I’ll be honest, I had some trouble finding the flattery, recently, when my friend Cindy texted me that she had recommended me to appear on her friend’s podcast. “You’d be perfect for it,” she said, “it’s about failure.” Me: “Huh? Well. Huh?’ There may have been a second “well” and a third “huh.” Then Cindy sweetly continued, “Yours was the first name we thought of!”
“Really? Me?” So when the topic of failure came up, they didn’t think of Michael Dukakis, Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams, the 2016 Falcons secondary or the guy who crashed the Exxon Valdez into the rocks? (I knew that he’s Joseph Hazelwood. But it was bad enough Cindy considered me a famous failure— I didn’t want her to think of me as an even more famous nerd.)
Fortunately, Cindy, rightly sensing that I was about to toss my smart phone into the sea, went on to explain that her friend’s podcast, The Other F Word, is really a show dedicated to people telling their stories of showing deep resilience to overcome setbacks. If only she had led with that. That 3/4 Klonopin could have gone un-eaten.
Suddenly flattered that anyone associated me with overcoming something, I instantly said yes and threw myself into preparing my failure story. I certainly didn’t want to be unprepared and embarrass myself. The notion of failing at a project devoted to failure was concurrently too ironic and meta for me to fathom.
To prepare, I spent a lot of time taking stock of my life. It was a bit like Yom Kippur all summer. Except that I somehow managed to still gain 18 pounds since May. I jotted down pivotal life moments. Things that I considered failures. And subsequent moments where I had challenged these setbacks with semi-triumphant bounce backs. Many of these moments actually made it on to the air, when we finally taped the podcast last Thursday. It helped that I had jotted these moments down in a little black notebook. It didn’t help that the little black notebook made me look like an old-timey encyclopedia salesman or a grifter from a low-budget sequel to Paper Moon.
The truth is, I entered the recording both fully-prepared and a little self-conscious. What gave me hesitation was my realization that I didn't have a giant pitch-able, one-liner of a failure I’d overcome. They couldn’t introduce me as “Bryan Behar. He never learned to read. And now he owns the largest chain of pornographic bookstores.” Or something like that. I suppose they could have anyway.
But what I recognized, in both my taking stock and during the course of a free-wheeling illuminating talk that served both as stand-up showcase and low-cost therapy, was that my life (and probably the life of many) isn’t marked by one overpowering moment of failure. But that more likely, one experiences a number of speed bumps throughout their life. Your ability to contend with those is what ultimately will determine your success. And in my final analysis, it’s far healthier to have experienced a lot of mini tumult than to be suddenly overwhelmed by a catastrophic sense of failure. But more about that when I get to my conclusions section.
During the course of their really insightful interview, I got to share all different kinds of failure stories. I repeated my oft-told tale of being sent to first grade with the Julia lunchbox seen above. And how I would have felt straighter had I arrived at school, shirtless, riding a unicorn through a field of erect penises with Bruce Vilanch’s balls still in my mouth. We talked about how I only got into the Harvard School for Boys off the waiting list. And how I not only entered school with more chip than shoulder, but my middle school grades plummeted when I was bullied for my shyness. The exact story is in 8th grade, a guy in my class spread a rumor that the reason I didn’t speak was because I was a drug addict. I also recounted the irony that by 11th grade, the same guy was bullying me for NOT being a drug addict.
A sizable part of the discussion was devoted to overcoming failure in my career. When you’re a TV writer, failure is practically your de facto setting. When you’ve been on 22 shows in 22 seasons, there’s no hiding said failure. We discussed how I’ve written on most failed sitcoms since CPO Sharkey. I repeated my standard line that I’ve resulted in more dead pilots than Malaysia Airlines to the usual combination of gasps, guffaws and groans.
I got to tell the story of being hired for my first staff job on Ned and Stacey, two months after finishing my first spec script. But that it had taken me a full 7 years after college to get the courage to complete a spec script. And this was after literally trying to every day, both on my own and with 4 partner pairings. Getting hired I was an overnight sensation. After 7 years of full-time failure. We also talked about finally having my dream come true by getting staffed come almost immediately crashing down, when the show runner compared our first script to something written by the Marx Brothers. Obviously I thanked him. To which he further explained, he was trying to insult us and that he would have to fire us. Eventually, through some miracle (or miracle of anxiety meds), we were able to save that job and write four episodes that season. But it just shows that even when you think you’ve “succeeded,” you are often then forced to deal with the ramifications of that success. And for me, in that first job, the terror over not wanting to lose that long-sought first job was almost overwhelming.
Let’s see, we talked about getting fired from some of my favorite sitcom jobs. We talked about years that we didn’t get staffed and had to sell a pilot or lose our homes. We talked about the time, as a grown man, husband and father, I had to walk into Wells Fargo carrying a shoe box of my bar mitzvah bonds to cash in. I was certain this would trigger some sort of silent alarm in Haifa—it’s him! The world’s least successful Jew! Ultimately, I think they were just relieved that I didn’t ask to see the trees planted in my name.
The only story I forgot to tell was truly my emotional nadir as a writer. It involves another writer who happened to go to my high school, who had an opportunity to treat me with grace and kindness. And did! Only kidding, he didn’t. But I think I’ll save that for my play “Fuck You Guy from High School.”
When my gracious podcast hosts commended me on continued tenacity and resilience, it enabled us to segue to, not a failure per se, but the primary topic of my interview: responding to and recovering from my father’s suicide. It was certainly germane to the discussion because I definitely did not want to leave listeners with the fallacious notion that resilience is somehow a pre-ordained given. Especially when the one person who you most modeled yourself after emotionally wasn’t ultimately able to pull himself out his final crisis.
Without getting back into those details which have gone well-chronicled in other HuffPo pieces, here are a few observations that came out of the discussion that I did not have before the tape began rolling.
The first observation has to do with society’s prevailing myths about failure. The old myth and one that is recycled again and again due to social media is the myth that everyone around you is a massive success on an all-time great winning streak. Sure we all have people in our orbits who’ve made more money than they deserve. But what podcasts like this have served to do is place failure in the zeitgeist. In doing so, the more common narrative that “everyone has failures/ we don’t know how anyone really feels in private” seems to have replaced the wildly debunked “everyone’s a winner but me and Charlie Brown and the San Diego Padres.”
But a conclusion we arrived at during the podcast was that there exists an equally false and pernicious new narrative regarding failure. It’s the myth that we all fail in the same way. That we all have “perfect” failures. That it’s one big failure to overcome, we do, and then take our company public. This myth misses that nearly everyone has uniquely messy failures. Most people don’t instantly come out of that failure with the Stanley Cup of resilience. As I attempted to recount all my failures from Hesby Street Elementary School to season 3 of Fuller House, I learned that I didn’t have one big loss and one big win. (My Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding.)
Along similar lines, my final takeaway is the actual mental health benefit to facing myriad challenges. I have zero interest in over-simplifying a tragedy, but I often wish my father had gone through many smaller setbacks in his life. Certainly, this would’ve been preferable to one big setback, catching him off-guard and seemingly without answer. And thus, that’s my non-medically-trained wish for all of you. That you experience a ton of challenges and setbacks in your lives. Not because I’m a masochist who wants to see you suffer. (I’m not that guy from my high school.) But because only by facing such smaller challenges will you be ready in case there’s ever bigger obstacles afoot. There’s never a downside to having a reservoir of stories where you should tremendous resilience. Even if those stories somehow involve Bruce Vilanch’s balls.