R.I.P. Brody Stevens

“I put my entire career on the line with every show” — Brody Stevens, late night Comedy Store set, 2011

Last we night we got the news that comedian Brody Stevens (b. 1970) had taken his own life.  Stevens was one of the more successful of the army of performance comedians who came out of the Lower East Side in the ’90s informally known as the Art Stars. We swam in the same pond for a few years, although not too near each other. He performed in my American Vaudeville Theatre once in 1999 during its Todo Con Nada run. That was my one interaction with him, beyond seeing him on stage and seeing him around from time to time. But dozens of my good friends were also among his; our pool of mutual friends and colleagues is no doubt in the hundreds. So there is a lot of sorrow and a lot of nostalgia here in New York. In L.A., where Brody has lived and worked for many years now, the blow is more immediate (Brody grew up there; his New York period only lasted three years, which seems strange to know now — he was very plugged-in here, at least in the alternative comedy scene). So, anyway, here in New York Brody’s death is excavating memories, not unlike the atomic blast that wakened The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In L.A., where he was plucked without warning from everybody’s midst, the feeling seems much rawer. There’s less distance; everybody “just saw him two days ago” as the saying goes.

But it’s not just LA that’s mourning him today. He has something of a national fan base through shows on Comedy Central and elsewhere, and guys like Patton Oswald and Zach Galifianakis were his comrades in arms. People have great affection for the persona Brody created, which was an exaggeration of his own temperament, an eagerness to please coupled with a heroic brazenness, a comical way of simultaneously revealing himself as a shlemiel while shaking it off. His high energy act seemed almost like a self-help infomercial, he’d self-consciously point out his own imperfection even as it was occurring, and then he’d roll out of his fall back to standing like a rodeo clown and go “ta da!” Most of the shallow obituaries I’ve read talk about how “upbeat” and “positive” he was, but when I look at clips of his act, and remember how he was IRL, he was more manic, like a raw nerve. He could be hard to watch, though it could also be endearing.

His final act (like Anthony Bourdain, he hung himself) reveals the struggle, the contradiction at the heart of his act. As anyone who has grappled with solo performance over a long period knows, it is as close to suicide as you can get, a kind of suicide metaphor, a suicide substitute, a suicide dry run. It’s an existential high wire act, throwing the only question that matters up to a plebiscite: “Do I have a right to exist?” Andy Kaufman actually did that on SNL once and got back the unthinkable answer “No!” And as a consequence he was barred from the show. So asking the question can be dangerous. Most people do what they can to avoid it. For most people of all kinds, in all situations, all of life is “Don’t ask, don’t tell; and nobody gets hurt.” But solo performers ASK. Social media has amplified that nightmarish predicament. At one time you only saw how you were doing over the course of your set, Now it is 24/7.  I’m not saying any of this has to do with Brody, incidentally. For some people, it’s chemical. And for all I know, Russian spies mistook him for someone else and assassinated him. I merely observe the line of work he was in…and the many public meltdowns of friends I have witnessed through this medium. The world can be cold and hard and unforgiving, even for folks who’ve enjoyed a good bit of fame.

In watching clips of Brody’s performances this morning I was reminded again of the title of that Beckett play: “I Can’t Go On…I’ll Go On.” Beckett is about solitude, the individual self surrounded by blackness. Friends are supposed to cushion us from that realization, but as various other playwrights from Shakespeare (Timon of Athens) to Albee (A Delicate Balance) have pointed out, for some people maybe even friends don’t exist. Naturally, Brody had a million friends, I’m not saying he didn’t. But there can be times when friends are not enough, when you have to muster inner resources just to function. Sometimes even laughter and applause can’t help you do that. There’s a school of thought that says if you smile, though you may not initially feel like it, the smile itself will work some physiological magic and make you feel happy. But what of the day when you lack the strength to smile?