New York, and LA and then all over the country.

Your next show was called The Waiting Period, named for the mandatory 10-day waiting period to get a gun in California. You know this because you were suicidal at the time. What year is the play set?

2008.

What was it about 2008 that was so overwhelming for you?

I realize now that I suffered from depression since I was a kid. But in 2008, a series of calamities hit all at one time. I had remarried and my wife decided she didn't want to be married anymore. Then my grandmother, who raised me after my mom died when I was 14 suddenly had a stroke and died out of the clear blue sky. After that, I had gotten into a car accident and had to do spinal chord surgery. The recovery was three months in a neck brace on the couch by myself, popping Vicodin and dwelling and going deeper and deeper into despair over all the things that had happened. There was no telling how much of my mobility I was going to get back. I was struggling financially at the time, too, 'cause if I don't work, I don't get paid. There's no pension plan with comedy. It was during all that stuff that The Waiting Period took place. 

How did you overcome the suicidal ideations?

Without giving away the end of the play, I had a spiritual awakening. Now that wasn't all of it, but it was what sent me on the path to getting better and dealing with what I was going through. When you're in a depressive bout, you're being inundated with inaccurate info. There's a voice that's telling you, 'You're no good, you're not worthy, no one's going to miss you,' and after a while the voice starts to win. So I was able to develop the tools to deal with it. That doesn't say I don't go into despair still.

Last summer I had the most difficult bout of my life. It was worse than The Waiting Period. It lasted several months, but I got through it. I became very public about it, because I thought maybe I could help some people. You never know how many people deal with mental illness, because of the stigma. Society doesn't understand it, so people keep it to themselves and are dying. So I made it a mission to help people through that.

What inspired The Waiting Period was a 15-year-old kid that I never met who was a nephew of friends of mine, and he laid down in front of a train.  When that happened, I said, 'OK, I'm going to tell the story.' The Waiting Period has since saved people's lives. Right now we're doing a GoFundMe to try to do The Waiting Period for a year at no charge in 2016. Especially to reach out to high school and college kids, 'cause there's an epidemic.

Are you already working on a new show?

The new show is going to be about single parenting. It's going to be called Grandma and Me. When I was 14, my mother died and left me and my four younger sisters to Grandma who raised us. Then flash forward to 2001, and I'm a single dad raising my kids. I want to look at why single mothers are vilified by society, yet I'm a hero for taking care of my kids. 

How do you decide which issues are appropriate for your stand-up show, and which are better tackled onstage? 

There are some issues that are just radioactive and you really can't touch for a long, long time. But for the most part, I've always said as a stand-up there are two issues I would never make jokes about, because there's nothing funny about them, and that's AIDS and the Holocaust. Now, if I were writing a play I wouldn't avoid those issues if I had something to say that was valuable and constructive and I could say in an entertaining fashion. 

So many comedians have struggled with depression that it almost seems like it's par for the course. In your opinion, are most comedians depressives?

I always say that if you put 100 comedians in a room and ask everyone with depression to raise their hands, 99 hands would go up and there'd be one liar. My own personal experience in knowing the comedians I do is that they're laughing so they don't cry. I'm sure some comedians are going to disagree with me, but the only two comics I've ever heard of who were not in some way messed up were Jack Benny and Jay Leno. But for the most part, we're struggling.

When I went on stage for the first time at 18, I had not planned to go onstage. After high school, I had this really bad bout of depression and the original Tommy T's had opened just up the street from my house. I called Tommy Thomas and said that I'd always wanted to try this and asked if there was an open mic. He said no, but that he had a comic out sick and asked if I could do 15 minutes. This was just four hours before the show, But being 18, I said, 'Sure.' Then I opened the paper and wrote a bunch of jokes about stuff that was going on at the time.  I did my set and they laughed. Because I had been so depressed, the public approval of strangers laughing at things I made up in my bedroom and clapping for me was a rush I had never heard before. It gave me self worth and the knowledge that I'm not the only comic who's on this drug for that reason. 

What advice would you give to a depressed person, struggling with suicide?

I get anonymous emails from people who see the show or hear about the show, and I tell them, 'Tell somebody.' If I can stand there spilling my guts for 75 minutes, then you can tell someone that you're having thoughts that are not in your best interest. I say, 'Tell your parents, friends, wife, husband, and if you're not telling them, then tell me.' So they do.

Comedy Day, September 20, Sharon Meadow @ Golden Gate Park (Free), comedyday.org.



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Joshua Rotter

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