For A-listers like Zach Galifianakis and Sarah Silverman, Stevens wasn't just a friend, he was a comic savant, one of the few acts they would drop everything to watch — leaving them to wonder: Why did he take his own life just as his career was heating up?
Howard Kremer hadn't heard from his friend and fellow comedian Brody Stevens for a couple of days. They'd both performed at The Pleasure Chest, a West Hollywood sex shop that hosts a monthly gig called "Performance Anxiety" on Tuesdays. Now it was Friday, Feb. 22, and still no word. A flicker of concern began to tug at him. Stevens had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010 and had only recently resumed a regimen of powerful anti-psychotic medications after a few months without them.
On the face of it, Stevens seemed to be doing better than ever. He had been opening for David Spade on tour for a couple of years and had recently nabbed one of the most prestigious spots in the L.A. comedy scene, the last slot of the night at The Comedy Store. Known as the Sam Kinison spot, it was about as challenging as they get. After four or more hours of drinking and being yelled at by the night's performers, crowds were already exhausted, drunk or often both. Stevens would leap onstage, an infectious, forceful presence. He was one of only a handful of comedians who could nail it. "He would just destroy," says friend and fellow comedian Tony Hinchcliffe. "It's not a spot that everyone wants because it's hard. It was built for a guy like him."
Still, Kremer was worried: He knew the readjustment period to the powerful medications his friend was on could be treacherous. He decided to stop by Stevens' apartment in the San Fernando Valley, a one-bedroom whose walls were plastered with laminated images of the comic with celebrities and sports figures he had appeared alongside, including A-Rod, The Rock and his friend Zach Galifianakis, who helped him score the role of a hectoring police officer in The Hangover.
When Kremer arrived at the apartment that morning, Stevens' car was in the parking space, but he still wasn't answering his phone. No one answered when Kremer knocked. He tried unsuccessfully to get in through a window. Eventually a neighbor called the building superintendent, who waited with Kremer until the police showed up. They found Stevens, 48, in his bedroom, crumpled on the floor. He had hanged himself.
News of the suicide spread quickly through the professional comedy world. Five thousand miles away in London, Hinchcliffe was wrapping up the fifth night of a solo run at the Soho Theatre. He usually kept his cellphone on airplane mode during shows, but tonight for some reason he'd left it on — and now it rang. Still onstage, he put Mat Edgar on speaker. "Why do you sound like one of our friends just died?" Hinchcliffe deadpanned. "Because he did," Edgar replied. Hinchcliffe faltered, certain Edgar was pranking him. When he took the phone off speaker, Edgar's voice cracked, "Brody's dead." Hinchcliffe turned to the audience and mumbled, "I think I have to go." He walked offstage and collapsed into tears.
Stevens may have been most widely known as a regular audience warm-up comic for shows like The Best Damn Sports Show Period, Chris Hardwick's At Midnight and Chelsea Handler's E! show Chelsea Lately, but among professional comedians, he was a legend — revered both for his rebellious originality onstage and his kindness off it. Dozens of comedians, from Tom Arnold to Patton Oswalt, took to Twitter to lament his passing. "If you are depressed or feeling suicidal please please please please please reach out to ANYONE," Oswalt tweeted. "I never get to see Brody Stevens again I can't stand this."
The community had experienced this pain before. Five years earlier, in 2014, Robin Williams, then 63, had hanged himself at home. Over the years, other comedians had died too soon, including Tonight Show regular Richard Jeni in 2007; Greg Giraldo, a frequent guest on Comedy Central roasts, in 2010; and comedy writer Harris Wittels in 2015. Stevens' death by suicide was particularly cruel. More than any other comedian working, he was "obsessed" with mental health, says Hinchcliffe. His suicide put L.A.'s tight-knit comedy community on edge. If he was vulnerable, the thinking went, who else might be?
Back in 2010, partly in response to Giraldo's death, Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada had hired Ildiko Tabori to be an in-house psychologist for the club's comedians. Tabori has maintained an office upstairs ever since, and she conducts regular online sessions for comics on the road. She treated Stevens specifically for issues related to his bipolar diagnosis and notes how hard his death hit fellow comics. "Usually there's a lot of anger with a suicide," she says, "but [Stevens] was truly a genuinely nice human being and it's hard to be mad at someone when there's that much kindness."
Tabori says many comedians grapple with how much to reveal onstage about their mental health struggles. "I wouldn't say they're the happiest people," she says. "A lot will say being onstage is their therapy. I always correct them and say that it's therapeutic, but it's not therapy." Galifianakis often told Stevens that the comedy community would "always be forgiving" of mental obstacles. "If there is a profession where it is kind of par for the course to have a mental issue, it is in this one," says Galifianakis. "I think good comedians are sensitive people. Brody certainly was."
Notes actor and comedian Rainn Wilson, who helped put together a movie with Funny or Die in the wake of Stevens' death called It's Not That Funny, featuring comedians talking about their own mental health struggles: "The sad-clown, tortured-comic thing has a lot of truth to it, which is pretty much why everyone who makes comedy does so out of some pain that they've experienced. But it's important that aspiring young comics don't fall in love with their mental illness. You can be funny by being in recovery and healing. You don't have to be self-destructive to be funny."
Still, comedy is often its own drug. "Some comedians come from really good, loving homes. Some come from crazy, recent tragedy. That's not the thing," says Stevens' manager Dave Rath. "The thing is what they're missing and what they need from strangers to feel accepted."
For Stevens, the missing link may have been the kind of breakout success that he'd seen his friends enjoy — including those he had mentored, like Hinchcliffe and Edgar. Generous to a fault with his time and advice, especially with young, up-and-coming comics, Stevens often lamented to friends about his sense of failure. He had never had a serious romantic relationship and wasn't dating anyone at the time of his suicide. He struggled with money, and his quest for fame and widespread critical acclaim was halting and unsatisfying. Still, toward the end of his life, his star seemed to be rising. He had a festival gig scheduled in Santa Barbara for the very next day.
Stevens frequently touted the fact that he was born and bred in the San Fernando Valley. "8-1-8 till I die," he'd proclaim in the nasal twang that was his signature sound. Baseball took him to Arizona State University, where he played Division I ball. He returned to the Valley and lived there for most of his life, with brief periods in New York and Seattle.
Stevens would approach comedy as if it, too, were a sport, coaching audiences into fits of hysteria. "Stick with me," he'd yell at them. "This is my job!" Onstage, he took risks where others played it safe. "Brody's material was not as important as his presence onstage," says Galifianakis. "He would challenge the audience. He would turn on them and judge them. He would ask for laughs when he was not doing well, and it confused some people because, well, who does that?"
Stevens' sets could be puzzling, riddled with mundane details — the consistency of a stick of celery he had eaten for lunch, the shot of apple cider vinegar he'd taken that morning with his daily dose of Lamictal or Lexapro, how much he had paid for a bag of kibble at Petco for his mother's dog, Daisy. Like Andy Kaufman, Stevens could make you laugh by shouting at you. Sometimes he just stood onstage and drummed on the back of a chair until it became funny. He did an entire set while earnestly swinging a set of kettle bells. He once spent 45 minutes of a two-hour set trying to convince an audience member to guess who he had pitched against in college, shouting: "Who. Did. I. Pitch. Against?" No one knew, of course, and it didn't matter. He varied his rhythms "like a great fighter works the body instead of just the head," says Hinchcliffe. One of his jokes asserted that while he was not a part of the mile-high club, he did once jerk off on a Ferris wheel. "You'd think, 'OK, that's a joke,' " says Kremer. "But then he'd go, 'At the L.A. County Fair. During the Sugar Ray concert.' And you're like, 'Maybe he did.' "
Tourists and newcomers found him baffling and strange. Other comics thought he was a genius. "He was one of only about four comedians that other comedians can actually stand to watch," says Hinchcliffe. Galifianakis described Stevens as "a jock who does performance art." In a memorial show for him at the Largo with tributes by Sarah Silverman and Kirk Fox, alternately hilarious and very sad, Galifianakis revealed he thought Stevens was "the most entertaining person" he had ever met in Hollywood. For professionals, a Stevens set was a continual draw. Galifianakis once skipped an Arcade Fire concert because Stevens was doing a set at a cellphone store. They'd sometimes convene at Galifianakis' Venice Beach house and trade jokes "like a couple of 14-year-olds."
Until 2010, Stevens had never exhibited obvious signs of mental illness. The only thing his sister Stephanie Brody ever noticed was her younger brother acting "hyper." But that year, Stevens had a breakdown. After returning from the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, he partnered up with Galifianakis to do an HBO special called Enjoy It! It later aired as 12 half-hour episodes on Comedy Central about Stevens' life. He strained under the pressures of filming and started behaving irrationally, lashing out at friends and often breaking down in tears in his apartment during filming of Enjoy It! He showed up at a party Silverman threw annually on a West Hollywood rooftop, acting grandiose and unstable. His friends realized something was wrong, but they weren't sure how to handle it. "The mind can be so fragile for some folks that I am not sure pointing cameras at them is the best action in the thickness of a mental break," says Galifianakis. "We were willing to pull the plug, but Brody wanted to continue. We were told by some professionals that it was a good idea to keep going."
Looking back, Galifianakis and others question the advice they got at the time. "Maybe we should have not asked shrinks in this town," Galifianakis says. Stevens' meltdown, which was later diagnosed as a full-blown manic episode, became fodder on Twitter. Then, one day, he started publicly threatening people in a parking lot with a baseball bat, at which point his friends had him committed to a psychiatric facility at UCLA. "It was a total shock," recalls his sister Stephanie. "We had never seen anything like that before." He remained there for 17 days, but it took him months to regain his equilibrium and even then he continued to resent the friends who had committed him.
After his release, Stevens' career began to regain real momentum. He booked festivals, appeared on Conan and landed a half-hour special on Comedy Central. He also began to open up more about his mental health struggles onstage. In most cases, bipolar disorder manifests at a much younger age. Stevens, 40 at the time of his first full-blown episode, was an outlier. Now, as he started to regain his emotional footing, other parts of his complex personality began to emerge.
In recent years, Kremer and others say he was surprised to discover that Stevens had an unexpected respect for rules and traditions and even authoritarian leaders, which extended to Donald Trump. Stevens angered some in Hollywood when he began to flirt with conspiracies and more hardline conservativism. "He just had a weird brain," Kremer says. "Whatever odd thing caused him to come up with these great jokes also made him a bad evaluator of politics." Many of his friends believe some of his unpopular political dalliances were simply the comedian seeking a surer footing in the world as a refuge from his mental instability. "He said one of the craziest things I've ever heard a comic say," says Kremer. "He said to me once, 'I respect authority. I don't question authority.' " Kremer pushed back, but Stevens wouldn't budge. "I think he needed touchstones like that," he says.
Baseball was another. More than a game, for Stevens it represented a way of life. When Kremer once tweeted jokes at a baseball game, Stevens made him delete them. "He would back up every argument he ever got into with 'I played baseball at Arizona State.' He discredited you if you didn't play baseball. It meant you couldn't handle adversity. He just had a very rigid view about that stuff." For a long time, Kremer thought it was an act. "For a decade you just think, 'Aww, he's goofing around,' " he says. "But he wasn't."
Months before his death, Stevens had grown frustrated about his medications. Whether he'd done well or poorly on a set, he thought the drugs dulled his emotions. He stopped taking them and, as he later explained to his manager Rath, the adrenaline rush that accompanied a performance returned in full force. But without the medication, he also began to lose his footing. "I'm slipping," he told Rath, tearing up during their conversation. "I'm getting emotional, I'm getting kind of edgy." He decided to go back on his meds in the late part of 2018 or early 2019. He made an appointment to see a therapist at Kaiser. "I made a mistake," he told Rath about his decision to stop his medication. "I do not want to go back to the hospital. I think I'll be able to get through it."
On March 11, comedians packed into The Comedy Store to commemorate Stevens' life. "The greenroom backstage was always empty when Brody was onstage because the comics wanted to watch his magic [from the audience]," says Galifianakis. "I talk about him every day to someone." His extended comedic family recently named Aug. 18 (8-1-8, after his beloved area code) Brody Stevens Day. "A mountain has been removed from comedy," says Rath.
In a YouTube clip of him onstage, 6-foot-2, trim and muscular from working out, Stevens delivers one of his favorite jokes. "I was touched," he says, "but not by an angel." The crowd grows tense, justifiably concerned about a molestation joke. He continues. The perp was supposed to get four years, but the judge gave him eight. "Why? Because it happened in a construction zone." The line was the height of silly — but it killed every time. "He was funny in such an original way," says Kremer. "I can't believe he actually existed."
This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.