Diagnosis: Boring uses surreal comedy to demonstrate the distortional logic of depression | Small Screen | Chicago Reader

Diagnosis: Boring uses surreal comedy to demonstrate the distortional logic of depression 

The Chicago-made webseries takes a radically different view of mental illness.

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click to enlarge Diagnosis: Boring

Diagnosis: Boring

Can someone die from being too boring? According to the new webseries Diagnosis: Boring, the answer is "yes." In the first episode of the Chicago-made show, a doctor tells Jess (Ana Silva) that she has "Super Boring as Shit" syndrome and only a few weeks to live. There's a possibility she'll survive if she takes antiboring meds and adjusts her habits to make herself more cool. ("You must start smoking cigarettes," her doctor says. "Parliaments, because they are the coolest.") For the rest of the series, with his assistance and also the help, and sometimes hindrance, of her friends, family, and a self-help guru, Jess searches for a cure that works for her.

Frank Spiro, the series's creator, came up with the idea after he went to a psychologist because he felt devastatingly bored. The therapist informed him that he was actually depressed—and that depression is not the same as simply feeling sad. Mental health issues, he learned, affect a person's logic and, therefore, his or her view of the world. He decided to combine his background in comedy and love of surrealism to explore that concept in Diagnosis: Boring.

"When you're making a sketch for sketch comedy," Spiro says, "there are two different kinds of sketches that everyone always suggests: the sane character in an insane world and the insane character in a sane world. I think that feeling depressed and dealing with mental health issues makes you feel like a sane character in an insane world."

Absurdist elements appear in Diagnosis: Boring from the very first scene. On her way in to see the doctor, Jess tries to pick up a coin off the street and the words "Feel shame for trying to steal" appear out of nowhere on the sidewalk. While she's still wallowing in her shame and misery, she becomes part of an art exhibit viewed by a group of tourists walking by. And when her doctor gives her her diagnosis, he hands her a ticking "death clock," loudly symbolizing the necessity of change. This approach is a welcome variation on the purely autobiographical nature of many webseries and stories about depression. Not that it's completely without precedent; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lady Dynamite, and other TV shows have introduced fantastical, comedic approaches to mental health into mainstream media. But Diagnosis: Boring manages to be increasingly bizarre, darkly funny, and at times just plain old dark in its own way, grounded by its dynamic lead, Ana Silva.

"The whole idea is that Jess is a gray speck in a world full of color," Silva says. "The more vibrant and wonderful the world around her is, her isolation becomes so apparent and her need to reach out for something, that desperation continues to build. I think without having that vibrancy around her, the juxtaposition wouldn't be great enough for the comedy to be played up."

Silva is no stranger to finding the funny in emotional topics. In fact, Silva and Spiro met while working on Sad Clown, an improv show at the Annoyance Theatre that was centered around mental illness. Last May, Spiro approached Silva with the pilot script of Diagnosis: Boring. She made sure to look at it closely before simply agreeing to be a part of a friend's project, even though he had written it with her in mind. What she read was a female-driven story that pushed for further creative conversations about mental health. That, she says, was something she was ecstatic to be a part of.

Another inducement to join the project was the diversity of the cast and crew. Silva is a member of Matt Damon Improv, one of the most highly regarded improv teams in the city—and which features exclusively women of color. (Sometimes a white guest, designated "Matt Damon" or "Lena Dunham," depending on gender, joins a set, but they can only repeat lines that have already been said in a scene by the team's main players.) Diagnosis: Boring deals with so many highly emotional issues that Silva felt it was important to build an environment where everyone felt comfortable.

"There's a lot of times when I'll walk into an improv class," she says, "and I'm the only person of color, let alone the only woman. It's one of those things where you have to feel that you belong in order to safely create the work that you want to be making."

Both Silva and Spiro turn to laughter in moments of distress. Silva fell into performing comedy during a dark period in her life. Spiro says he tends to find the worst moments of his life funny in the moment, then recounts them in his comedy as a way to process and cope with them. They both hope that Diagnosis: Boring can help others do the same.

"I think the world is already such a dark place, and there's so many dark things around us that comedy is one of those things we can hold onto to keep us sane," Silva says. "There must be a quote about that somewhere. Well, there is now."   v

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