Finding Humor in Absurdity: “The Hilarious World of Depression” Podcast

Finding Humor in Absurdity: “The Hilarious World of Depression” Podcast

By: Julia Daley

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It might seem a bit, well, odd to make jokes about depression, a mental illness that is not particularly known for its sense of humor, but let’s tune in to the wisdom of John Moe, someone acclaimed for his lighthearted approach to depression. John Moe and his team lambast depression in all of its bizarre manifestations with each episode of their podcast series. The podcast series’ inaugural episode was released on December 12, 2016, and the final episode aired on May 25, 2020. Yes, the series has sadly come to an end, but the entire four years of archives remain available to listen to for free on their website. For the purposes of this review, I picked out two episodes I found intriguing: “Depression’s Eleven Big Lies EXPOSED!” and “Imposter Syndrome: True Tales, Tricks, and Tactics for When You’re Feeling Fraudulent.” I approached listening to this podcast as a teacher, a brain nerd, and as someone who has fought their fair share of battles against depression.

General Overview

Moe himself seems well aware that putting “hilarious” and “depression” together as a kind of weird oxymoron might be confusing to listeners, so he prefaces each episode by explaining the premise of his podcast: that depression comes with plenty of quirks and commonalities that we can—and perhaps should—laugh about. What makes the podcast endearing, though, are the constant affirmations spread throughout, assuring depressed listeners that they are indeed worthy of being loved and happy. I was surprised to find how meaningful these repeated reassurances felt when delivered in the same straightforward tone of voice Moe uses for delivering jokes and punchlines. Perhaps because I could never quite predict when the affirmations were coming, they packed more of an emotional punch.

The podcast has its own terminology, and it can feel a little bit like being the new kid at the lunch group when first trying to decipher it. (And isn’t that just the greatest feeling ever?) So, let me give you a head start by explaining two of the commonly used ones: Clini-D refers to “clinical depression,” and THWoD-balls (rhymes with oddballs) are regular listeners to The Hilarious World of Depression podcast. Episodes feature a mix of monologuing from Moe, anecdotes from THWoD-balls from around the world, and interviews with experts, celebrities, and intellectuals on a particular facet of depression. In the two episodes I listened to, there was heavy emphasis on personal anecdotes and not so much focus on the science, though some facts regarding depression were briefly alluded to in both. With how nonchalantly Moe breezed over the scientific tidbits about depression, I can only assume that this information was a review from previous episodes where they were explored more deeply.

Depression’s Eleven Lies

This episode personifies Depression as a liar, a “gifted mimic” that “talks to you in your own voice,” and the THWoD-balls have set out on a journalistic endeavor to uncover the truth. Anecdotes anchor this episode, as two or three people share their personal experiences of being “lied to” in a particular way by their depression. The contributors are from all over the world, from the USA to the UK to Australia. After each series of anecdotes, Moe summarizes their common theme, explaining which of the eleven “lies” we heard, and ends by explaining the “truth.” It might seem cheesy, but it was an interesting psychological experiment to treat depression as a sentient monster—almost as if, by making it tangible, it somehow became easier to confront its insidious effects in my life.

I will not go into detail on all eleven lies, but I will instead highlight a few I found compelling:

  • Lie #1: You aren’t really depressed

A number of listeners share how they felt they were not really depressed and how their depression had convinced them that what they were feeling wasn’t “that bad,” and they should just work a bit harder and get over it without seeking treatment. The anecdotes here are heartfelt and emotional as the self-professed THWoD-balls describe how this lie prevented them from getting the help they needed for far, far too long. Moe ends this bit by talking about how “toughing it out” is counter-productive for battling depression, as exhaustion makes us more prone to depression, resulting in a vicious cycle.

  • Lie #6: No one else feels like you do

When depression tells this lie, it convinces people that no one else in the world feels the same things they do and that their pain is one of a kind. The personal stories from listeners make this lie readily apparent: clearly, others are experiencing depression in many similar ways. After all, that is the entire premise of the podcast! Moe reminds readers that they aren’t alone, and not to let this lie stop them from getting the treatment they need.

  • Lie #8: Don’t get treatment because it won’t be the “real you”

This lie is nefarious because it convinces people that any medication or treatment they receive will change who they are at a fundamental level, almost as if the depression is an integral part of their personality. The anecdotes here are deeply felt, with the contributors describing their fear of getting the help they needed. Moe emphatically explains that depression can only be battled with therapy and medication and encourages listeners to get help for their depression.

Imposter Syndrome

This facet of depression is near and dear to my heart, so I was curious to see what tips and tricks Moe and the THWoD-balls would offer for combating it. Fortunately, for those unfamiliar with this concept, Moe begins the episode by explaining this phenomenon: that nagging feeling of not being good enough to belong somewhere, that you are a “fake,” “fraud,” or an “imposter” who is just one mistake away from being “found out.” I think this is something many of us have felt at one point or another, especially early in our careers; what moves it into depressive territory is when you start engaging in self-destructive behavior to create a self-fulfilling prophesy: “I am not good enough to do this presentation, so why bother practicing since it won’t make a difference anyways” and then giving a poor presentation due to that lack of practice, affirming that “imposter” feeling and setting yourself up for future failures.

One of the first listener contributions talks about the Dunning-Kruger effect, where someone with low ability has “illusory superiority,” or thinks that they are much more skilled at a task than they actually are. This is kind of like the opposite of imposter syndrome, but this particular listener found that thinking about this effect in reverse helped him overcome his feelings of Imposter Syndrome: that perhaps, people who think they are incompetent may instead be doing just fine.

Moe then interviews Dr. Valerie Young, the author of a book about imposter syndrome in successful women. They talk about how depression and Imposter Syndrome are often connected, as having low self-worth is an inherent part of being depressed. They discuss how some fields are more prone to creating this “fraudster” feeling in people; Dr. Young mentions one statistic about how graduate students have six times the rates of depression of the general population. Following this discussion are quite a few listener anecdotes from academia, which I could particularly relate to as a teacher and a former graduate student (whose graduate school orientation was mainly filled with information about local mental health resources). Throughout the episode are reminders to the listeners that they are worthy and do not need to prove themselves to anyone.

Final Thoughts

Moe often argues during the podcast that depression is something that should be talked about more openly, so that those suffering from it do not feel shame about getting the treatment they need. Having that discussion in regular classes is not something we are trained to do as teachers, nor should our office hours become impromptu therapy sessions. Listening to this podcast or reading this ThinkTank issue will not make any of us into psychologists poised to precisely diagnose depression in our students; however, perhaps they can help us to be a little more understanding of some of the internal struggles our students and colleagues may be dealing with. What we can do is be aware of the mental health resources available on our campuses and guide students to them should they communicate that need (in my case, that meant personally walking with a student in crisis to the campus health facility and helping them schedule that first appointment with a psychologist).

On a more positive note, as a teacher, I found I had a lot to learn from Moe and his gift for regularly sprinkling positive affirmations into his monologues. They are the core of the welcoming atmosphere he has created with his podcast, and that is the kind of feeling I’d like to have in my classroom.

Laughing about depression can feel strangely cathartic, or so I discovered after listening to these two episodes. One listener described personifying her depression as a monster whom she brought to life via needlepoint, and how satisfying it felt to stab it “thousands of times” while sewing—a very relatable feeling, and I giggled a fair bit while listening to this particular THWoD-ball. “The Hilarious World of Depression” endearingly mixes humor with heartfelt stories and positive affirmations to create a unique listening experience. I do not know if I consider myself to be a THWoD-ball, nor am I particularly gifted at needlepoint, but I certainly will be giving a few of the tips suggested in these two episodes a try!

Julia Daley is a lecturer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University, where she teaches English conversation and writing. She earned her MA in TESL at Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach secondary English in Arizona. Julia enjoys learning about neuroscience and finding ways to apply the research to her classrooms. She appreciates everyone’s patience as she’s been learning how to build a website.

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