Tara Arseven Photography
tackles a big topic on his latest standup comedy record: mental illness. Approaching Happiness
was released in August and features some of the sharpest material to date from the India-born, Pittsburgh-based comedian, writer and self-described social vigilante.
Throughout the album, Mohan is in full command of the wit and thoughtfulness that has made him an underground favorite at comedy clubs and festivals around the country. It's an hourlong exercise in breaking the stigmas associated with mental illness. But Mohan also identifies the ways in which mental illness and other societal ills — such as racism and gun violence — intersect and feed one another.
"The whole point is to rethink the way we've been addressing mental illness and using comedy as vehicle to do that," says Mohan. "Where do we go with rethinking mental illness, rethinking how we treat each other?
"My question is: 'Are we progressive?'" he continues. "Right now, I would say no. But the show is about figuring out a way that we can can be progressive rather than being depressed about the fact that we're not."
Touring in support of the new release, Mohan performs this Sunday, October 8, at Drink in Burlington with locals Nicole Sisk, Joel Klein and host Eric Dreiblatt. Seven Days
recently caught up with Mohan by phone from the road.
SEVEN DAYS: Mental illness is not exactly common fodder for standup comedy. Where does your interest in the subject come from?
KRISH MOHAN: I had a friend about seven-and-a-half years ago who committed suicide. It was right after I had graduated college, and right at that point where you're trying to figure out who you are as a person, which you do with the people around you. So, when he committed suicide, it just didn't make any sense to me. He never seemed like the person who would do it, so there were all these questions. And seeing how it affected all of my friends, I wanted to figure out a good way just to cope with this.
SD: So comedy was a coping mechanism for you. What did you discover?
KM: Going on that kind of journey leads to a lot of self-reflection and thinking about your own issues. I've had anxiety all of my life, and there are points when you just get depressed. So, what the best way to pull yourself out of that? How do we treat it?
We have a lot of systems in place that we think are just normal, that I think are completely absurd, silly and counterproductive to the way that human beings work. Comedy can help address the absurdity of what we consider normal [regarding mental illness and treatment] and how it's negatively affected us. And that's what the show tries to do. It's a way to try and recognize that we don't need to keep doing these things, just because at one point we said that this was normal.
But all of that stemmed from my friend committing suicide and that I just didn't understand. And the reality is, I never will.
SD: Can you give me an example of what kinds of "systems" you mean?
KM: On the album, I talk about pharmaceutical drugs. I think most people assume that taking pharmaceutical drugs is fine. It's a normal thing to do: If something's wrong with you, you go to the doctor and they prescribe a pill to you. These are drugs, but they're drugs that we find far more socially acceptable than the actual drugs that help us, like psychedelics.
KM: I'm a big proponent of psychedelic research for mental health purposes — LSD, pure MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms. With the minimum amount of research we've done, we've discovered that they help more than Oxycodone or any of these other drugs with all of these insane side effects. But the system in place says that those drugs are illegal, but morphine is not. We can give our children speed in the form of gummy candy, that's completely fine. Drugs that pharmaceutical and insurance companies can use to make money off of people's illness, that's completely fine.
SD: Come to think of it, I guess I never have had restless leg syndrome on mushrooms.
KM: [Laughs] Right? I think the worst thing you can get from an acid trip is that you're tired for a little while and you have to take a nap.
SD: You've tweeted a lot recently about Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem protests in the NFL. And you believe this latest Trump-fueled controversy is a strategic diversion, correct?
KM: I think Trump and mainstream media have an agenda to make sure that we're not talking to each other about real issues. And a lot of the NFL players and Kaepernick himself have stated the real issue: It's racism in America. It's police brutality against innocent black men and women. Innocent people in general are being shot by the police.
But instead of addressing those issues, the conversation has become, "Oh, look at this athlete getting political. He's insulting your flag and your national anthem. That means he hates your country." I disagree.
I think Colin Kaepernick probably loves this country and wants to make sure that people in the streets aren't being shot by the people who are meant to protect them.
SD: I find it strange that people bristle more over the messengers than the message. There's this idea that sports are supposed to be pure and free of politics. But that has never, ever been true. Sports has always been a medium to discuss social and political change.
KM: When things start getting that bad and nobody is listening to the activists, politicians or the people on the ground, then, yeah, protests like this are the only way to get attention to those issues. Colin Kaepernick has millions of followers and fans, so he can use that as a platform to say that this is something we should probably talk about.
But if you want your celebrities to just stay celebrities, then maybe you should pay attention to the little guys when they're telling you things are really bad.
SD: So that guys like Kaepernick wouldn't have to?
KM: Exactly. I have a joke that maybe Mean Joe Greene wouldn't have been so mean if we would have just let him be more political about it.
It's ludicrous, this notion that you can't talk about politics in sports or entertainment. And it's because Trump and the mainstream media want us to argue with each other instead of saying, "You and I have a difference of opinion. Let's talk about where that comes from and maybe it's not a big deal that we disagree with each other."
SD: And because of that, we often lose sight of what the issue was in the first place. Kaepernick's protest wasn't about unity or patriotism or anything else that's been heaped on the anthem protests. It was about calling out racism and police violence. And that message feels like it's been lost.
KM: That's really what is being addressed in this protest. But it's not being talked about in the mainstream media. Instead, it's become about somebody insulting the country's logo, for all intents and purposes.