Episode 21: Frank Conniff
Try to guess how Frank (Mystery Science Theater 3000, Cinematic Titanic) and Paul manage to delve into: Toots Shor, Nikita Kruschev, crippling depressions, drunk driving, collpsed buildings, social anxiety, spiritual satellites and Ed McMahon’s cock!
Paul: Welcome to episode 21, with my guest Frank Conniff. I’m Paul Gilmartin. This is the Mental Illness Happy Hour, an hour of honesty about all the battles in our heads, from medically diagnosed conditions to everyday compulsive negative thinking, feelings of dissatisfaction, disconnection, inadequacy, and that vague sinking feeling that the world is passing us by. You give us an hour, we’ll give you a hot ladle of awkward and icky. And I gotta tell you, I’m glad you’re downloading this episode, because we manage, in one episode, to cover Toots Shor, Nikita Khrushchev, Pulitzer Prizes, being ignored by dads, spiritual GPSs, and Ed McMahon’s cock. But before we get to that, a few notes.
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I’ve really been in my head this last week. Every time I think that I’m out of the woods with my depression and my self-obsession, I manage to backslide, and then that makes me even more depressed. I think maybe he problem is, on Monday I leave to go tape the last episodes of Dinner and a Movie. I’ve been doing the show for Dinner and a Movie, I’ve been hosting the show for 16 years, and I think I’m afraid to really admit to myself that I’m sad and I’m scared that I’m not going to work again after this. And, so I think I’ve just been kind of burying that feeling down inside me. And a friend of mine was going through something at the same time, and I noticed I did something really annoying. Instead of addressing what I was feeling, I tried to fix him. And I came across as pompous and controlling, and a know-it-all.
And that’s one of the things that I hate most about myself. And I have this fear that I’ve driven my friend away. And I’m going to talk to him Sunday, and hopefully I haven’t done that. Maybe it’s just in my head. But, I guess one of the good things about working on yourself is you constantly come up with things that you didn’t realize about yourself. And the bad thing is, you constantly come up with things that you didn’t realize about yourself [laughs]. It’s humbling, but I guess ultimately it’s going to make me a better friend and less of a pompous windbag, so I guess that’s a good thing. But I was in so much shame after hanging up with him.
Y’know, I think the fear that’s fucking with me this last week has been the fear that I’m not going to have enough money. Which is connected to believing that I’m alone, that there’s no one to help me, and there’s no one to lean on. But I have to remember that we don’t go through the world alone unless we choose to. And I think those of you that say ‘Well, people don’t really like me,’ I don’t think that’s an excuse. Y’know, yes, some people might not like us, but — and some people hate us — but I think we have to risk reaching out and being rejected to get to the ones who will love us and accept us as we are. And that’s, those people that accept me are the people that I go through the world with. Not alone. And I think the feeling, when I can recognize I’m going through life with this circle of friends that love me and accept me for who I am, it vibrates something in my DNA that just feels really right. It’s just like a, like, when I’m alone and stuck in my head, it’s like a D minor chord on a badly tuned harpsichord, but when I’m connected to people and being honest about what’s going on with me, and I’m taking an interest in their life, it’s just like a beautiful, beautiful G chord. And that’s my cheesy metaphor.
Now, why do I have to make fun that it’s cheesy? Why can’t I just put that out there? Why do I gotta shit on it? Maybe because I’m mentally ill [laughs]. But thank god I’ve got a podcast. Y’know, Jim T gave me a great piece of advice. He tweeted, I think he tweeted this to me, or he sent me an email, but he said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Listen to the thoughts that you have toward yourself. And now imagine a friend saying those things to you. Would you stand for that? You would never let somebody else talk to you like that a second time. So why do you let yourself talk to yourself like that?’
Paul: I’m here with Frank Conniff, who most people know as the voice of Frank, from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. But you’ve done a bunch of other things. You were the show-runner for an animated show, you’ve done voices for other animated shows. What other things, other than Mystery Science Theatre, would people know you from before?
Frank: I don’t think they’d know me for any of it, but I’ve done a lot of stuff.
Frank: No. A lot of people know me, actually the most popular show I’ve ever worked on, I think, was Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.
Paul: That’s right. You were a writer on that.
Frank: I was a writer and producer, and an actor. I very memorably played an infant in an episode on that.
Paul: That’s right.
Frank: Which was typecasting.
Frank: And I did that for four years. I worked on The Drew Carey Show, I worked on —
Paul: Oh! I didn’t know you worked on Drew Carey.
Frank: Yeah, I worked on The Drew Carey Show, and Tom Green’s show on MTV, I worked on that. His talk show.
Paul: Ok. Were Joey and Diane working on Drew Carey?
Frank: They were not. I know who you’re talking about —
Paul: Ok. Yeah, friends of mine from Chicago —
Frank: — but they were not there when I was there. I know a lot of people are friends with them —
Frank: — but I don’t think I know them personally.
Frank: And Invader Zim, I was the head writer of, which is this great animated show on Nickelodeon. And I did a show with Liz Winstead on the Oxygen network, called O2Be, which was a satirical kind of a, what The Daily Show was to, is to news shows, this was to, like, day time talk shows, you know.
Frank: Really — But unfortunately only six episodes. One of my all-time favorite things that I worked on. And I also worked with Liz Winstead, along with Rachel Maddow and Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo and a bunch of people in Air America Radio in New York.
Paul: That’s right. I forgot about Air America.
Paul: And Mark Maron.
Frank: Yeah. I wrote for him there.
Paul: Ok. And you and I know each other from doing Jimmy Dore’s radio show, on —
Frank: Right. Which is my new favorite thing in the world
Paul: It’s fun.
Paul: And I’m always struck every week, no matter what topic comes up, you know the players, you know the information about it. You obviously watch a lot of news and politics, and…
Frank: I go to a lot of lefty political websites every day.
Paul: Yeah. And I’ve said before that I don’t want politics to enter into this podcast. And I don’t know if that’s stupid, for me to do that, or not. But my gut feeling was that… one of the things that I want this podcast to do is to kind of build a little community of people that have these issues in their head that they struggle with —
Paul: — and I feel like politics kind of can poison the water sometimes.
Frank: Well, it seems like those issues would transcend politics, you know?
Frank: Which would transcend being liberal or conservative, you know?
Paul: Yeah. And yet I was talking to you before we started rolling, that last night, it was a bout midnight and I had that, just that uncomfortable feeling that a lot of sober alcoholics have sometimes, where you’re just, you’ve just got, you’re kind of uneasy, and you’re feeling like ‘Oh, I’ve wasted the day. I didn’t what —‘
Paul: ‘— Anything that I was supposed to do. I’m not getting pleasure, really, out of much of anything.’ And you’re just looking for something to bring you comfort or joy.
Paul: And I was flipping around the channels, and I saw All the President’s Men was on in high def. And I just, my heart leapt with joy, and I was — because I hadn’t seen it in, I don’t know, years. And I don’t know why it is that I thought that would be a comforting thing to watch. And it was comforting, and… Why do you think that is?
Frank: Well, first of all it’s such a well-made movie, obviously —
Frank: — And also I think it’s, it just involves people just overcoming obstacles and making a difference in the world, y’know. And I guess it’s always inspiring to see that. And it’s also great to revisit an era, a great era of filmmaking, and also a great era of journalism, when journalists were really willing to be skeptical of power, which doesn’t seem —
Paul: Instead of befriending it so that they can maintain access.
Frank: Yeah, exactly. So —
Paul: And you can’t beat the actors in the newsroom. Oh my god —
Paul: — you’ve got Jason Robards…
Frank: Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, John, I think, is it John McMartin, I think is in it?
Paul: Jack Warden.
Frank: Jack Warden, yeah. Yeah.
Paul: And then, what’s his name, Hal Holbrook —
Frank: Hal Holbrook, yeah.
Paul: — in the shadows, as Deep Throat. I mean, the heavy, heavy, heavyweight actors of the 70s. And then you’ve got Hoffman and Redford, y’know —
Paul: — at their coolest —
Paul: — with their feathered hair.
Frank: Perfectly cast
Paul: It just warmed my heart
Paul: And I guess the reason I bring this up is I know that you can relate, as a person who suffers from depression, what it’s like searching for something to bring you comfort and joy. And you could be living this awesome middle class existence, where your immediate survival is taken care of, and yet you feel so dead inside.
Paul: You and I have talked about this off the air. You’ve been sober how many years?
Frank: I’ve been sober 25 years. If I make it to October —
Frank: October 3rd it’ll be 26 years.
Paul: That’s fantastic. Congratulations.
Frank: Thank you. Thank you.
Paul: And yet you often describe, when we bump into each other every Wednesday or Thursday, “Frank, how you doing?” And you’ll say, “Other than my crippling depression? I’m doing great.”
Frank: [laughs] That’s my stock line —
Frank: — because it’s usually true. But —
Paul: Yeah. So let’s, where would be a good place to start?
Frank: …With my depression [laughs].
Paul: Yeah! Should be start from what your, what it was like growing up?
Frank: Well I grew up in a, I grew up around depression. My mother — god rest her soul. She died a couple years ago — But she suffered, had major bouts with depression, back in a time when I don’t think it was treated with as much knowledge as it’s treated today. So when I was growing up, she was in and out of hospitals a great deal. And I didn’t really understand it as much back then, but she would go in and be in the hospital for a while. And, y’know, she had shock treatments, and —
Frank: But I think the, I think in terms of, y’know, the way the doctors medicated her probably wasn’t smart. I don’t think they made things any better. And eventually she sobered up, and —
Paul: What was she treating herself with?
Frank: Well, when she was in the throes of her depression, she — they were giving her, I don’t know exactly the name of the pills, I just know that in terms of getting you buzzed they were awesome, because I would go into her medicine cabinet —
Frank: — and take them, and help myself to them. And it was like the era when antidepressants, I think were more like speed, y’know, and drugs,
Paul: Yeah. Speed or Valium seem to be the two biggies.
Frank: [laughs] Yeah. Right. They were, y’know, real genuine mood and mind altering drugs, —
Frank: — and —
Paul: The short-term effects were fantastic, —
Paul: — but the long-term effects were terrible.
Frank: And the funny thing is, is back in that era and a little before, a lot of people were treated, were given Benzadrine by doctors, y’know, ‘Oh, doctor, I’m feeling run down.’ And real, like workoholic people would just be prescribed Benzadrine — David O. Selznick, the famous, the producer of Gone With the Wind, was famous for always being high on speed. And he would write these, like, endless memos that were really famous, to people, and —
Frank: — and Hugh Hefner admits that he took a lot of it back in the heyday of Playboy. And —
Paul: There’s a great documentary about him and —
Frank: I saw that, yeah.
Frank: And Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote My Fair Lady, he would go in and shots every day from a guy, I forget his real name but he was known as Dr. Feelgood. He treated John F. Kennedy, all these like, famous and accomplished people could just go in, and this guy just, above board, legally, get shots of speed every day.
Paul: The Beatles —
Paul: — that’s what the Beatles lived on in their Hamburg days: —
Paul: — beer and speed. And —
Frank: And I’m saying, why can’t we bring those days back? Those were awesome [laughs].
Paul: I have to say, speed got me through a couple of years of college. It just allows you to focus. And I was lucky enough to wean myself off it, but one of my roommates, and then went on to become a doctor, then started dealing meth —
Frank: oh, no.
Paul: — to pay for his hookers. And eventually got arrested in Georgia, and did like five years in Georgia. But we used to that he was a speed freak. And he was, he was an absolute speed freak. But it helped him get good grades, so it’s like —
Frank: Well, there’s a conseq — the thing is, obviously there’s a consequence for that, y’know —
Frank: — and I think we’ve, hopefully those us who don’t, who have sworn of mind altering drugs are trying to find, like a more, a way through all that that doesn’t have the huge consequences.
Paul: Yeah. Yeah, and we’ve said before on this podcast that the modern-day antidepressants are not that. They don’t bring you euphoria, they just give you a chance to be normal.
Paul: Do you take —
Frank: I have taken them. I’m not currently on them. But I’ve taken them in the past, and they have helped me.
Paul: Yeah. So why not go on them again? If you’re feeling —
Frank: I’m thinking about it [laughs].
Frank: I’m, y’know, I’m considering it.
Paul: So, having crippling depression [both laugh] isn’t that, that doesn’t trigger the decision to go on, to step up the regime —
Frank: Yeah, I… y’know my problem is when I am in a depression, is then I have a hard time — and this probably is the case for a lot of people — doing the practical things you need to do. Y’know, just making the phone call, and then making the appointment, and then going to the appointment. Stuff like that is, like overwhelming.
Paul: Absolutely overwhelming, because in your mind, you think, ‘I’m going to make a mistake. I’m not going to do it perfectly. —‘
Paul: ‘— I’m going to make the wrong choice. I’m going to waste my time. And I’m going to have to be outside the house dealing with all of these hassles —‘
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: ‘— It’s would be so much easier to just sleep this away.’
Frank: Yeah, to just watch All the President’s Men — [laughs]
Paul: Oh, it’s so comforting.
Frank: — until it goes away.
Paul: It’s so comforting.
Frank: Yeah, and you know, there’s the phrase ‘knowledge is power’ and I think it’s really true when you’re going through a crisis period in your life. Like, you try to stay away from knowledge, like you just want to block everything out. But then when you get the knowledge about things, it does make things easier and better, you know.
Paul: But there’s this status quo that’s so rotten, but you want to hang onto it because it’s all you know. The familiar, it seems like it’s your own worst enemy when you’re depressed. It’s like this stinky blanket —
Paul: — you don’t want to trade in, —
Paul: — and the world is telling you, ‘your blanket is covered in feces,’ but you’re like —
Paul: —‘No, it’s all I know! I don’t want to be cold! —‘
Frank: Yeah. [laughs]
Paul: ‘— I don’t want to let go of my blanket!’
Frank: Absolutely. And the funny thing is, though, is the cliché about depression is, y’know, ‘I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed.’ And my thing is, is ‘I’m so depressed I have to get out of bed,’ because the subconscious is my enemy when I’m in that state. So in other words, when I first wake up in the morning, and I’m in the area between consciousness and sub-consciousness, the sub-consciousness is just raging with demons. Y’know, just like completely messing with my head. And it’s only when I get out of bed and at least, y’know, get out of bed, drink a Diet Coke or whatever, and get away from that subconscious, that I start, I can like make myself feel better within the day. But if I just — But going back to sleep is like the worst option at that point.
Paul: Oh, I’m completely different, but I want to talk about you. Be more specific if you can about your raging subconscious. What do —
Frank: Well, I think that a lot of times — and this happens, too like, even when things are going well for me and I’m relatively contented with my life. Sometimes, though, my dreams, and I don’t always remember them, but they will like, my subconscious will be saying to me, “Frank, we want you to wake up feeling bad about yourself.” Whatever it is that the subconscious is doing to make me wake up in a state of fear, and self-loathing. And it just seems a lot of times that’s where my subconscious seems to want me to be. And I have to — but luckily I have the ability to, when I wake up, to kind of snap myself out of that, and get away from that.
And then, when I’m writing, y’know, then I’m using the subconscious in a positive way. Then I’m taking what’s deep down within me, and I’m trying to access that, and when it comes out in a creative fashion, then it’s positive and it makes you feel good. I feel like writing, for me, is the one, it’s the one positive way I have of being inside my head. Because every other form of being inside my head is really bad for me. The best thing for any depression, or anything I’m going through is to get outside of my head, and not be dwelling on myself, me, ‘What’s going to happen to me? Why am I like this?’ Y’know, me, my career, my life, my relationships, just like —
Frank: — ruminating inside of your head, all this stuff that’s just self-involved and about you.
Paul: It’s such a dead end.
Frank: Right. It’s like when you — y’know, that’s why — it’s like, being engaged with other people, being of service to other people is very helpful to your spirits, because for no other than it gets you out of your own head.
Paul: Yeah. I get emails from people that say, some people say, ‘I love the talk about spirituality. Keep it up.’ And then I get other people that say, ‘Enough with the spiritual bullshit.’ And I’m going to have to ignore those people because having a spiritual life has saved my life.
Frank Right. Right.
Paul: It has — you know, to me, one of the side effects of being depressed is your spirit is just flat. And I think it’s one of the reasons why we turn to drugs and alcohol, —
Paul: — is because it temporarily, y’know, lifts your spirit. To me, there’s a couple of things that you have to do to treat depression, and one of them is, I think you have to deal with the stuff that, the medical issues. You know, if you lack a chemical in your brain, you’ve obviously got to —
Paul: You’ve got to take stuff for that. But you’ve also got to find a way to get out of yourself. And you just touched on that.
Paul: Let’s go back —
Frank: I guess I would say that when I’m the subconscious state, like, that’s when I’m so far inside myself, and it feels dangerous.
Paul: Because it presents itself as reality, —
Paul: — y’know, I’ve said before, it’s the most believable evil prosecuting attorney in the world. It presents the truth in a way that is so believable, it convinces me that I’ve fucked up. Y’know, ‘It’s all downhill from here. There’s no help. — ‘
Paul: ‘— I’m broken. Nobody else understands me. And I might as well give up.’ And that’s not the truth. There’s a gazillion people that feel that exact same way.
Frank: Right. Right. And when I’m in that state, too, I can look back to when I’ve been in that state before, and realize that I snapped out of it and things got better. And yet, I still won’t believe, when I’m in that state, that’s going to happen this time.
Paul: It’s Clarence Darrow. I mean, it’s just, it’s so incredibly believable.
Frank: It’s Clarence Darrow. In my mind is Leopold and Loeb, so —
Paul: [laughs] Well, I want to congratulate your mind on going to the University of Chicago. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Paul: Let’s go back to what it was like growing up. You grew up in Manhattan?
Frank: I grew up in Mannhattan, and —
Paul: What was that like?
Frank: That was —
Paul: You were born in the late 50s, so you —
Frank: Yeah, I was born 1956 and we grew up in Manhattan. And I always say, because I love New York City so much, I always say, “I had a really difficult childhood, but at least it was a difficult childhood in New York.” That, I’m grateful for. But —
Paul: Can you elaborate on that? I mean, I know you’re making a joke, but what were some of the cool things — I know you have nothing to compare it to, because you weren’t raised another place, but what, give me some snapshots from your childhood, that —
Frank: Well, I should first point out that — I talked about my mother. My father was a journalist, and worked for Hearst Newspapers in New York. And he led a very, what seemed to me to be a very glamorous, exciting life. He was travelling all the time, he knew every world leader, every President. He knew everyone in show business. He know every sports figure. And he was out, and — the one thing that wasn’t that interesting to him was his family — [laughs]
Frank: — which I kind of understand. But he was — And I heard a story, for a while we lived in New Rochelle, which, as you Dick Van Dyke fans will know, that’s a suburb of New York City where Rob and Laura Petrie lived. And we lived there for a while, very early in my childhood. And I heard this story, that my dad never bought a round-trip train ticket when he went into the city. Like, he always just was like, hoping something, or he knew something fun was going to happen, he wasn’t going to have to come back home.
Paul: That’s a true story?
Frank: Yeah, that’s a story I heard y’know. A lot of the stuff —
Paul: Who did you hear these stories from?
Frank: I think one of my brothers, or my mother might have told me that.
Paul: So he would not come home sometimes, for —
Frank: Well, a lot of times he wouldn’t come home because it was, he was genuinely, y’know, he was every kind of –oholic, including alcoholic. But he was, more than anything else he was a workoholic. And I think he loved his job, and he loved the world of his job. And he loved — and this I can completely relate to — he loved restaurants and nightclubs in New York. He loved the night life in New York. He loved being a part of all of that. And he loved the excitement of the world, y’know. So he’d go to Washington, DC a lot to interview —
Paul: What did he cover? Everything?
Frank: He mainly covered politics. But he also, he was a huge sports buff, so he was very immersed in the world of sports. He hung out a place in New York called Toots Shor’s —
Paul: Oh, yeah! That was the place. That’s where Sinatra and —
Frank: That’s where everyone — and Toot Shor was — I grew up, our family, he was like a very close family friend, and we called him “Uncle Toots.”
Frank: Yes. And —
Paul: Did you meet Mickey Mantle? Because he hung out there, too.
Frank: I didn’t meet Mickey Mantle. My brothers did… So that was like my father’s, I’m tempted to say Toots Shor’s was my father’s home away from home, but I think our home was his home away from Toots Shor’s —
Frank: — is more likely.
Paul: Yeah. But —
Paul: I got to say, even if I’m you’re dad, and I’ve got a little bit of sobriety and I know what’s right, how do I come home to you vs. Toots Shor?
Frank: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Frank: And so he was very into, and like I said, he was very driven and… but this like, kind of… that’s the fun, exciting side of it, that to this day I still am very enamored of. But it also takes us to the dark side of it, and that he was driven, and that he drove himself to a very early death. He had a stroke, a massive stroke when I was ten years old. And that left him incapacitated for five years before he finally died of a heart attack. And through all that time, my mother was going through, was in and out of hospitals, and —
Paul: Oh my god.
Frank: — and my father’s condition — and he was in and out of hospitals — So my father’s condition just added to my mother’s condition. And then our home life, which was five kids —
Paul: Oh my god.
Frank: — My two older brothers, Tony and Mike; my younger brother, Rex; my sister, Lucy; we were just like, in a state of complete chaos. And it was ripe for, y’know, it was right as the 60s are happening and everything, so it was ripe for people like myself, without any real direction at home, or any supervision, to just get into all kinds of trouble.
Paul: So, what kind — I mean, talk about the feeling that you had inside, with a dad who’s incapacitated, and mom, would it be fair to say that your mom was… Was she ever suicidal, or was she —
Frank: I think she was, yeah. She… I don’t think there was ever a thing where she attempted suicide, and the doctors… but I think she as in an intense state of depression, and was, when she was in the hospital, I think she was being observed, and was considered a danger of that happening.
Paul: Yeah. So what — Can you describe any of the memories or feelings that you had during that five-year period when you dad was incapacitated and your mom was in and out of the hospitals?
Frank: Well, the thing about it is that it all seemed normal to me, because it was all that I knew. I knew that it was chaotic, and that it was crazy, but it kind of — this sort of comes back, in a way, to what you were saying about how you need the comfort of All the President’s Men. I, being a kid who was enamored of show business and movies and TV and music, I really lost myself in that a lot. Like, I was, I just watched TV a lot. I was, just imagined myself on the Dean Martin Show [laughs].
Frank: Y’know, I just like, was always kind of looking towards, like, what, y’know, when I would move on with my life, and be doing that one day. And so I think the fantasy of that was, y’know, kept me going. And just, I think when you’re a kid, you know, you just endure… I think when you’re a kid you have a strength to endure things that maybe you lose when you become and adult in a way.
Paul: I agree. I agree, yeah, there’s a resiliency that kids have, a hope that is kind of hard to extinguish.
Frank: There’s a line in the movie The Night of the Hunter, which is one of my favorite movies of all time, at the end, Lillian Gish, the character says, “God bless children. By and by, they endure.” Y’know, it’s very true. It’s like you really, when you’re a kid you just have this natural tendency to endure things a lot of the time. And then when you’re an adult, you fall apart [laughs]
Paul: [laughs] So you’re fantasy life became, started to get rich, and your dreams of doing something creative, would it be —
Frank: Yeah, like being a comedian, you know. Which, I know a lot of comedians who say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even really think about being a comedian until I was in my twenties, and then there was a club, and on a dare I got up on stage, and then I became a comedian.’ I’m like, someone who was always very enamored with comedians and show business, and movies, and the arts, and all that stuff, from a very young age. And part of it was my dad was very hooked into that world. My dad was friends with Jackie Gleeson and Phil Silvers —
Paul: Oh my god.
Frank: — and all these people, so it didn’t seem as exotic a world to me as it might seem to other people, because we were pretty, we were on the periphery of it.
Paul: Right. Did any of those people ever come visit your house?
Frank: I never… there was —
Paul: How did you ever interact with them? Or did you never, you just heard stories —
Frank: I did, yeah I didn’t get to meet them. I did, my brother Tony just recently told me — and he’s like four years older than me. And he being the oldest, is kind of the only one of us that really did stuff with my dad, because by the time I came along, my dad really didn’t do a lot of stuff with us, y’know. But —
Paul: Plus, you just weren’t that interesting as a kid.
Frank: I wasn’t. [laughs] He —
Paul: I’m going to blame you. I’m going to say if you would’ve picked up, carried a little more water, Frank, —
Frank: Well, and yeah, I mean my dad was, like I said was talking to world leaders. He didn’t necessarily want to hear about the latest episode of The Man From UNCLE, which is all — [laughs]
Frank: — which is all I wanted to talk about. But, no, my brother Tony recently told me — I never knew this before and I was so jealous — that my dad took him to see Phil Silvers in the musical Do Re Mi, which was a musical Phil Silvers was in in 1960. And they met him backstage. And I was just like, overcome with jealousy when I heard about that.
Paul: Oh my god. I bet.
Frank: I’m glad I didn’t know that until now. [laughs]
Paul: Oh, really? Wow. Wow. Let’s —
Frank: But I did meet Ed McMahon at Toots Shor’s one time.
Paul: Did you?
Paul: I am not impressed by that in the least.
Paul: Can I tell you my Ed McMahon story?
Frank: Sure, sure.
Paul: When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1994, Star Search was on the air, and there was no show that comedians had less respect for —
Paul: — than Star Search. You were performing for these, kind of, theme park audiences. Mostly you had to do your most vanilla material.
Paul: And winning on Star Search was really a badge of shame, more than anything.
Frank: [laughs] It was.
Paul: And so when I moved to LA and I got an agent, the first thing I said was, “I will do anything except Star Search.” So, of course, I need rent money, —
Paul: — “They want you to do Star Search.” So I said, “Ok. I’ll go do it.” But very begrudgingly. And knowing I’m going to lose right away, because “I’m edgy!”
Well, I win.
Paul: And then I win again.
Paul: And I win, like four times. And I had to find a way to make it, to live with myself being on it. So, I would do things to amuse myself. And one of them was giving Ed McMahon —
Frank: A blow job?
Paul: That’s right. And working his ball bag backstage.
Paul: He — no, by the way, I apologize for my dogs barking in the background. They’re —
Frank: He, whenever Ed McMahon’s name is brought up, he always does that.
Paul: They’re furious. They’re furious.
Frank: Because, y’know, the whole Alpo thing.
Paul: Yeah [both laugh]. So I would give, I noticed that you could give, Ed McMahon would make your introduction. And I noticed that he would just always come in five minutes before you rolled, do a shot of whiskey, and read your intro. And I thought, “They don’t check. You can say whatever you want.” So I would make up credits for myself, just so I could hear it come out of Ed McMahon’s mouth —
Frank: Oh, wow.
Paul: — and to entertain myself. And so, I would give them fake ones, always, but my favorite one was hearing Ed McMahon say, “You may know our next comedian from Baywatch. He plays Jo-Jo, the lotion boy.”
Paul: And so that, whenever I see Ed McMahon, I think about him giving me that fake introduction.
Frank: Well, that whole thing makes it worth doing, makes it worth it doing Star Search.
Paul: It was. And the woman that I lost to, Deb Swisher, I told her before, “If I lose to you, and Ed comes up and shakes our hands, I’m going to fuck with you.” And she was like, “Oh, please don’t. Please don’t.” And the whole crew knew what I was going to do, so when you see Ed come up and congratulate us, I lean over and I whisper into her ear, “Ed has a huge cock.”
Paul: And you just see her eyes pop open, and her shove me, push me away. And —
Frank: Oh. That’s great.
Paul: Yeah. So, it’s funny the things that, that we can —
Frank: Now, can I ask, like being a four-time Star Search champion, did you get gigs from that? Was it helpful?
Paul: No. No, no, no. I did get invited back to compete in the semi-finals against Kevin James. And he beat me, and he went on to win the whole thing. But, — financially it was great, because I got some residual money, —
Paul: — and I think I got health insurance for like a year. But I was kind of ashamed that I was on a show that, to me was the epitome — I heard a comedian, now I don’t know who did this joke, but they said, “Star Search is the only show where the Rolling Stones would lose to Quarterflash.”
Frank: [laughs] But you know, there were a lot of great comedians on Star Search.
Paul: There were.
Frank: None of them —
Paul: Dave Chappelle got the worst rating ever, the lowest score ever —
Frank: Dave Chappelle, Dana Gould was on it.
Frank: Dennis Miller I believe was on it.
Paul: Rosie O’Donnell might have been.
Frank: Yeah. I was a very devoted watcher in its first year. And also, this was an era, too, where… there was actually a time — believe it or not, it’s hard to believe now — when it was like, kind of an event to see stand-up comedians on TV. Not necessarily an event, but it was —
Paul: Pre-1990, —
Paul: — stand-up was interesting, because it hadn’t been, the market hadn’t been saturated —
Frank: Yeah. And so, as a comedian myself, I was always interested to see comedy on TV, so I would watch it. But the first season, that was the year — and they dropped it afterwards — when they had the acting competition.
Paul: Yes. That was fantastic! Fantastic!
Frank: And the acting competition, if someone would, maybe there is a YouTube video of all the acting competitions from that. But I would pay to see that, because you get to see actors, aspiring actors, one set of aspiring actors doing a scene from Barefoot in the Park, and then another aspiring group doing the same scene. And —
Paul: And both doing it badly.
Frank: Yeah, both doing it badly. [laughs]
Paul: And there’s something so delicious about marginally talented people taking themselves really seriously.
Frank: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: I mean, Christopher Guest has carved out a career making fun of those people —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: So let’s go back to —
Frank: Should people like you and I, who deal with depression, really be talking about Star Search? Is there, is that healthy?
Paul: [laughs] You know, looking back on it and laughing at it is, I get some comfort in that. When I look back at the things in my life that I as lucky enough to see that I shouldn’t take seriously, that always makes me feel good —
Paul: — because the bulk of our lives, the problem has been taking things too seriously, that didn’t need to be taken seriously.
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: And I think that’s, I could be wrong, but I think that’s one of the hallmarks of depression, is you —
Paul: — become a very, very serious person. And maybe that’s where our humor comes from, is trying to balance out that feeling that everything is kind of just, doom.
Frank: Yeah. Well, I always feel like my comedy comes straight from a darkness, you know. It comes from darkness, and it’s a way of trying to turn the darkness into light.
Paul: And you did it through dance — [laughs]
Paul: — which I’ve always admired.
Paul: So, you started using comedy as an escape in your early teens. Your dad passes away. Your mom’s in and out of hospitals. I can’t imagine how delicious that first drinking and drugging must have been.
Frank: Yeah, it was, the first time I got drunk was on three cans of beer. And I got rip-roaring drunk, and I’d never had so much fun in my life.
Paul: Yeah. So you thought, ‘This is it. I’ve found the answer now.“
Frank: Yeah. I don’t think it was, I wasn’t that conscious about finding an answer. In fact, a part of me I think was like, ‘Oh, so this how I’m going to destroy myself.’ You know what I mean? Like —
Paul: Oh! You were —
Frank: — maybe not a conscious, maybe not that conscious. But like to me it’s, in other words, what I saying is it didn’t take me years to figure out I was an alcoholic. I think I was —
Frank: I think I knew it right away.
Frank: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: Wow. So —
Frank: I think I had that, part of me was like, ‘Oh, I can handle this,’ y’know. But I don’t think I was, I think I’m the type of, I have a kind of cynical way of being where, like, I think at the time I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m an alkie. I’m destroying myself —’
Paul: Kinda cool.
Frank: Yeah, ‘That’s just the way I am,’ you know.
Paul: Yeah, there’s a nihilism and —
Frank: Yeah. Yeah.
Paul: — a cynicism that’s so cool when you’re young, but gets kind of tiring —
Frank: Yeah. Yeah, and I, it would have been so great, too, if I had like, — because sometimes I see people sobering up when they’re 19 or whatever, or 18. And it’s so awesome, because I would love to have had my twenties sober, y’know. But it took me until I was 29 until I sobered up.
Frank: And that’s, like, sooner then some people.
Paul: Yeah. That is kind of early.
Frank: But it was like, about 15 years, altogether, of literally getting intoxicated in some form just about every day.
Paul: And can you remember any low lights from that time period of, where you just kind of hit the wall, of where it was really —
Frank: Well, I would say —
Paul: — like got into trouble, or it was really pathetic —
Frank: Well, the funny thing is, is I think the low point came at the very end. I think it was all kind of a low point, and I don’t have any, like spectacular… I mean, my drinking history and my drugging history are so boring. I mean, there’s no like, great stories to tell about it, you know. It’s —
Paul: Can you talk about the feelings, though?
Frank: Yeah —
Paul: Because my bottom wasn’t dramatic, either. But the feelings were dramatic, in that it was this or suicide.
Frank: It just became a very bleak place. And also it just became a point of view of life where all of my expectations were so diminished, y’know. Because I had made my life so small. And this is kind of like the miracle of it, too, and also kind of like an example of how when the worst happens, it’s the best that can happen. Because when I finally went to treatment in Minneapolis — I was sent by my family. They had an intervention, and they sent me — and I was in this state where I had, y’know, I’d been trying to become a comedian, but I was so fucked up that I never got enough stage time together. Y’know, I would miss gigs and stuff. I — not that I had gigs [laughs] it was just open mikes that I should have been doing.
Frank: And then I lost my job — and I always just worked shitty jobs through all that period. Y’know, I was like “Oh, I’m working this shitty job, but I’m really a comedian. I’m really a writer.” And that was true, but I, but the addiction made that all really impossible, difficult.
Paul: You couldn’t commit because of your addiction.
Frank: Yeah, I couldn’t. And when my family had an intervention for me, and they handed me a plane ticker to Minneapolis, I was about to be evicted from where I was living in Brooklyn at the time. And I had no options except being on the street, being homeless, or going into rehab. So, I chose rehab, but it was a very… but I chose to go into rehab because that was my situation. I think if I had had any out at the time, if I had had my rent paid, if I had income coming in, I would have said at the intervention, I would have said, “Oh, you know what? I can handle this.” Like, because when you’re so into that, the habit of your life, as horrible as it is, you don’t want to break out of it. Y’know, it’s, you rationalize —
Paul: It’s that blanket. That rotten blanket.
Frank: Yeah. You rationalize, “Oh, I’ll be fine.” But you don’t want to do something to drastic as to go to a different state and go into treatment. And —
Paul: And the worst thing is, is you know you’re going to have to talk about your feelings.
Frank: Right. Right, and you’re going to have to deal with stuff. And so I said, — and I was willing to go because that was my situation. In other words, there was no noble thought that got me to where I needed to be.
Paul: Who does? —
Paul: Who does get sober because they think it’s the right thing to do? —
Paul: It’s usually, it’s the last house on the block, and you’ve got no other options, —
Paul: — so why — it’s this or suicide. I think for most people that —
Paul: — it has to be those —
Frank: This or suicide, or homelessness, or…
Frank: So what I’m saying is that thank god I was like at the bottom. Thank god I couldn’t pay my rent. Thank god I didn’t have any money, y’know, because that forced me to improve my life. And then, y’know, the minute I went into treatment, I kind of was very lucky — and I actually should say, I’d gone to treatment before. Like, a couple years earlier on Long Island. And I very happily sober for like a few months, and then I just, but I wasn’t ready I guess. Because then I relapsed. And that was part of it, too, was that I kind of felt such shame about that relapse that going back into treatment as kind of an admission of failure.
Frank: But the point is I went into rehab. And then anything that… good that ever happened in my life since was the result of that.
Frank: But thank god I was hitting my bottom. And my bottom as not nearly as low as some other people’s bottoms are, but it was enough of a bottom to get me to take some action.
Paul: Yeah, and I don’t think that your bottom has to, y’know, involve a police stand-off —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: — or flipping a car or anything like that. It can just be, the writing is on the wall that you are headed in the wrong direction and you cannot do it by yourself.
Paul: That’s, for me, that’s what it took to get help —
Paul: — was I could see, “If I don’t ask for help, I’m going to kill myself. I’m either going to kill myself or I’m going to wish I was dead.” Which I had been living with for years and years, —
Paul: — and I would imagine that suicide is something that has occurred to you hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
Frank: Well it’s, yeah, I mean I’ve been in the neighborhood where suicide exists. I would say that I’ve, I know what that state of mind is like. When you feel — because I think when you’re really depressed is one thing. But when you’re not depressed, you almost forget, it’s hard, it’s almost unimaginable, y’know, it’s like the only people who really understand that state of mind are the people who are feeling it. And even if felt it before and you’re not in it anymore, you kind of, you remember it but it’s still, the horror of it isn’t as vivid to you as when it was happening.
Paul: I’ve been getting phone calls this week from this guy, whose name is Jeff. And I’ve known Jeff for about eight years, since I got sober. And he is unlucky enough — like one of my previous guests Tom — to have a little trust fund to live on. And it, he has the curse of having a safety net underneath him.
Paul: And it’s funny, because a lot of times we pine for that safety net, of “Oh god, I wish I had x amount of money in the bank.” It’s killing this guy. It’s keeping him from getting sober. And he just went out for seventeen months and went on a meth run. And he, his muscles have atrophied, and he, his speech is, I think, permanently fucked up from it. And he just doesn’t want to let go of this life that knows —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: — because he’s so used to being selfish and not, and living without any type of purpose to his life other than the pursuit of his own pleasure. And it’s killing him. And I guess the reason that I bring it up is to drive home that point that you made, which is that falling through that ice sometimes can be the best that ever happened to you.
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: At the time, you think “Oh fuck! I’ve fallen through the ice!” But it kind of —
Frank: Well, it’s like the old expression, ‘If you’re in the gutter, that’s the only place you can see the sky,’ or something like that.
Paul: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve never heard that. Was that Toots Shor who said that? [both laugh]
Frank: No actually Toots Shor, it’s funny; being an alcoholic, my dad drank with legendary drinkers — Toots Shor being a legend, Jackie Gleeson being a legendary drinker — and they had such disdain for people that didn’t drink.
Paul: Oh, I can imagine.
Frank: Yeah. They just like, had no respect for that. And it was like a symbol of your manhood or whatever, that you could drink —
Paul: And you weren’t a quitter!
Frank: Yeah, that you could really handle — and if you didn’t, like you really couldn’t be a part of that world.
Paul: Yeah. Let’s go back to… I brought up thoughts of suicide. You thought about suicide a lot before you got sober.
Frank: And since.
Paul: I was just going to say: roughly how many times did you think of suicide, let’s say per year, before you got sober? And how many times since you’ve been sober, do you think about suicide —
Frank: Y’know, the funny thing is, and I don’t think it’s a per year thing. Luckily I think it happens when — there’s kind of a mid-level depression that I get a lot, that doesn’t result in suicidal thoughts, it just… But then there’s the periods I go through where it becomes really intense. And those happen a few times a decade, I would say.
Paul: And how long do they last?
Frank: It depends. I, y’know, usually I —
Paul: Is this one of them? This crippling depression you’ve been talking about? —
Frank: No, I think I’m out of that now. But — a while ago I was going through it — but…
Paul: And you were thinking about, you were entertaining suicidal thought?
Frank: To the extent that I’m capable of being entertaining — [both laugh] — yeah, but I wouldn’t say that I was suicidal recently. I would just say that I was, like really depressed, and I was like, in that state of mind, y’know. But I was going to say, though, is I don’t think the depression, since I’ve sobered up and before I sobered up, I’ve probably been in that suicidal state of mind at least as many times since I’ve been sober as before I sobered up.
Paul: Is there a difference when you’re in that state of mind? Is it less intense? Does it last —
Frank: Well, now there’s like, I’m at least, when I can reach that moments of rational thinking, I’m aware of options and help, y’know. That one that I really went through was like five or six years ago. It was the really, like crazy one that I went through. That, I genuinely felt like I was never going to have a good time again in my life. —
Frank: Like, I was in a state of mind that I felt like — I’ve had a lot of really great times, a lot of very wonderful things have happened in my life. And I would think about those great times, and I would just think, “That’s never happening again. That’s over for me now.” And it’s weird, too, because you know how bed memories can haunt you. But now, I’m getting old enough now that good memories can haunt you, y’know, because —
Paul: You think you’re never going to experience those again.
Frank: Yeah, you’re never going to experience it again, and you’re thinking, ‘what was I doing so… about my life that I was able to be happy back then?’ And now, that’s all gone now. And you get this tremendous sense of loss, like “I’ve lost something that I had —“
Paul: “Through a fault of my own.”
Frank: Right, right.
Frank: That was the really, like, around I think, when I came back from New York — I was in New York for America Radio for like a year and a half, or two years. And I came back to LA. And then I went through this — and I think the whole moving around stuff made me feel very dislocated from things, and made me feel very removed from things. And it just added to a really, really deep depression. But, I guess the original point I wanted to make was: the difference between when I was drinking and then is that even in the midst of that, something inside me made me open up a phone book and look up places I could call, y’know. And I did that, and I called some place in Westwood, and I went there. And they looked at me, and then they prescribed stuff to me, and I started talking to this therapist and stuff. And then eventually I came out of that.
And I also was in a state of depression, too, where it affected me physically. Where I like always felt like I had the flu all the time, even though I didn’t have the flu.
Paul: Boy, do I know that feeling.
Frank: Yeah. And —
Paul: Tired all the time.
Frank: — I lost my appetite, which is the closest I’ve ever come to being on a diet —
Frank: — But… [laughs]
Paul: And the — I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but the irony of being so depressed that you become gaunt and thin, and everyone tells you how great you look, —
Frank: [laughs] Right.
Paul: — and you just want to tell them, “I’m so close to ending it all right now, —“
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: “— you have no idea.”
Frank: And one point I wanted to make about that, too, is when I was using, when I was drinking and taking drugs, the only way that could happen for me was an intervention. In other words, the intervention came in, and they had the plane ticket ready for me. And they were, like other people did all that for me.
Paul: Right. Because you couldn’t —
Frank: God bless them, y’know. But, in a sober state of mind, sometimes you, if you get it together, you can actually open up that phone book and let your fingers do the walking.
Paul: You’re saying, to get help for the first time, or you’re saying when you’re in a depressed state…
Frank: In my sober life, —
Paul: I gotcha.
Frank: — in a depressed state.
Frank: At least I can be aware. And then if you’re —
Paul: Do you think that —
Frank: — if you’re part of twelve-step groups, and stuff like, y’know, other people — this can be helpful, too, is you can talk to people who sympathize, and who know what you’re going through. And I remember, actually, I actually found myself in a room with people, and talking about how I felt suicidal. And everyone in the room going, “Oh, yeah, totally.” Like, nobody thinking that it was weird at all, that I said that, y’know.
Frank: And like, having, like just commiserating about it. That’s like, very comforting, to find other people who are, to have access to that.
Paul: Right. And that, support groups to me have been the life-saver, because while the depression is still there, the spiritual sickness that comes with being an alcoholic who has an obsessive mind is, it’s gasoline on the fire of the physical depression.
Paul: Because you go into this place — at least for me, maybe I should just say — where I’m constantly in self-pity or self-righteous anger —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: — and that’s just gasoline on that depressed fire. And the things that support groups help with, or having any type of spirituality, is that it at least removes that from the equation. So then you can deal with just the physical part of the depression.
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: And that’s no easy feat. I mean, I’ve been in this funk for about three months now, where I’m just really having trouble getting pleasure from anything. —
Paul: — And I look back to, in the spring, in April where I was so full of life and energy, and things were fun, and I as excited. And exercising was easy. And I thought, “Oh, ok! I’m back on the horse! I guess I’m going to —“ And then when it leaves, you’re, like you said, convinced that it’s never going to come back.
Frank: Right, right. Yeah.
Paul: It’s so real when it goes away, that you think, “Well my body has just gotten to this state now —“
Frank: Well, maybe too, maybe because of my upbringing, like, that seems normal to me. Like, it seems like the normal place in the world is when there’s chaos and crisis. And when things look bleak and there’s doom and death literally knocking on the door, like that seems like, oh, that’s the normal state. And then when I’m really happy, like, it’s like an aberration, y’know. Of like, I trick the universe somehow.
Paul: Right. Yeah, “The bad feeling just haven’t found me yet —“
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: “— I’m a couple of steps ahead, and so I’m going to enjoy this while I can.”
Paul: Yeah, that’s one of the things about depression that’s so draining is just that, even when you’re feeling good, is waiting for the other shoe to drop. —
Frank: Righ — Oh!
Paul: Like, when I wake up tomorrow, am I going to be back to that same dead feeling inside?
Frank: Always, yeah I’m always… and plus, y’know another thing I’ll tell you about my childhood is I was a really bad student and I was always getting into trouble. And I was like, believe it or not, a total wiseass, y’know. So I was always in trouble. So that sense of like, “Oh, I’m in trouble,” like kind of is, like bleeds into my depression, too. That seems like, “Oh, fuck, I’m in huge trouble right now,” y’know. Like that feels normal to me.
Paul: Like it’s your fault.
Frank: Like it’s my fault, and I’ve screwed up — like being, just the idea that I’m a big screw-up is a very easy place for me to be, for me to feel that way.
Paul: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons that I like to bring up the importance of self-care and doing things that are nice for yourself when you’re feeling bad. Because the tendency, at least for myself sometimes, is to pick up the whip and start cracking the whip and saying, “No! You’ve got to do this stuff, because you’re life is falling apart!” And sometimes I think the nicest thing you can do is say, “You know what? I’m going to take a bath —“
Paul: “—and then I’m going to take a nap, or I’m going to —“
Frank: You know what, it’d be nice if you did that, right, today.
Frank: Just saying.
Paul: I went through a period of a couple of months when I was really depressed and I went off my meds. And I’ve shared this before on the podcast, but where, I don’t know where I got the presence of mind, but I said, “The most important thing right now is not securing my career or finding out what my next money-maker’s going to be. But it’s going to be just showing love and kindness towards myself —“
Paul: “— and going easy. And if I feel like taking a nap, taking a nap. And doing nice little things for myself.” And I feel like spiritually I got to another level of peace. Certainly not a perfect peace, because I was still depressed. But there was a comfort, like I became my friend. —
Paul: — I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Frank: No, that makes sense. And I, y’know, spiritually… The spiritual aspect is very important to me in terms of overcoming these demons. And I always very consciously, even in my worst states, like I ask for peace. Some peace and serenity that day, y’know. It’s like, I just concentrate on the day and try to —
Frank: — make it through whatever day. And then there’s always like, blessings in any day, y’know. And I always go for walks and stuff, and I always appreciate the treasure of that. And then, y’know, like being able to, just anything that I’m doing, just like interacting with people or doing this. When we do Jimmy’s show, or when I do David Feldman’s show. And just having the fun of that — and that comes from being creative, y’know —
Frank: — That comes from putting something creative out there. And then I always get something back from it, and it doesn’t always come in terms of getting something back monetary. In fact, these days it never comes that way.
Frank: But it does come back in many great ways. —
Frank: — It just, people laughing and people enjoying you —
Frank: — and me enjoying them. And then audiences enjoying it. And —
Paul: Not so much. Not so much, I’ve been there.
Frank: [laughs] But, y’know… And so that’s like a very spiritual process for me. It’s like I’m trying to treasure what’s happening in each day.
Paul: Yeah. There is a —
Frank: Because that’s what our life is, y’know.
Paul: It really is. All we have is today, and it sounds like a really corny cliché, but I —
Frank: It’s really true.
Paul: If in my mind I can just seal off today, and say “I am not going to think about the future. I am not going to think about the past. I’m just going to only worry about what is right in front of me today, and try to see the beauty in it,” I can sometimes jumpstart myself out of the depression, and fight the part that is manageable —
Paul: — about depression. Because there’s parts that we can’t fight, —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: — chemically about depression. But to me the reason why I do this podcast is I want to try to focus on the parts that we can fight. And maybe separate those, or at least talk about, where is that separation between what we have control over and what we don’t have control over —
Paul: — in terms of —
Frank: And that’s a very important thing to figure out.
Paul: Yeah. And it’s, every time I think I got it figured out, there’s another curveball gets thrown in.
Let’s talk about fear a little bit.
Paul: One of the things, as folks that listen to this podcast know, that I like to do is the fear-off. And Frank is such a fucking gunslinger he didn’t even have to write his down. He’s like, “I’m Miles Davis.” He’s brought his, he’s ready to improvise his fears with his back turned to the audience.
Frank: I’m, actually, one of my fears is Miles Davis.
Paul: Is it?
Frank: [laughs] So —
Paul: Did I ever tell you my Miles Davis joke. Very, very poor taste, and never got a laugh, probably for good reason. But, y’know that, certainly the subject matter is very serious, but he used to beat his girlfriends —
Frank: Yeah, and wife. I heard that, yeah.
Paul: — which is the truth. And so my joke was, “But it was to a very difficult time signature.”
Paul: And audiences —
Frank: Well, he —
Paul: — never cared for —
Frank: No, and if I tag that with “His beatings were very innovative, modally,” that’s —
Frank: — that wouldn’t help things at all.
Paul: But it’s not — y’know, sometimes as depressed people, that’s the funniest stuff to us, because — why is it? I don’t know why it is.
Frank: Yeah. That’s, every —
Paul: Why does the dark shit make us —
Frank: Well, every, I don’t know if it’s depression. Every really funny person and really funny comedian I know loves dark —
Paul: Really dark.
Frank: — really dark humor —
Paul: Something that they know would upset other people to hear.
Frank: Right. And we all, when we’re sitting around we always go there. When we —
Paul: We do.
Frank: When we’re joking around with each other. And I think it’s just a part of — the only comedians who don’t like the dark stuff are the ones who aren’t funny. [both laugh]
Paul: And —
Frank: And even some of the unfunny ones like the dark stuff, too.
Paul: And to anybody out there who’s been a victim of domestic violence, I apologize if I hurt your feelings.
So, we’re going to do a fear-off —
Paul: — which is, we trade fears until one of us runs out. —
Paul: — And I’ve decided to throw a little, try a little something different in this one. I’ve asked Frank to throw in a fear that isn’t an actual fear, just one, in his list of fears. And at the end, I’m going to try to guess which one of the fears he listed wasn’t an actual fear of his.
I’ve done so many fears that I’m kind of out of ammo, and so I’m going to rely on two listeners who were kind enough to email me some of their fears. If you’re out there and you want to participate in future fear-offs, email me a list of your fears, and —
Frank: If you can get out of the fetal position long enough…
Paul: To, yeah… Pull your thumb out of your mouth and get to the typewriter, that would be great. So, why don’t you kick it off with a fear of yours?
Frank: I have a fear of — I don’t know what you call them — dividers on freeways? Like, if I’m driving in the right lane, the far right lane or the left lane, and there’s a wall right there, like as close to me as another car could be. That really scare — I will never drive in that lane.
Frank: That like, really scares me.
Paul: Ok. This one’s from Linda, and she says, “I afraid that I’ll never again love a man who loves me back.”
Frank: I have a fear of loving someone, of someone that I love knowing me too well. Like, I’m afraid that if they really know me, then that’s going to kill everything.
Paul: Right. Linda says, “that I’ll be overcome by an irresistible physical urge to hurt myself.”
Frank: I have a fear of social gatherings, believe it or not. I get very frightened like, at parties, or whatever. Like, any kind of thing — I always feel, I’m always afraid that everyone in the room is just thinking about how awkward I am, and that I shouldn’t be there.
Paul: Yeah. I relate to that one. Linda says, “I’m afraid I’ll lose my job, run out of money, and have to move in with my mother.”
Frank: [laughs] Well, I’m afraid —
Paul: Fortunately, you can’t have that, because your mother passed away, Frank.
Frank: Well, that’s the thing. I was about to say, I’m afraid of losing my job, losing all my money, and then having to move in with Linda’s mother.
Frank: And that’s an irrational fear, because I don’t even know Linda —
Frank: — or her mother.
Frank: But I’ve always been afraid of that.
Paul: Yeah. I’m not going to allow you to be funny.
Paul: I know you’re trying to squirm out and so I’m —
Frank: Ok. No, I’ll give you a real fear. —
Frank: — I’ll give you a real fear. I have a fear of people smarter, or who I perceive to be smarter than me not thinking that I’m smart enough to be with them.
Paul: I like that one. Linda just writes, “I have a fear of President Michelle Bachmann.”
Frank: [laughs] That’s a fear we all share.
Paul: Y’know, I wasn’t going to put that one in there, because I was like, “Oh, that’s political.” But I think that can be someone’s genuine fear, so I left that one in there.
Frank: And this may be, it doesn’t have to relate to this, maybe you can relate to a President Bachmann, is I’ve always been really afraid of — having grown up in the Cold War — of like nuclear explosions, and like cities just being destroyed by nuclear bombs. —
Frank: Like, that goes back to — because we, my generation, we grew up on that in the Cold War, and that’s —
Paul: And your dad being friends with Nikita Khrushchev.
Frank: [laughs] He was, too —
Paul: At Toots Shor’s.
Frank: My dad interviewed, won a Pulitzer Prize for interviewing Nikita Khrushchev.
Paul: Did he?
Frank: Yes. Yes, he did.
Frank: So, and my dad was kind of a Cold War-er himself. So I remember when I was a kid, like, you’d hear airplanes flying over New York City. And I would wonder, “Is that the one that’s going to drop a bomb on us and destroy us all?”
Paul: Yeah. I totally get that. We’re now going to have fears pitched in by Maura. And so, Maura writes, “I’m afraid that everyone who likes me will figure out that I’m not likeable.”
Frank: I have a fear of becoming incapacitated with a stroke like my father had. Meeting that kind of fate is a deep fear of mine.
Paul: Ok. Maura writes, “I’m afraid that I’ll get sick and need to be taken care of.”
Frank: Yeah, I’m afraid that I’ll get sick and there’ll be no one to take care of me.
Paul: Maura writes, “I’m afraid my parents will get sick and I’ll have to take care of them.”
Frank: Well, my parents took care of that one [both laugh]
Paul: And don’t forget, at some point you’ve got to put in a fake fear that I’ve got to try to figure out which one.
Paul: Please don’t let it be this one.
Frank: [laughs] I won’t, it’s not going to be this one.
Paul: All right.
Frank: It’ll be the next one. No, I’m kidding. I don’t know, this is hard for me, because all my fears are those big general… I’m not a phobia person. You know what I mean?
Frank: I’m not like a, y’know, fear of heights, or anything like that. I have like, the general people not liking me, not being good enough, being rejected…
Paul: Well, you just listed three, so I’m going to, and then I’m going to hit you with three of Maura’s. “I’m afraid I’ll say something mean to someone when they need my compassion. I’m afraid that my boyfriend who I love will leave me. I’m afraid that I will fall in love with someone else.”
Frank: Wow. Well, first of all, I have to say that, I think she said about, ‘I’m afraid people will be mean to me when I need their compassion.’ That’s a really fucking stupid thing to say.
Frank: Maura, I’m kidding! I’m kidding! [laughs]
Paul: Frank, I’m going to ask you, for the sanctity of the fear-off, to try to focus, to play the game and not to defer quite so frequently, because I’m trying to —
Frank: Ok. You know what, don’t have a fear of flying, but I have a fear of like, red-eye flights, in a weird way. Like, flying in the middle of — like, whenever I’m flying really late at night and the plane is, everyone’s asleep, and there’s nothing going on in the plane. Like, that’s when I have a real fear of, that’s the only time I have a real fear of flying. So I usually take, like daytime flights and stuff.
Frank: Like, that, I don’t like that nighttime, that feeling of, the middle of the night in an airplane in the sky.
Paul: Maura writes, “I’m afraid of having too many people demanding my time.”
Frank: I kind of have a fear of not being needed by anyone.
Paul: Ooh, that’s a good one. That’s a really good one.
Frank: Of no one — that’s a good one to have here in LA.
Frank: In the entertainment business.
Paul: Maura writes, “I’m afraid I’ll spend too much time doing nothing.”
Frank: I actually fear driving really fast. Like, I have a reputation among my friends of being a really wussy driver. I have a fear of speed, I guess, in cars.
Paul: Yeah. You know, that’s interesting. Towards the last three months of my drinking, I would be compelled every night, with ten beers in me, to go 105, 110 down the freeway weaving in and out of cars.
Paul: And I would be saying to myself, “This is crazy. What are you doing?” But I think part of me, it was like this anger. I would grit my teeth and I would just, “Fuck you!” I would say, “Fuck you!” to the voice in my head, and I would just floor it. And it, I don’t know what that was about, if it was a “fuck you” to society and the world, or if it was, “I want to die,” or what it was, but…
Frank: The last time I was really cripplingly depressed, and in the throes of it — And this might be a sign of some kind of spirit coming through in the most moment, and something that made maybe doesn’t happen when you’re using — is in my worst moment of my last depression, I remember being in my apartment and yelling over and over again, “Fuck you, depression! Fuck you, depression! Fuck you, depression! —”
Frank: “—Fuck you, depression!” Not overcoming it, but just kind of expressing a defiance towards it.
Paul: Did it help at all?
Frank: I think it eventually helped, yeah —
Frank: Y’know, it’s not, and I think that brings up a thing of like, the things in a depression that help. Like, nothing instantly helps, like ever.
Frank: Y’know, nothing instantly makes you feel better, but it’s kind of like, it pays off down the road. The fact that whatever it is that you were willing… y’know, like if you make a call to a therapist, that, you don’t instantly feel better about that —
Frank: — You’re actually dreading, “Oh, fuck. I’ve got to get in the car. I got to the —“
Paul: “And I’ve got to look inside myself.” Which is just so —
Frank: Yeah. But then, like two months later, like, you’ll feel better because of that thing that you did in that moment. And —
Frank: — that’s like one of the things that, as addicts, that pisses us off is the, like we can’t —
Paul: The patience.
Frank: — you can’t get instant gratification out of anything, y’know.
Frank: And drugs, say what you will, they can give you instant gratification, y’know.
Paul: Yeah. It’s just you pay for them later, —
Paul: — squeezing all the good juice out of your brain.
Paul: And then there’s nothing to withdraw later, when you need it at noon… Maura writes, “I’m afraid of getting trapped under a collapsed building.”
Frank: Like, that scares the shit out of me, but I don’t obsess about that. You now what I mean? I’m not, I kind of —
Paul: Have we hit the end of your fear-off? Do you feel like you’re —
Frank: No, well, I feel like it’s very educational for me to think about this stuff, because —
Frank: — I realize that I don’t, I think I really sweat the small stuff, y’know.
Frank: It’s like every day stuff, “Oh shit, I have to go to this appointment.” Like, if I go there and the building collapses on top of me, that’s, and I’m buried alive, that would really suck, I admit it —
Frank: — That’s something really worth being afraid of. But I, it’s not the kind of, I will obsess about will the person, this total stranger that I’m meeting with, like is that going to be like the most awkward thing in the world, —
Frank: — and how will I ever endure that.
Frank: Like, that’s a bigger fear to me —
Frank: — than the building falling on top of me.
Paul: Yeah. Am I going to get the vibe that I’m boring them, —
Paul: — or that they’re afraid to make eye contact with me, or —
Paul: — they’re going to want to, give up signals that they want to be someplace else. And it’s just going to be uncomfortable.
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: Yeah. Maura writes, “I’m afraid that I’ll be stuck in my job, which I hate, forever.” [pause] All right, let’s wrap up the fear-off. I feel like it’s just gotten a little too, it’s lost some of it’s oomph.
Paul: I’m going to read the last three that Maura has. “I’m afraid that I’ll never figure out how to make a living in a way that isn’t soul-crushing. I’m afraid that I’m not creative enough. And I’m afraid that I’m not a good enough friend.” Hit us with — I’m going to say that Maura kicked your ass in this one.
Frank: Well, she just, a lot of those are my fears, y’know.
Paul: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to guess that your fear, the fake fear, which hope fully you put — did you put a fake fear in there?
Frank: I did put one in there.
Paul: I’m going to say the red-eye flight was the fake —
Frank: Yes, it was. [both laugh] Oh, am I that transparent?
Paul: Yes. Yeah, uh, no. There was another one I think that could have possibly passed for that. But, thank you for participating in the fear-off. I know it’s a little awkward for some people to do.
Frank: Like I said, I’m no, I don’t have those kind of obsessive, my fears are like everyday reality-based fears, y’know.
Paul: Right. Those are good to talk about too, though —
Frank: Yeah. I thought I did talk about them.
Paul: You did. Yeah, I think most of them, it sounds like, are based in social anxiety.
Frank: Yeah! Absolutely, yeah. And it’s funny how overcoming the fear of social anxiety… Like, I wish I did it more in my life. Because I know, I can say specifically when I have overcome it the rewards have been so great. And I’ll give you a specific example of that, is when I first started doing stand-up comedy in Minneapolis. And this is when I moved to Minneapolis for drug rehab, and I was sober, and I was doing open mikes. And then Liz Winstead was like an established comedian in Minneapolis, and she saw me at an open mike and said, ‘Hey, you’re really funny. Why don’t you, I’d like you to be in my show this weekend.’ She was headlining that weekend at the Comedy Gallery in Minneapolis.
I was excited about that, but then I was so frightened about doing an actual show, which I had never done before. Y’know, I had just done open mikes. And it just scared me so much, and I remember being in my apartment, y’know, getting ready to go down there and just hoping something would happen so that it wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have to go through with it, y’know.
And then when I got there, like the owner of the club was kind of surly with me. And like he, Liz hadn’t told him that I was, she was putting me in her show. And he was like, “Liz doesn’t book this show, y’know.” And then there was a part of me hoping, “Oh, is going to tell me to go home?” Like, I was hoping for that, y’know.
Paul: Yeah. Yeah.
Frank: And, but then he was like, ‘oh, ok.’ But then I ended up like, emcee-ing the show. And then I found out, too, that open mikes are much scarier than doing weekends. Weekends are like, great audiences —
Frank: — It’s like a full house. I had like the best show I’d ever had. And then from that night on, because of the one opportunity, like every night for a year after that I emcee’d every show at the Comedy Gallery. I like, tore tickets, I sat people —I didn’t get paid any money, but I got stage time every night —
Paul: Which is very valuable, yeah.
Frank: When you’re a starting comedian, it’s the most valuable thing there is. Stage time every night, two times on Friday, two times on Saturday. And that, everything that has come to me in my career has like, kind of flowed from that one thing, of that first break, y’know. But my point is, is I was so afraid, I was so hoping it wouldn’t happen. And if it hadn’t happened, who knows what would have… y’know, if the path that I went on would have happened, y’know. And that was like, I’ve always been aware of that. That was one example in my life where I overcame a fear. I confronted the fear and I went past it. —
Frank: And I didn’t just stay home in my apartment, which is what was my natural instinct to do. And I wish I did that more in other aspects of my life.
Paul: Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up, because there’s an instinct quality to depression that is so the worst enemy of us. And sometimes, we don’t, it’s that prosecuting attorney, we don’t know. “Is this my own sick instinct? Is this —“ because sometimes we learn, “Go with your gut.” Well, sometimes your gut tells you to stay in the fetal position —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: — and not do anything —
Frank: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: — and avoid people. And it’s so hard sometimes, to know when you’re protecting yourself in a good way, or when you’re just listening to that bad, depressed person in your brain —
Paul: — that doesn’t want to take chances. That doesn’t want to confront fear.
Frank: Right, because the unknown is always scary. At least to me. That’s, I could have put that in the fear-off, —
Frank: — just “the unknown.”
Paul: The unknown, wow! That’s maybe the most pure, powerful, all-ecompassing one ever. “The unknown.” Yeah, the unknown scares the fuck out of me, and yet so much good comes out of the unknown.
Frank: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: And I think that —
Frank: Because the known is so depressing [both laugh] The known is the fear and the anxiety. And the unknown is, y’know, what you’re always going towards in the future.
Paul: And I think that’s why having some type of spirituality in your life is important. Because it makes it less frightening to confront the unknown. Because you’re trusting —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: — that there’s some type of energy in the universe that is ok. Y’know, for me it’s, a lot of times my idea of what is out there, what I believe in is kind of fluid, and changes. And sometimes it’s just as basic as ‘the greater good of humanity’ —
Paul: — is kind of what I believe in. And I can’t explain why there’s famine, and why children get cancer, or any of that other stuff. But what I can believe in is, in the greater good of humanity. And if I feel like I’m working towards that just a tiny bit every day, it gives me a perspective that I lack otherwise if I’m only considering myself —
Paul: And there is — if all we have is our own point of view, that single GPS, that single satellite, we get a really, really small, inaccurate version of how important things are in the general realm of things —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: But, if we believe in something greater than ourselves, and we connect to our fellow man, we get those other two satellites, then the real importance of things and how they fit into the general realm of the importance of things in the universe, I get a more accurate picture of the universe. And that not only brings me comfort, but it helps me navigate the world in a way that is much clearer, because the prioritization of things becomes much more readily apparent.
Paul: I begin too see, “Oh! I’m just being self-absorbed. It’s really not important whether or not people are thinking about me.” Y’know, what is important is that I got this good feeling form being nice to this other person —
Paul: — and making friends with this other person. And now I see that I’m just part of a, I’m part of a whole — I think that’s one of the reasons maybe why nature can sometimes do that for us, is because when you look out at the ocean, it’s very easy to get a sense that, “Oh! There is something much greater than me out there.” My little problem about my car not working suddenly doesn’t seem that important.
Frank: Right. Well —
Paul: Does any of that make sense?
Frank: That all makes sense —
Paul: To me that —
Frank: It’s articulated in a great way. I, beats me, that I don’t think I could do justice to, y’know — what we do in our lives is very important, but it’s just very small in a gigantic thing. And I want to be a part of that gigantic thing, and I want to be of service to it, y’know. And that’s kind of the thing that I’m —
Paul: And that could be 180 degrees from the thought that a person who’s caught in depression is, because they think, ‘I just need to think about myself more to get out of this.’
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: And the reality is just the opposite. Is, you need to connect to —
Frank: Yeah, you need to connect to people, you need to get outside of your head, y’know.
Paul: You need to get those other two satellites. Because for me, Frank, this has to be based in, there has to be, I can’t throw science out the window to believe in something —
Frank: No, science is, y’know, is a part of it, is…
Frank: And so incredible, when you hear about how nature works, the science behind anything, that just adds to your sense of the miraculous in the world, y’know.
Paul: Yeah. And, so I’m always looking for ways that I can find the science in spirituality. And I think humility — I have a couple of theories. One is the, y’know, the kind of, the triangulation theory, for — because when you’re lost in the woods, to find out where you are with a compass, you need two other points of reference, just like y’know I said with the satellites —
Frank: Right. By the way I would never even, with a compass and those two spots, I would never be able to find —
Paul: Never be able to figure out — but you’d be staring at the canyon feeling a sense of peace.
Paul: But I’m always looking for the science of these things that are kind of nebulous, because I want to believe that it’s the truth, and I need as many facts as possible to make me think that I’m not just tricking myself into thinking these things. And having those other two points of reference, something we believe in and connecting to other people, that triangulation, it works when you’re lost in the woods so why wouldn’t it work in terms of emotions and the spiritual world?
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: And humility, I believe, changes our chemistry. I believe when we kneel down, or pray, or do volunteer work or something where we’re being of service, I believe it changes us on a chemical level. And the way that we interact with the universe then changes, just like a chemical equation.
Paul: And that is how it’s set in my mind. So it, because I have to believe it, it has to be cemented there, otherwise I just going to be stuck in a corner —
Frank: It took me a very long time to realize, really realize deep within myself how the ego is the enemy of the soul, y’know.
Frank: It’s something that like, I knew in theory forever. But I don’t think anyone’s ever like, thought of me as like an out-of-control like, raging ego kind of guy, y’know —
Paul: Quite the opposite.
Frank: But, I have had like, things inside my head where my ego has gotten the better of me. Like, y’know, I remember when I was on Mystery Science Theatre I would like, just get into these jags inside my head of like, “Comedy Central doesn’t appreciate me! Why don’t they pay more attention to me?” All these like, kind of stupid things that made me unhappy for days on end.
Frank: And, y’know, that’s what I mean about your ego, it’s —
Frank: —it’s like the opposite, it opposes like what can make you happy. People who, in this business or in any business, who are successful or who are not successful, but who are raging egomaniacs, they’re not happy people. —
Paul: They’re not.
Frank: — They create thing in their head. People who have everything to be thankful for, everything to be grateful for, come up with stuff inside their heads that makes them miserable. And then they make people miserable around them, y’know. So, it is like a, the ego really is an evil, insidious thing.
Paul: And the ego is based in not having those other two points of view, —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: — those other two satellites. It’s based in just yourself, in just self. And so then I usually find that if I’m feeling self-pity, or self-righteous anger, I’m in ego. Because that’s where it goes. It’s like these two notes it plays over and over again —
Frank: Right, right.
Paul: “Poor me,” or, “Fuck you!”
Paul: And if I don’t get out of myself, I get stuck in there and then it just presents itself as the truth. And then I’m fucked.
Frank: Yeah, and then you’re like kind of denying yourself being aware of the treasure of life, y’know. It’s there for you, and each day of potential joy —
Frank: — A lot of the stuff that cuts us off from that joy is stuff we create ourselves, y’know. That our egos just get the better of us.
Paul: Yeah. That to me is the struggle, is how to find the ego and when it injects itself into my daily life, because it’s stealthy. It’s like, what is it, the Terminator, the shape-shifting thing? It will present itself as whatever it needs to make me feel that I don’t have enough —
Frank: Yeah, and if you’re in show business, if you’re in Hollywood or anywhere else, if you think that you’re going to get your fair shake —
Paul: Oh, you’re going to be so miserable.
Frank: Yeah, you’re going to be so miserable. And the people in this business who are happy, and who are productive are people who just kind of do a job of work everyday. They’re expressing their talent as being of service, of giving the world something. And then, y’know, you take the breaks as they come.
Frank: Sometimes you get very lucky, sometimes not. But again, it’s all kind of a continuous thing. But if you’re going to sit there — y’know, listen folks, Paul and I both should have our own sitcoms, come on!
Frank: It would be the most justified thing ever in the history of mankind. But it isn’t happening at the moment, y’know.
Frank: But that doesn’t mean that we can’t like, figure out how to be productive, —
Frank: —and how to be of service, and how to find some happiness in our lives.
Paul: Yeah. So if you’re out there, and you’re a show-runner, get to the typewriter —
Paul: — get to the word-presser, and create the sitcom Sad-Face and Nappy.
Frank: [laughs] Listen industry, we’re putting it out there to you, get your shit together. Give us what we have coming to us, god damnit!
Paul: [laughs] Frank, thank you for coming by and —
Frank: Thank you for having me.
Paul: — opening up —
Frank: This has been a very great experience, and it’s been helpful for me to listen to what we’ve been talking about, talk about what we’ve been talking about.
Paul: Me too, me too. I get emails form people that thank me for doing the show, and I always say this helps me — if anybody is getting helped, I can’t imagine they’re getting helped any more than I am, because this just reminds me that I’m not alone, —
Paul: — that there is hope, that I’m not as fucked up as I think I am. I’m not as rare as I think I am. I’m connected to humanity, and I’m not alone.
Frank: That’s should be enough.
Paul: That should be enough. And today it is enough, so I’m going to seal off today and just worry about today, and not thinking about tomorrow, and see if I can have another good couple of hours. And I encourage anybody listening that’s feeling fucked up to just worry about what’s in front of you right now, today. And have fun, and be good to yourself. And know that you’re not alone.
Frank: Great advice.
Paul: Thanks for listening.
In addition to Frank Conniff, I want to thank my wife, for being so supportive. I want to thank Michael Morrissey, for helping me run the website forum. I encourage you guys to go visit that. I want to thank Stig Greve and Chromadile.com for designing and running our website. And I want to send you guys out with a respondent to the survey named JanitorTaco. Had some kind of interesting things to say. He knows he has a problem with drugs and alcohol, but he says he can’t stop. He knows that meds work, but he can’t afford them. When I asked on the survey to list any behaviors you wish you didn’t engage in but he does anyway — I literally feel like this was somebody writing my life 10 or 15 years ago — he writes, “Isolation, video games, hating myself, ensuring everyone around me knows that I hate myself, smoking, sleeping too much, being fucking depressed all the time. Literally everything that I do every day. I wish I could become the opposite of myself.”
Dude, there is help. That’s all I got to say, man. You are not alone. You are not the only one that feels that way. I know if you and I have felt that way, there’s got to be a lot of other people that feel that way.
And then to the question “If there is a god, what would you like to say to god?” he writes, “Fuck you. You are one sick mother-fucker. What the hell is wrong with you? Also, gay people are great.”