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Three Books for Comedy Nerds with Depression

Humorous Depression Books I'm a career book nerd—started as a library assistant in high school, went on to become a Borders retail kid, and now my current job involves working with older books. I like to consider myself a reader, but I've become extremely picky with the things I read. Especially humor, which is probably the most difficult thing to convey in written word. Like Shakespeare, humor is at its best when it's performed.

Then again, can you really enjoy a book about mental illness that is written without any humor? I have depression and anxiety, but I can still laugh at a good joke. And when the joke lands in print, that's the work of someone who understands themselves as well as their comedic voice.

I've found three memoirs-slash-personal essay collections that meet my unrealistically high standards for both humor and authenticity. They've made me laugh, cry, and forced me into epiphanies for underlying issues. If you're looking for a book club pick that will embrace your need for weird and honest, consider any of these.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

If you aren't aware of Hyperbole and a Half, you are probably new to the Internet. Although the blog is a barren wasteland now due to her up-and-coming writing career and her latest book coming out this summer, Hyperbole and a Half's print companion includes some of the blog's most popular posts as well as a few newer ones. Brosh's two-part "Adventures in Depression" is included in the print version, chronicling her perspective on what it's like to experience depression and explaining it in such a bizarre yet nuanced way, involving dead fish. It sounds weird, and it is, but there's never been a more appropriate analogy for what I undergo at low points. Another favorite is a chapter not seen on her blog entitled "Identity," which I won't spoil here. I actually want you to read these, guys.

Furiously Happy by Jenny “The Bloggess” Lawson

I'm a fan of The Bloggess, a blog run by fellow Texan lady Jenny Lawson. I would even say she inspired me to create a wishlist on Pinterest for taxidermy creatures of my own. (Napoleon Bonaparte mouse, you will be MINE someday.) Following her hilarious debut memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Furiously Happy delves a little bit deeper into what it's like to have a slew of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and a host of others. She writes about deeply touching moments where she walks out into the snow or has a conversation with her husband about how hard life is. And then there's the part where she goes to Australia and is determined to hold a koala while wearing a koala costume. This is literary gold, friends.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

My friend Sue recommended this book to me, saying that it hits points on mental illness as well as the fascinating life of actress and Internet entrepreneur, Felicia Day (The Guild, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Geek and Sundry). Now, I don't believe in "serendipity" or anything like that, but reading this book at the time that I did was a bit of a wake-up call. During her chapter regarding the start-up of Geek and Sundry, a YouTube network dedicated to geeks and... their... sundries (words good at, I am!), Day describes the amount of stress she put herself under and how it affected her not only mentally but also physically. Then I recalled another friend of mine who was undergoing a similar situation, and we both joked about how she had "stress cancer," because that's how you get through hard times. As I ended that chapter, I turned to my husband and said, "I think I have stress cancer like Felicia Day did." But he was asleep because apparently I had been hardcore reading this book until 12 a.m.

KC Ryan is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. An office worker by day, she spends her nights writing, improvising, recording podcasts, and having existential crises. She’s a co-host of Parsec Award-nominated podcast Anomaly Supplemental about general sci-fi and fantasy topics. Her greatest achievement so far is convincing her husband to watch Project Runway.

The Texts that Helped Me Teach Myself Improv

Improv Books No one on my college improv troupe coached or taught from a place of experience. In that way, the culture felt egalitarian. We were just 20 people that had accepted one another and formed a special-interest group. You’d participate in a long-form set once every three weeks, and in the interim, you’d give show notes and hop in for a closing game of “sex with.” It worked, but those of us with a more-than-casual interest weren’t satiated by table scraps of anecdotal knowledge.

Relative to troupe newcomers (who often had never done improv before), the elder statespersons had spent a couple years practicing once a week and had done maybe 25 shows if they were super active. We went to festivals where we’d talk to other improv nerds and occasionally take workshops from “professional” performers. We usually made the pilgrimage to improv Mecca during winter break to watch shows at iO and The Second City. While in Chicago, we’d hopefully land a two-hour slot with an ordained member of the establishment that would open our minds’ eyes wider than any campus practice could (Rachel Mason is a red priestess).

In the absence of a regularly-appearing comedy authority figure, excited nerds like myself turned to texts. Anyone who has fallen hard for improv has sought out some sort of reading material. I’ve learned a lot from name brand books and off-the-beaten-path works. This week, I want to synopsize and endorse(ish) the five texts that helped me develop my affinity for the dark arts before classes were a viable option.

Every theater has a different style of improv, and every individual performer at every theater has a different style, too. My goal here is to categorize the type of technique being pedaled, what I liked/disliked about the text, and what it has done for me as an improviser. Most of these texts you can find for around $10 on Amazon. The UCB book is $25 last time I checked.

Truth in Comedy, Halpern/Close/Johnson

For those who enjoy: Primary Colours, Cupcake, Dairy Based

Often the first text that new improvisers read, Truth in Comedy sells agreement and listening. (It also sells itself with constant references to iO alumni.) The work of Halpern, Close, and Johnson serves as a great introduction for those teaching themselves about improv. It’s heavy on “yes, and” and promotes a grounded, committed style of play. It also offers plenty of exercises that can be morphed into group games in a show (a la “conducted story” or “the ad game”). The book’s organic focus helps to stoke those group mind coals with which we all enjoy cooking. The end of the text also includes an introduction to the Harold for interested parties.

Improvise: Scene from the inside out, Mick Napier

For those who enjoy: Samurai Drunk, Kool Aid, Franzia

Napier staunchly rejects any notion of “the rules” when it comes to improvising. He asserts that taking care of yourself at the top of a scene is the best gift you can give your scene partner. The way he dispenses with the idea of “doing it right” can be a revelation for anyone stuck in their own head. By doing something, anything, at the top of a scene, you’ve chosen to act rather than marinate in the fear of the unknown. Napier also adds a lot of great exercises you can do on your own to develop your improv mind. I should note that a misinterpretation of Improvise can lead players to bulldoze or ignore the ideas of others. I would recommend it as an intermediate text, rather than an initial foray into improv reading.

Impro, Keith Johnstone

For those who enjoy: Local Honey, Age Appropriate, Release the Hounds

Impro was written before improvisation had become a popular medium. Johnstone used improv techniques and games with his students to get them to loosen up. His observations and life experiences create a rich well from which to pull little improv mantras. I especially have enjoyed his sections about status and spontaneity. You’ll see people raising and lowering their own status in every single social interaction you have after reading Impro. Those two sections in particular pair well with Improvise, for those looking to go on a reading spree. Also, there’s a weird section about masks at the end that’s kind of fun to skim through, if not totally helpful.

The UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual, Besser/Roberts/Walsh

For those who enjoy: Photobomb, The Rift, 1995 Chicago Bulls, Wheel of Formats

Totaling 384 pages, this text earns its label as a manual. Consider the UCB book a longer and more comprehensive version of Truth in Comedy, but for game-oriented improv. The authors focus on how to recognize patterns and play games more so than establish relationships in scenes. By serving the game, the rest of the pieces will fall into place. The UCB manual comes complete with loads of exercises and color illustrations. Format guidelines in the book’s final section offer great ideas for fledgling troupes looking to create a style of their own. The UCB manual has especially salient takes on heightening/exploration and crazy town. As a warning, the text is pretty analytical and can put you in your head if you’re not tempering it or discussing it with someone else.

True and False, David Mamet

For those who enjoy: Small Town, Manick, David and Terry

David Mamet doesn’t agree with Konstantin Stanislavsky. I’ve never read that guy’s books, but apparently they make acting seem like a highfaluting, elitist pursuit. Mamet instead distills acting into a simple approach: Know your lines, don’t add to them, and say them with a loud voice so that the audience can hear you. The accessibility is a relief for those of us who didn’t grow up in the theater. I’ve never considered myself an actor. I have no formal acting training. This is a great book for anyone who looks at acting as a wholly separate and mystical art form too lofty for the mind and abilities of an improviser. Plus, Mamet’s writing is just plain fun to read.

Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of  the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.

Book Review: “David Bowie Is Trying To Kill Me” by Lee Widener

David Bowie is Trying to Kill MeIn case you were distracted this past weekend by Leonardo DiCaprio winning a Golden Globe or busy Sunday afternoon riding the Dallas DART without your pants (yes, that was a real thing that happened), then you might have missed the news that rock legend and beloved goblin king, David Bowie, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Bowie was a man of mythic proportions, whose life was infinitely cooler than yours and whose makeup game was always on fleek. In the wake of his passing, the interwebs has been abuzz with poignant eulogies, tributes, and strange yet touching homages of all kinds. You name it, it’s been done. So I thought, what better way to pay my respect to this interstellar, genderqueer rock star than review a bizarro book, in which Bowie himself sets out on a nonsensical, murderous rampage. Yes, you read that correctly.

David Bowie is Trying to Kill Me—well not me personally, but he is after the protagonist of this delightfully odd adventure—by Lee Widener is first and foremost weird as hell. If you’re not into the weird and ridiculous, stop reading this review and be gone, peasant! Just kidding...come back...I love you. Anyway, Widener is a bit of an oddball author and attributes his signature style to his love of comic books, monster movies, and outsider psychedelia (feel free to check out his art and other fun projects at WelcomeToWeirdsville.com). And that’s exactly what this book reads like.

Let’s jump right into it. The story, or more like story-ette because it’s seriously only about 20 pages long, opens as the protagonist Brogloid receives an ominous knock on his front door. The knocker turns out to be a knife-wielding, homicide-hungry David Bowie who has a sinister plan to take over the world. Mwahaha!

This encounter sends Brogloid on a fantastical escape route scattered with sexy koala-bear women, lime JELL-O fairies, cockroach mountains, and talking frogs and fish. Words of advice: never trust a talking fish you meet on a darkened street corner. No good can come of that.

David BowieImagine a Ziggy Stardust record, a Douglas Adams novel, and a whole boatload of acid tabs and absinthe were dumped into a blender and then poured on the pages of a book. David Bowie is Trying to Kill Me is that book. At first read, it will probably leave you with a headache and the immediate reaction of “WTF did I just read?” But after those initial feelings subside, you will be craving more and laughing hysterically—maybe because you’re still delirious from the headache.

Regardless, this is a book that I laughed my entire way through, beginning to end, and had absolutely no idea what was going on the whole time. I mean that in the best way possible. In my opinion, which might not be worth much, it’s a hidden comical, science-fiction gem that makes you love and fear David Bowie in ways you never thought possible. I recommend this book for a fun afternoon read (since its short enough to knock out in about an hour) that, if nothing else, will make your day a little weirder.

If you enjoy the completely bizarre and love, miss, and are otherwise still obsessed with David Bowie, then go read this book...Like right now, because it’s available on Amazon and Kindle. You’re welcome.

*Overall rating: 4 out 5 mega-stoned LeVar Burtons would read.

If you have any remarks, observations, concerns, or interesting Bowie facts, please post them in the comments section below!

Lauren Levine is currently a Level 3 student at DCH. When she is not trying to come up with witty things for this blog, she is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur photographer, a Zumba-enthusiast, a dog lover, and an 80s movie nerd. In addition, she enjoys all things Muppet-related, the smell after a rainstorm, and people with soft hands.

Book Review: "A Bad Idea I’m About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgement" by Chris Gethard

Chris GethardI’m going to try my best to avoid this post digressing into a love letter to Chris Gethard, but I can’t make any promises. I like weird people. More than that, I like people that help foster weirdness in others. I find an immense amount of comfort in someone that can help people see that they’re not alone in trying to accept themselves and then give those people a sense of belonging to something. This notion is how I stumbled upon Chris Gethard. Gethard is a veteran improviser with Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), a stand-up comedian, an author, and host of his own weird-as-hell late night show, The Chris Gethard Show (TCGS). Just a few things about TCGS: It started as a live UCB show, which then went to a public access TV channel in New York (and then most recently found a home for a season at Fusion Network), and it billed itself as “the most bizarre and often the saddest talk show in New York City.” If I had to use one word to describe the show, it would be “honest.” The show has a topic each week and has a celebrity, usually a comedian, on to help with weird segments and answer calls from viewers during the entire show. TCGS truly gives a voice to its fans and viewers, reinforcing that they belong to something wonderful and weird that anybody can be a part of.

I could go on for hours and hours about how perfect and unique his talk show is, but I’m here for a book review, so let’s talk about that. A Bad Idea I’m About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgement is a collection of short, personal essays from Gethard, released in 2011 (yeah, I’m late, I know). I ordered the book after a recent nose-dive into the back catalog of TCGS episodes. Once the book arrived, I read it in under a week. Now, this might be a normal thing for normal people, but consider that I haven’t read a book in under a week in probably a decade and maybe this claim has more weight.

The collection of essays starts, quite literally, at his birth and spans up to Gethard’s present-day in 2011. Most of the essays are, at surface level, about growing up in New Jersey, moving to New York, breaking into comedy, and other typical “coming of age” tales you might expect to read from a comedian. That doesn’t mean the tales themselves are not gut-wrenchingly awkward and hilarious, but what stands out is how honest Gethard is about his struggle with mental illness and feeling lost because of it.

Gethard is brutally honest about a life-long struggle with anxiety and depression that always made him feel out of place in society. The book gives a voice to so many thoughts that I know I’ve personally had and deals with the question, “Am I going to be okay?” The overarching theme becomes his search for the answer to that particular question, and while the answer may not be black and white, the journey he takes you on to get there will leave you with a lot of hope.

Jessica Dorrell is a Dallas Comedy House graduate and performs in the troupes Wilma! and Summer Girls. You can see her in Stage Fright, a Halloween sketch show in October.

Book Review: "The Seven Good Years: A Memoir" by Etgar Keret

TheSevenGoodYearsNot long ago, my dad bought me a copy of The Seven Good Years: A Memoir (2015) by Etgar Keret. I had not asked for the book, as I had no idea that it existed, and I’m not sure where he got it, especially since I could tell that it was copy that had already lived a bit of life. I imagine the book traveled miles through wind and rain and other stuff to make its way into my dad’s hands and then mine. Or maybe he got it at a used bookstore. I don’t know. Anyway, I saw the name Etgar and was intrigued—Jewish ancestry may have something to do with this. When I flipped the book over, I saw praise from Jonathan Safran Foer (author of one of my favorite books, Everything is Illuminated): “Funny, dark, and poignant.” Further, coming in at just 171 pages, I figured that it wouldn’t take long to read. It was perfect. After researching carefully on the dust jacket, I learned a bit about this Etgar Keret guy. He is Israeli and writes in Hebrew, although The Seven Good Years has yet to be published in his native country and language. He is the son of Holocaust survivors and has made his home in Tel Aviv with his wife and son. Keret lectures at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and I imagine that he would be a pretty cool professor based on his stories.

It took me less than 48 hours to read The Seven Good Years, which is an amazing thing since I am in the midst of a stressful and exciting move. I was surprised when I delved into the first chapter and it ended three pages later. And I thought Hemingway was concise. Keret, as I came to quickly learn, is known for his minimalist writing style, which I really came to love after the initial shock. I sometimes read books that are so tediously written that I get lost in the details, so a book like this was much needed in my life. Thanks, Etgar Keret!

The Seven Good Years is a collection of vignettes that could exist autonomously, but together they paint an interesting picture of the quick and sometimes surreal life of Keret. From being placed in a “special” yoga class where Keret is the only non-pregnant practitioner to analyzing Angry Birds to dealing with telemarketers, Keret had me laughing. However, more serious subjects creep up, like cancer and the precariousness of life in the Middle East. All these elements run currents throughout the book, which truly makes its “funny, dark, and poignant,” as Foer has labeled it.

I will leave you with my favorite part of the book. Keret tries to reprimand his son, Lev, for manipulating the lunch lady into bringing him contraband chocolate at school:

“No,” I said. “[Your teacher] told me that Mari the cook brings you chocolate every morning.”

“Yes,” Lev said happily. “Lots and lots and lots of chocolate.”

“[Your teacher] also said that you eat all the chocolate yourself and won’t share it with the other kids,” I added.

“Yes,” Lev agreed quickly. “But I can’t give them any because kids aren’t allowed to eat sweets in school.”

“Very good,” I said. “But if kids aren’t allowed to eat sweets in school, why do you think you can?”

“Because I’m not a kid.” Lev smiled a pudgy, sneaky smile. “I’m a cat.”

“You’re what?”

Meow,” Lev answered in a softy, purry voice. “Meow, meow, meow.

Leslie Michaels is currently a Level 4 improv student at the DCH Training Center. She spends her spare time riding her bicycle, playing Ultimate Frisbee, or hanging out with her boyfriend, Netflix. She still questions whether she’s a dog person or a cat person.

Book Review: "Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

Modern RomanceAziz Ansari’s book, Modern Romance, came out this past Tuesday—something I’ve been anticipating since watching a commercial for the book on YouTube two weeks ago (watch it here). “Hi, my name’s Mike, and if you’re sitting there watching this tape smoking your cigarette, well, hit the fast forward button ‘cause I don’t smoke and I don’t like people who do smoke.” Sold.

Anyway, as Aziz says in the commercial, Modern Romance is not a book of humor essays, but something “much deeper, much more engrossing.” And honestly, it was so gripping that I read most of it on my way to a wedding this past weekend (appropriate, I know). Aziz teamed up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg of NYU to compile a huge body of research, gathering interviews, focus groups, and empirical data from other researchers to analyze love in this technological age. They explore romance in different areas of the world as well as online dating, texting, sexting, the paradox of choice, cheating via technology (shout out to Anthony Weiner!), and much more. Also, there are graphs! Lots of graphs!

Not only is Modern Romance incredibly well researched, as evidenced by the citations at the end of the book, but it is also hilarious. I could only read it in Aziz’s voice: “Unlike phone calls, which bind two people in real-time conversations that require at least some shared interpretation of the situation, communication by text has no predetermined temporal sequencing and lots of room for ambiguity. Did I just use the phrase “predetermined temporal sequencing”? Fuck yeah, I did.” There is room for both academic terminology and jest, which is seriously awesome and doesn’t make the book some droning research paper that no one wants to read.

Admittedly, I felt a bit self-conscious reading this book in public because of big bold letters of things like “ARE WE 'HANGING OUT' OR GOING OUT ON A DATE?” and “THE PROBLEMS WITH ONLINE DATING.” It was like a marquee screaming READ ME! I’m sure someone saw one of these section titles and thought, That poor girl is reading a self help book about romance. I hope she finds someone someday.

It never crossed my mind that I could read this book and it would give me some things to think about in my own dating life, as I was really just interested in the social science of it all, but Modern Romance has given me things to consider. I think so many people should read this book—fans of Aziz, fans of Klinenberg, anyone looking for a lover in this day and age (or just connection in general), pop scientists, Millennials, everyone. Not everyone actually, but still, I really want you to read this book.

Leslie Michaels is currently a Level 3 improv student at the DCH Training Center. She spends her spare time riding her bicycle, playing Ultimate Frisbee, or hanging out with her boyfriend, Netflix. She still questions whether she’s a dog person or a cat person.