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The sad side of funny: How John Moe turned stories of depression into a podcast that found an audience of millions

John Moe (right) interviews Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy in the guitar-lined "Wilco loft" in Chicago for his "The Hilarious World of Depression" podcast. The two men share a history of battling depression. Photo by American Public Media

Hearing John Moe speak last year in the Twin Cities was an epiphany for Shannon Sweeney Jorgenson.

"I realized as I was sitting there that he was telling my story," Jorgenson recalled last week. "And if he was telling my story, he was telling the stories of thousands of other people."

Moe, creator of a podcast called "The Hilarious World of Depression" for American Public Media, was speaking at that gathering last March on behalf of Make It OK. That's a Minnesota-grown organization whose name corresponds to its mission: making it OK to talk about mental illness.

Jorgenson, who at the time was employee benefits administrator for the city of Duluth, determined then and there to bring Make It OK to her job, she said.

Now volunteering as coordinator for the recently formed collaborative Northland Healthy Minds, Jorgenson is involved in the staging of a series of events in Duluth this month to highlight Mental Health Awareness Month. Among them will be a free talk next Tuesday at Denfeld High School by Moe.

Moe, 49, has a history as an actor, a writer and in public radio programs such as "Marketplace" and "Wits." He originated his podcast in late 2016 as a means to interview comedians and other performers about their struggles with depression.

When the show was launched, he and his producer figured it'd be a success if it got 200,000 downloads and lasted for eight episodes, Moe said. Instead, it attracted millions of downloads and recently completed its second season.

During an interview, Moe spoke about the podcast and how it came about, including thoughts on his interviews with guests such as Duluth native Maria Bamford and with Jeff Tweedy, the frontman for "Duluth honorary band" Wilco.

What follows is an abridged transcript.

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Q. How did you come up with the idea for the podcast?

A. It's a little like making dinner. I needed to come up with a show. I needed to come up with a big idea. And I checked the cupboard and the fridge as to what ingredients I had to work with. And I had been noticing that any time I spoke out about mental health issues, it got a big response, and it seemed like people were eager to talk about it if they just would have permission.

I had been dealing with that in myself for many years. I lost my brother to suicide after basically a long, untreated depression on his part.

And from my days doing "Wits," I noticed a big connection especially with comedians talking about mental health. And so initially I really wanted to explore what it was with comedians that so many of them were talking about this or appeared to be affected by depression, and as I explored the idea a little bit more it soon became really apparent that that wasn't really the story.

The story was how these comedians were able to articulate something that is so difficult to articulate. Depression doesn't have any shape or color; it doesn't show up on an MRI. It's really hard to define. But comedians, good ones, the ones that I like, their whole trade is about articulating the things that you didn't think anybody else was thinking. And then you're so relieved that you're not alone, that you laugh out of a sense of relief.

Q. Well, for instance, Maria Bamford made a career out of that.

Comedian Maria Bamford performs at The College of St. Scholastica in 2012. News Tribune

A. Well, she's made a career out of herself. And herself includes that. Maria was one of the first calls I made because I think she's one of the funniest humans walking the earth. She's one of the very few people who, when I've interviewed her in the past, that I've been unable to continue the interview because I'm just laughing so much.

With Maria, all of her talk about mental health — the talk about her time as an inpatient or her breakdowns — her talking about it comes from such a place of generosity. She wants the laughs. She wants to be a good and successful comedian like anybody does in their job, but a big part of why she talks about this stuff is to disarm it, to make it not so terrifying of a prospect.

Q. I don't know if depression comes with growing up in Duluth, perhaps.

A. (laughing) I don't know. I'll need to listen to my Trampled by Turtles records a little bit closer.

Q. Is there a balance between wanting to give people good information without it being so heavy that they don't want to listen?

A. It's more art than science. We keep both things in mind about going to those deep places as well as getting that breather occasionally. But it's actually a lot easier than you might expect, because if you're talking to a funny person, if you're talking to Rachel Bloom or if you're talking to Maria Bamford or Andy Richter, they are funny people, and they don't use humor as a deflection. A lot of our guests are this way. It's not like I'm going to be serious, but now I'm going to stop being serious and I'm going to make some jokes. The jokes are part of it. The jokes are part of the dialect, the way of speaking.

Q. Does it appear to you that comedians are more susceptible to depression than the average person is?

A. I think in a lot of ways, it's unknowable. I've talked to comedians who say there's just as many dentists who are depressed as there are comedians, but it's part of a comedian's job more than a dentist's. If a dentist was talking to you about suicidal ideation while drilling your teeth, you probably wouldn't return to that dentist.

I also have heard the idea that it does attract more people whose brains are non-average because if you don't feel like you're a part of the world that everybody else is in, then you're more likely to comment on that world. If you're brain isn't set up the same way everybody else's is, or how you perceive everybody else's is, you can notice what is funny about the normies.

Q. Have you had any particularly memorable interviews on the podcast?

A. I think every interview I do has these really memorable breakthrough moments. We went and interviewed Jeff Tweedy down at the Wilco loft in Chicago. That was just incredible because it's where they recorded a lot of their music, and they have hundreds of antique guitars and amps all along the walls. And Jeff has been a musical hero of mine for a long time. I adore his writing, his playing and his singing. So getting to open up his brain a little bit with him was really amazing, especially because right after we were done he said, "Hey do you guys want to hear some tracks I recorded with Mavis yesterday?" He'd been recording with Mavis Staples and we're like: Yes, I do. So to listen to Jeff and Mavis with Jeff just sitting on the couch was pretty great.

Q. You told me that when you give talks, you like to build in time at the end because people like to come up to you and share their stories. Was that unexpected?

A. When I first started doing it, yeah. There's a lot of holding hands. There's a lot of people shaking my hand and then not letting go because they want to keep that connection with me. And it's not just at speeches. It happened in the produce section at Lunds the other day. I was just going to buy some oranges, and them I'm holding hands with this man for five minutes.

If I have time, I'm happy to do it. It's certainly not something that's come up in my broadcasting career prior to this program.

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Events mark monthlong mental health observance

If it seems that a number of activities involving mental health are taking place this month, it's no coincidence.

The reason all of this is happening in May is that it's Mental Health Awareness Month. The reason it's happening at all stems from an unexpected phone call Shannon Sweeney Jorgenson received just before Christmas.

Jorgenson was finishing her work as employee benefits administrator for the city of Duluth, where she had initiated the Make It OK campaign locally.

The call came from Health Partners, the Twin Cities firm that was one of the originators of the campaign in Minnesota, Jorgenson explained.

"They came through with $20,000," Jorgenson said. "They said, 'You guys are doing amazing things in Duluth and in the surrounding community, and we just want to see it flourish.'"

It's also addressing a need. In the 2015 "Bridge to Health Survey" of the Northland, one in four people noted they've been diagnosed with depression, said Jenny Peterson, executive director of Generations Health Care Initiatives, a partner in Northland Healthy Minds.

"We're all impacted," Peterson said. "If there's a member of our family, a friend, a neighbor has mental illness, a co-worker — we all wonder what to do."

The Health Partners grant is the monetary force behind a number of free events being offered this month, many of which also include free food. Among key events still ahead, in addition to Moe's talk:

• 6:30 p.m. today — A free showing of the documentary "Suicide: The Ripple Effect," followed by a discussion led by Carolyn Phelps, Zeitgeist Zinema, 222 E. Superior St.

• 5:15 p.m. May 24 — A free dinner followed by a presentation (at 6 p.m.) on the link between tobacco use and mental health with Pat McKone of the American Lung Association, Community Action Duluth, 2424 W. Fifth St.

• 5 to 6 p.m. May 31 — Laughter yoga, free; no special equipment or workout clothing needed. It will be at Leif Erickson Park, 1301 London Road.

If you go

What: A free community dinner and mental health resource fair featuring podcast host John Moe (his presentation is rated PG-13)

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 22 (dinner will be served at 5:30 p.m., and Moe will speak at 7 p.m.)

Where: Denfeld High School, 401 N. 44th Ave. W.

Listen

You can access John Moe's "The Hilarious World of Depression" podcasts at www.apmpodcasts.org/thwod/

Get help

Local mental health care resources:

• Birch Tree Center, 24-hour crisis line, (218) 623-1800

• Txt4life/Crisis Text Line, Text "MN" to 741741 and a counselor will text back

• Northland Children's Mental Health Collaborative, visit northlandchildrensmentalhealth.org

• NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Duluth area, visit namidulutharea.com

• Let's Talk, Region 3 Mental Health Initiative, 24-hour mental health resources at letstalkmn.com

Source: Northland Healthy Minds

What to say (and not say)

Talking about mental illnesses can be difficult, says the Make It OK organization. Here are some tips.

What to say:

• "Thanks for opening up to me."

• "How can I help?"

• "Thanks for sharing."

• "I'm sorry to hear that. It must be tough."

• "I'm here for you when you need me."

• "I can't imagine what you're going through."

• "People do get better."

• "Can I drive you to an appointment?"

• "How are you feeling today?"

• "I love you."

What not to say:

• "It could be worse."

• "Just deal with it."

• "Snap out of it."

• "Everyone feels that way sometimes."

• "You may have brought this on yourself."

• "We've all been there."

• "You've got to pull yourself together."

• "Maybe try thinking happier thoughts."

• "Oh man, that sucks."

Learn more at MakeItOK.org.

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