Brody Stevens’ 818 Day is a reminder of the mental health issues comedians still face
Comedian Brody Stevens was found hanged on February 22, 2019 at the age of 48 and the impact on the comedy community was immediate. Comedy clubs and festivals across the country felt a stronger commitment to promoting mental health resources. The topic of depression shifted from joke fodder onstage to serious conversations backstage. Other comedians gathered in Stevens’ honor in August for an informal 818 walk, named after his childhood San Fernando Valley area code, which he often referenced in his self-deprecating plays. In 2021, the second episode of 818 Day included the official dedication of an LA Parks Foundation memorial bench honoring Stevens, funded by Mauricio Alvarado of Rockin pins from a design he had created with Stevens before the comic died.
As of 2019, Stevens’ sister Stephanie Brody recalled, “I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve received from people saying my brother was the first — and sometimes only — person to reach out and helped them when they started. … We always knew that my brother was a caring and kind person. But the stories we read took what we knew about him to a whole different level.”
On Thursday, August 18 at 8 p.m., the late comedian’s home club, The Comedy Store, will host a special Brody Stevens 818 Day Show, followed by the now-annual Brody Stevens Festival of Friendship 818 Walk in Reseda on Saturday, August 20 Aug.
This year’s event has partners to benefit from comedy returns, a 501(c)(3) charity that helps artists in need of mental health support and addiction treatment. After Stevens’ death, the organization shifted its focus from gala fundraising to grassroots work, raising awareness of the darker side of the seemingly light-hearted cast.
“Brody has always shown audiences all sides of herself,” says Zoe Friedman, a longtime producer and booker who founded comedy Gives Back in 2011 with Jodi Lieberman and Amber J. Lawson. “His comedy made you feel like you were hearing what was going on in his brain and that he was articulating it in real time. He gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look at his inner workings.”
Friedman says her favorite part of the Festival of Friendship is the love from comedians and fans who want to keep remembering Stevens while bringing the topic of suicide to the fore. “If we don’t talk about it, we’re perpetuating the stigma around them,” Friedman says. “The more we can talk about Brody and why we lost him, I believe and hope we can help others.”
Saturday’s celebrations begin at 9:30 am with the unveiling of a new “Brody Forever 818” mural at the Firehouse Taverna Restaurant (18450 Victory Blvd.) featuring Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, Stephanie Brody and additional family members. At 11:00 am, a 5K walk beginning at Reseda Park (18411 Victory Blvd.) takes participants across the Los Angeles River and past Reseda High School, where Stevens was a star pitcher on the Regents baseball team. Registration is free $50 in advance or $60 on the day after 10:00 am and includes a gift bag. This will be followed by a celebration at the memorial bench from 1:00pm to 3:00pm with speakers, comedian friends, a raffle, a photo booth, food trucks and music by DJ Dense of the LA Clippers. Merchandise including shirts and Rockin Pins in Stevens’ enamelled likeness will be available.
The Valley native was born Steven James Brody on May 22, 1970. He played Division I baseball at Arizona State University, although an arm injury ended a promising pro career. Stevens spent some time developing in the Seattle and New York City comedy scenes before returning to LA. Tall and fit throughout his life, he remained a staunch supporter of physical activity and healthy eating.
In LA, Stevens is known as a warm-up for shows ranging from Fox Sports’ “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” and E!’s “Chelsea Lately.” to Comedy Central’s “The Jeselnik Offensive” and MTV’s “Ridiculousness.” As Stevens proudly stated on stage for his film credits, “‘Hangover’ in it! ‘Hangover II’ in! ‘Due Date’ in! Excerpt from ‘Funny People’ …”
His biographical one-liners (“I’m intense! I get BO in the shower!”) sounded more barked than said. Confrontations with viewers with deer-in-the-headlight looks became a favorite part of any night among their peers. Despite catchphrases like “Positive Energy!” or “Push and believe!” being close to him, he knew his big smile could feel unmistakably forced.
Stevens described himself as a troubled child. “I was touched. But not by an angel,” began one of his most popular jokes. “The perpetrator was supposed to get three years, but the judge gave him six. Why that? Because I was molested in a construction site.” It couldn’t do everything be all true, but as a talent known for brutal honesty, right?
He battled depression from a young age and took various medications on and off from his 20s. Audiences and interviewers were often informed that he had developed “autism in adulthood.” In 2010, while filming his docuseries Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! with executive producer Zach Galifianakis, he was hospitalized for 17 days in the Psychiatric Wing of UCLA Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
His 2017 special Live From the Main Room, filmed at the Comedy Store, divided online comedy fans. Despite acclaim as the “prince of the periscope,” he was often nixed by negative interactions on social media. Stevens resumed antipsychotic medication shortly before his death.
Stevens’ sister Stephanie, who occasionally appeared as an antagonist in his jokes, says he brought a much-needed awareness of mental illness and the challenges it brings to the comedy industry.
“He put a face to the disease and made it visible to everyone. He wanted people to see that there was nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about,” she says. “I see comedians speaking more openly about their own struggles with mental illness and how they’ve dealt with it. I see comedians supporting each other and being there for each other. I know he would be proud of the impact he made…as proud as our family is of him.”
In the run-up to this year’s Friendship Festival, it was pointed out that the process of destigmatization is far from over. On Thursday, July 14, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline publicly announced that its 10-digit 800 number would be changed to the simpler 988. Later that same evening, the body of popular scene staple Jak Knight, a hugely successful actor, producer, writer and stand-up artist, was discovered on an embankment in Boyle Heights with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Like Stevens, Knight was known for his upbeat mood and welcoming nature.
“Telling strangers things about yourself sounds more like a therapy session than a job. But that’s the job they choose. It’s not for everyone,” says Friedman. She cites family dysfunction, trauma, depression, and general feelings of being different as psychological reasons performers may be drawn to the profession.
“Also, their lifestyle can be very harsh and isolating: being on the move, sleeping late, being alone for long periods of the day to fixate and take care of things. Comedians help make audiences feel better by making us laugh. I hope that the process of telling their jokes can help them feel better too. It only seems fair, doesn’t it?”
Or as Stephanie Brody puts it: “The job of a comedian is to make people laugh. People assume if someone is funny they must be happy too. That’s not necessarily true… The struggles that comedians experience are often drowned out by the sound of laughter. For this reason, the comedy world is often overlooked when it comes to mental health awareness. Opening up and talking about mental illness helps break the stigma. I’ve noticed a gradual change in this mindset. But our society needs to get to a point where we don’t have to be ashamed of mental illness anymore. I think we’re on the right track, but we still have a long way to go.”