Comedy Central’s quasi-reality series called “Brody Stevens: Enjoy It!” (premiering late Sunday night) manages to tell us something about our culture’s mental-illness issues by coming at the subject through the side door of a comedy club.
The camera follows Stevens, a 43-year-old stand-up comic and actor, during what appears to be a professional and psychological nadir. Amid an opening episode in which comedian after comedian (including “The Hangover’s” Zach Galifianakis) describes Stevens’s edgy and unpredictable stage presence, he goes off his medication. He frighteningly confronts friends and strangers alike. He stops sleeping. On his ceaselessly spewing Twitter feed, he threatens gun violence.
That last bit, which occurred two years ago, got him arrested and briefly hospitalized. Some of his friends (as well as his fans) wondered whether it was an elaborate performance on Stevens’s part, all for show. “Enjoy It!” makes use of a half-dozen short episodes that were made-to-order for HBO’s online service, including the period when Stevens had his breakdown. This Comedy Central version expands the show to 12 episodes, which deepens and darkens the mood.
To truly enjoy “Enjoy It!,” one has to get on board with Stevens’s surreal and narcissistic sense of humor. His act, as his friend Sarah Silverman points out, “never seems like he’s doing material — he’s just yelling.” Boasting that he is “818 till I die!” (a reference to the San Fernando Valley area code), Stevens paints a portrait onstage of a man who is desperate to find success in Hollywood, always ticking off his résumé of brief appearances in movies and guest spots on talk shows.
This is by no means the first Comedy Central show about a guy comedian in Hollywood engaged in convenient pseudo-sketches about the rain clouds hanging over him. But it’s the first one in a long time that feels like it has something real to say. Offstage — or at least for the camera’s benefit — Stevens is in a constant fit of self-promotion and self-absorption. The very qualities that endear him to other comedians are just as off-putting. “It just became strange without the funny part,” Galifianakis tells the camera, sadly.
From there, “Brody Stevens: Enjoy It!” is a recovery story of sorts. Freshly diagnosed as bipolar, Stevens finds himself unhappily living in a smaller apartment in Hollywood; after the cops came and took him away, his landlady in the Valley asked him to move out. His life is now a constant act of navigating the boundaries between the mania he sells as an act and the mania he hopes to keep at bay.
“Enjoy It!” has a fluid disregard for the chronology of its footage or helpful explanations of what’s going on. As such (and because Stevens and Galifianakis are also among the show’s producers), viewers cannot be fully convinced that what we’re seeing on-screen is true to what really happened. (Where footage does not exist, animation supplies a visual narrative.)
The intent is to lay bare the good and bad of Stevens’s daily life, but because everyone involved is a comedian, the bigger intent is to make it somehow funny — which it occasionally is. Even in his worst condition, Stevens can be a hoot to watch, which in turns makes a viewer feel bad for laughing — even though he seems to be assuring you that it’s all right.
“I think a lot of comics are wired differently,” Galifianakis says. “Maybe chemically or from their background or a combination of both. I think Brody is a classic example of being wired that way.”
(one hour, two episodes) premieres Sunday (early Monday) at midnight on Comedy Central.