Hollywood's Zoloft Blow-Off
A TV comedy writer on a town's mental health hypocrisy
Trigger warning: this piece contains jokes about mental illness. If you have a problem with that, I’m happy to show you my medical records and a trunk of CVS receipts. I write for The Ankler under a pseudonym for obvious reasons.
Recently, I talked to a younger writer who had just finished her first week on a new show. On the first day, the showrunner made a point of making health a priority. Covid testing was mandatory, and people were encouraged to take the day off if they felt sick. This was encouraging, a far cry from the old days when “come to work unless you’re dead, or you’re dead” was the rule. Still, when she told me she was a few minutes late that Friday because of a therapy appointment, I got worried. “Okay but you didn’t actually say it was a therapy appointment. You made up another reason. Right?”
“No,” she said. Her boss had literally just told everyone that health was a priority. And mental health was just as important as physical health. Descartes was full of shit: the mind and body are one. A depressed person needing Celexa was no different than a diabetic needing insulin. I nodded. Then I said, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN. Tell him your mom died. Tell him a tree fell on your garage. Tell him you had a ‘girl problem,’ he won’t want to know any more. Anything but ‘I was at therapy.’”
“But he said–”
“He’s full of shit! This is the most hypocritical business on Earth. Always assume they’re full of shit until proven otherwise.”
I know it sounds harsh, but I was trying to help. I knew who her boss was. He was older. A Boomer. Or maybe not technically a Boomer. A Boomer-Gen X cusp. Either way, I knew instinctively that he was the kind of person who, despite saying all the right things he’d been ordered to say in whatever HR-mandated struggle session they’d wrangled him into attending, would ultimately balk at a writer coming in late because of a therapy appointment. He and his cohort had been programmed to see missing work as laziness and asking for help as weakness. Older Gen X liberals may talk the talk and tweet the tweet when it comes to politics, but when it comes to their own career success, it’s Ayn Rand time! This guy probably had a Wellbutrin prescription and a few therapy anecdotes of his own, but an employee’s mental health wasn’t going to get in the way of making CBS’ 14th most popular show. Not on his watch. He and I were both, in our own ways, the exemplars of Hollywood’s new Mental Health Generation Gap.
The last few weeks have been full of mental health news. Jonah Hill is taking a break from promoting films because of anxiety attacks. Tom Holland is taking a break from social media. Ezra Miller is taking a break from committing crimes. This is seen by the industry as a good thing. And it is. I’m happy for every actor with the brass balls to press “delete” and go on a scooter ride in Budapest with Zendaya.
But what about the rest of us? Stars can take time off because they’re stars. If you’re a regular citizen of Hollywood, nobody really cares about your mental health — no matter what they say. Why? One reason is that showrunners are under more stress than ever (tight schedules, reduced budgets, more notes). Another reason is that we’re all replaceable. Like any elite industry, there are way more qualified people than there are jobs in entertainment. And the jobs that exist have little to no job security. It’s no coincidence that the catchphrase “You’re Fired” was created by TV writers.
But as much as the stress we’re all experiencing is the result of real, material conditions, there’s more to the story. Toxic old-school attitudes about mental health remain in place. They’re slowly changing, but as we try to navigate that change, I thought it might be helpful to see how we got here. Why does the industry say one thing about mental health and do another?
Capitalism isn’t conducive to mental health, or at least not the unfettered American version, stuffed like the timpano from Big Night with everything from Rothbardian libertarianism to securitized debt instruments, all wrapped up in a tasty ideology best summed up as “This is how things are. Deal with it. Work harder, pussy.” The entertainment industry is first and foremost a money-making endeavor, but it hates to think of itself that way. It will forever be the hot girl who wants to be smart. We tell ourselves that we’re winning hearts and minds, that we’re changing the world. Please. If we really cared about changing the world, we’d all take thankless, anonymous jobs as community organizers. But we don’t. Why? Oh…
If you want to make it in show business, Los Angeles is still the place to be. It’s a weird place to live. It's crowded yet lonely, and everyone drives like an asshole because they’re mad they’re not famous. Then there’s the crime, although contrary to popular belief most of it’s being committed by studio accounting departments, not smash-and-grab burglars on Rodeo Drive. And of course it’s chock-full of insane people. Is the industry crazy because of Los Angeles, or is Los Angeles crazy because of the industry? Only 20 percent of L.A. residents actually work in entertainment, so I’m inclined to think we’re the problem.
The privileged among us could have gotten regular jobs with health insurance, a 401k and some sort of death or dismemberment plan, but we didn’t. We wanted to be special, so we made a Little Mermaid bargain for our sanity. The lucky few who weren’t crazy already will eventually be driven crazy by the other crazy people. Los Angeles is Dragonstone without dragons. We don’t need them because California periodically bursts into flames on its own. Which brings me to another crazy-making thing about the industry…
The entertainment industry is chaos personified. The job qualifications are totally nebulous. Med school may be stressful, but at least there are some objective criteria. You have to know Biology. You have to understand Organic Chemistry. You have to not have sex with the cadavers. In Hollywood, Cadaver Sex Guy could end up charming the right person (“He reminds me of myself when I was that age”) and the next thing you know he’s got his own show. Or he would have before #MeToo ruined everything. It’s a complaint that I, a Late Model Gen X-er hear with alarming frequency. Which brings me back to…
F*** Boomers 👴
While many of them have retired and others have left the business, a handful of them remain and they have a lot of power. More importantly, their attitudes about the creative process live on through their former captives — sorry, “mentees.” Most of these are Early Model Gen X-ers, and man, does it show. Their checks are signed by giant corporations, but in their minds they’re Kurt Cobain before he got famous. Rebels who stuck it to The Man by wearing a Phat Farm hoodie and smoking in front of the fire marshal that time they shot a pilot on the Paramount lot in the ’90s. The very notion of management training disgusts them. Learning to run a multi-million dollar business properly is so “corporate.” Art requires suffering. It toughens you up. (My generation’s always had a weird authoritarian streak, like they took their Doc Marten boots too literally.)
No one believed that art meant suffering more than an old boss of mine I’ll call The Human Walrus. Walruses can go without sleep for 80 hours a time. The Human Walrus had either trained himself to do this, hired a body double, or was quietly and calmly addicted to cocaine. Regardless, he expected his staff to follow his schedule. We’d come in at 9 a.m. and leave at… I don’t know what time it was, I just know that the 101 was empty, except for hordes of meth-addled truckers who periodically swerved into your lane and almost killed you. I understood where they were coming from.
One day after I dozed off during a two-hour anal sex-themed room bit, The Walrus told me if I fell asleep again I wasn’t getting asked back. I immediately found a psychiatrist willing to do a phone appointment from my car. I explained that I was in dire straits, and he gave me a Provigil prescription. Provigil is a drug that treats narcolepsy. I didn’t have narcolepsy, I just had a boss who hated his family so much, you’d think they murdered his family. Luckily, the Provigil worked great. The only problem? It worked great. When I got in bed to get the four hours of sleep I needed before I had to get up again, I was wide awake. So I got an Ambien prescription. This was before all those news stories about people taking Ambien and waking up in line at the McDonald’s drive-thru in their underwear.
I never ended up anywhere in my underwear, but weaning myself off of Ambien once the show ended was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. I had suffered from depression before, but this depression was bigger and scarier. It stuffed my old depression into a locker, called it gay then gave it a swirlie. The only thing that broke through my suicidal ideation was my vanity. I’m not joking. I wanted to die, but I felt like I should leave a note, and that the note needed to be really good. I couldn’t have my last piece of writing be a multicam script about a middle-aged dad and his friends deciding to bring back their old rock band. (Not my pitch!) As Dorothy Parker once said, “You might as well live.”
Eventually I got better. I got a new job with a normal boss. Still, I thought about my old job a lot. On the one hand, by the time the residuals started rolling in, I had enough money for a down payment on a house. On the other hand, I was pretty sure I had permanent brain damage. Actually, I know I have permanent brain damage because I keep trying to get work as a TV writer.
I’ve been hardened by some of these experiences. But am I actually mentally tougher? Absolutely not. I have a nervous system like a chihuahua that just ate an edible. My confidence is non-existent. I also developed a version of the same jaded “you should’ve seen the other guy” mentality I’d seen in many of my old co-workers. This really became evident at my next job. It was another “problematic” pre-#MeToo workplace. Long hours, light sexual harassment, rape jokes galore. Still, compared to the meth-addled trucker show, it was paradise. I even had my own office. With windows. They didn’t open, but still.
Our staff writer, a woman 10 years younger than me, did not agree with my assessment of our working conditions. “They’re watching porn in the B-room,” she informed me one day. “Is it good porn?” I asked. She looked at me sadly, like I had Stockholm Syndrome, if you renamed Stockholm Syndrome “Burbank Syndrome.” I think she wanted me to do something, but I was a mid-level producer. I didn’t have it in me to ask the B-room to turn off Explosive Beaver Hammering. I actually thought it was sort of funny. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be a scold. Maybe I was brainwashed, like Winston Smith finally learning to love Big Brother. Is it possible for antidepressants to work too well? I didn’t realize it at the time but this was my first experience with the…
Mental Health Generation Gap!
Our staff writer, who was very talented, stuck it out and eventually found herself on another show. A totally different show. On the first day of the job, the showrunner, a fellow Millennial, talked about safe spaces and equality and respecting other people’s feelings and point of view. The insane part was, he actually meant it. Even more insane? The show was great! It spawned many memes and was in some ways a death knell for the Bad Boy Gen-X era of comedy, to the ironic racism that sounded weirdly like regular racism. Most of all, it proved that while making entertainment is always stressful, no TV show is worth losing your sanity over. (I mean, maybe Seinfeld.)
The whole thing came full circle a few months ago when I ran into the once-miserable staff writer. She had blossomed under the new showrunner’s sane and totally-not-creepy tutelage and was now running her own show. It was hard, the pressure was intense, work-life balance was non-existent. Still, she was running a show! I pretended to commiserate with her about the old show that I still to this day contend was not that bad. Then she told me she had a confession. She was frustrated with her twenty-something writer’s assistant. Despite bending over backwards to make sure the show ran smoothly and, for the most part, everyone was home in time for dinner, her assistant had asked if they could talk. “When you were starting out,” the assistant asked, with utterly innocent sincerity, “were you expected to give up this much of your personal life?” Resisting the urge to gouge out her own eyes (she’s such a nice person, her violent fantasies only consist of gouging out her own eyes) she smiled and said, “You know, it was a very different time.” I laughed. She said, “Can you believe it? Was I wrong to sort of want to kill her?” “Nah,” I said. What I didn’t say was, “That’s exactly how I felt when I used to talk to you.”
I don’t know what’s going to happen in this business. I can barely understand what’s happening now. (They lost me years ago when they started using the term “metric.”) All I know is that we’re in an important transition period and that more transparency and honesty about mental health will somehow be a part of that. That doesn’t mean the business will be any more fair. In fact, it might be less fair. Yes, there are a lot of shows, but it’s harder and harder to make a living writing for them. Talented people will need a lot of luck to make it. Others won’t have the financial resources needed to grind it out. It’s all crazy-making, just in a different way.
Still, the dream is alive. I keep hearing that Gen Z doesn’t even watch TV, but they keep showing up with their scripts. I’ve read a few. They were good. Old people have been complaining about young people since the beginning of time. Gen X’s criticisms of Millennials were nearly identical to the criticisms leveled at Gen X, except lazy, entitled Gen X slackers were taking too much Prozac instead of eating too much avocado toast. I mean, sure I “have a few notes.” (Crop tops and giant white sneakers are ugly.) But generally speaking, the younger people I meet seem more diverse, more empathic and, for all their overanalysis of their own mental states, way less psycho. Or maybe, like everyone else in this business, they’re just full of shit.