LOS ANGELES — Jamie Loftus knows some of her fears are irrational, but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying.
One stems from a recurring nightmare in which everyone she’s ever had sex with decides to get brunch without her. In the dream, Loftus crouches in the corner to eavesdrop on their conversation as they gossip about her in increasingly mean, specific ways. Not that Loftus would prefer to join them at the table, anyway — she also has a fear of being asked to order food at a restaurant during an intense confrontation, like a breakup. It wasn’t until she was 10 years old that she found the strength to order anything off a menu without her parents’ help.
“ ‘Go in and order a coffee for me and a doughnut for you,’ ” she remembers her mom coaching her in the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts outside of Boston, where she grew up. “It was like my hugest fear to ask anyone for anything. Terrifying.”
Loftus shudders. She’s reminded of this fear after the server takes our order at a diner in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood, where she lives. It’s these kind of everyday encounters, she says, that inspired “Irrational Fears,” a Web series that debuted on Comedy Central in April and has since clocked about 775,000 total views. Her character’s neuroses range from the mundane (debating which emoji to use in a text message) to the practical (asking for a raise at work) to the nonsensical: Discovering her pet hamster loathed her so much that it died as a result. It’s a conspiracy that Loftus actually believes.
“Right after I got the hamster, my boyfriend told me he was cheating on me. We were alone, but my hamster was there, so I would project a lot of my anxieties about the breakup onto the hamster,” she says in between mouthfuls of coffee and toast. When she came home from work one day, the hamster, as if in a “Shakespearean drama, climbed into my hand, made eye contact and just died.” Loftus still has its corpse in her freezer.
The 25-year-old stand-up comedian, writer and animator was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorders two years ago. She’d checked herself into a hospital shortly after touring with Maria Bamford, the comedian who famously suffers from those disorders. “She had solid, encouraging advice, and just seeing her managing and speaking on her own struggles on such a large scale without shame was a big wake-up for me in addressing my own issues,” Loftus says.
In a hyper-connected, politically divisive time when social media can be as agonizing as it is validating, and the nonstop news broadcasts one terrible event after the next, Loftus’s worries — hamsters aside — don’t always seem quite so irrational. Especially since Loftus is among a new wave of young, female and digital native comedians who are harnessing their fears and anxieties to produce astute Web series. With about a third of teens and 1 in 5 adults nationwide now suffering from anxiety disorders, the creators, including Loftus, Cazzie David, Elisa Kalani and Clare Gillen, are not only resonating with young audiences — they’re also providing a little comic relief.
Writers and comedians mining their own neuroses for entertainment is nothing new. After all, David’s father, the writer and actor Larry David, along with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, created the most famous social anxiety-driven series in TV history. More recently, such comedians as Bamford, Marc Maron, Chris Gerhard and Aparna Nancherla have all spoken up about their crippling anxiety. “It’s weirder to not have anxiety than to have it,” Nancherla said in her 2016 Comedy Central special titled “So Much Anxiety.” “Because I feel like if you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.”
But the new web series creators excavating these ideas speak to the fear and paranoia of a hyper-connected world — one that didn’t exist even a decade ago.
“There’s a lot to worry about. It doesn’t really end,” says Gillen, an artist and designer who hosts a satirical self-help Web series called “Art + Therapy” on the online network Super Deluxe. What stresses her out? “Social stress, age stress, whether I should get Botox or not, the list goes on.” She recently sought a therapist to manage her stress from work after realizing that it often sets in the moment she wakes up in the morning. When she grabs for her phone and starts scrolling through Instagram, the feeling only get worse. “Even for somebody who is straight and white and female and middle class and all of these things that should make my life easier.”
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon on the patio of an L.A. coffee shop and Gillen, who is 30 years old and has short strawberry-blond hair, is far more collected than the manic character she plays on “Art + Therapy.” In every episode of the show, which was conceived by filmmaker Megan Lovallo, Gillen comes up with an instructional DIY project intended to quell a particular anxiety. An episode about body hair anxiety, in which Gillen crafts a pair of yarn-covered panties, amassed more than 2.3 million views on Facebook. In an episode about loneliness, she teaches viewers to invent a companion out of cloth and papier-mache, citing research showing that people tend to lose friends after the age of 25.
“We all have friends, but it’s just never enough,” Gillen says. “That system [of social media] is set up to make us feel insecure by tallying numbers and prioritizing content.”
David and Kalani, both 24, can relate. “Eighty-Sixed,” the Web series they created and released on YouTube last year, explores social anxieties stemming from text messages, Facebook posts and Google searches. In an email interview, David says of her phone, “the anxieties that come along with it are unavoidable.”
The series, which has racked up nearly a million views, starts with an episode about the social media fallout from a breakup. It was so relatable that David says she still gets messages from fans writing to her with their own breakup stories. “It’s something everyone has gone through, but it’s a completely different experience now with social media,” she says. “Just clicking onto Instagram is like having to go back to work at the same job and office as your ex.”
The anxiety Loftus felt while looking at apps such as Instagram got so intense that, shortly after her OCD and bipolar diagnosis, she undertook exposure therapy, which involves exposing patients to their fears. In the therapy sessions, she was asked to scroll through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to identify posts that made her anxious or uncomfortable and then try to explain why. “It would usually boil down to: ‘Everyone hates me, and I’m useless,’ ” she says, which she discovered was “a totally irrational conclusion.”
Unlike a show like “Seinfeld,” which hinged on neuroses about relationships and day-to-day minutiae, this new wave of Web series tackles anxiety that’s as political as it is personal.
“It’s a symptom of the 24-hour news cycle being at our fingertips at all times,” Kalani says via email. “What’s funny is that we actually live in the safest time ever, but the constant reminders that awful things are always happening make it feel more common and stressful.” (She and David are developing a new Amazon series that David compares to “a modern day ‘Daria,’ if Daria was scared of everything she’s ever heard, read or seen.”)
Social activist movements have encouraged people to rethink how they move through the world — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “People are recognizing gender issues and recognizing racial tension in ways they assumed no longer existed, but actually do, and so I think socially there’s elements of feeling like the floor has dropped out from under you,” says Loftus, who is developing future projects with Comedy Central.
For some, she says, there’s a realization of, “ ‘Oh, I thought I knew how to talk to people, but now that so many things have shifted and there’s been so many changes, maybe I don’t know how to talk to people, and that’s scary.’ ”
And as much as social media can feel isolating and even debilitating, it has also fostered such movements as #MeToo, which has made women’s fears and anxieties more visible through stories about sexual harassment and assault. “I think that the anxiety women have always felt is finally being talked about and recognized,” says Gillen, who is developing a weekly news-driven segment about fear and anxiety for IGTV, Instagram’s video platform. It’s “exciting to not only address those anxieties, but also, more than anything, for a woman to just be [able to act] ridiculous.”
Over breakfast in Silver Lake, Loftus realizes there’s an upside to anxiety feeling like a default mode. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I think I can talk to people a little more easily because everyone is feeling a low vibration of how I feel all the time,’ ” she says.
Watching Gillen’s show — even though it’s broadcast on social media — is enough to make Loftus feel a little less alone. “Thank God I’m not the only one who’s feeling like the world is melting,” she says. Besides, maybe it’s good exposure therapy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kristi Lauren in a caption for an image of the Web series “Eighty-Sixed.”