Laughing and Crying

Director Kristian Mercado on the complicated, interconnected relationship between film, comedy and depression in his life.

You ever feel suicidal? When things slow down and you ask, Do I belong here? Why am I here at this time and place? I ask myself that a lot; it’s a constant. My brain creates a lot of things, but it is also riddled with anxiety and depression.

Quick joke: How do you get a depressed person to open up? I actually don’t know, ’cause I’m too depressed to write a joke today. Get it?

I’ve wrestled with depressive bouts for a long time, and lately they’ve been occurring more and more frequently. I used to get panic attacks a lot, but somehow I got those under control. The lows lately seem to hit harder than usual. I feel blindsided, numb, lost. I spent a month in L.A. contemplating my place in the world, against a gorgeous sunny backdrop, working on a huge project, but somehow I felt dead inside. The work thrilled me creatively, but emotionally I was heartbroken. This long silence gave way to pain and doubt. Loss lingered in me. In the past when this has happened, I turned to film to find a way to ease that pain. Film doesn’t abandon me. People, on the other hand, seem to be fleeting. I decided to turn to Prozac to see if I could ease the pain. One pill at a time.

I remember watching Rocky with my family when I was young. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s where this whole thing started — this love, this obsession, this desire to make films. No matter what was happening at home, films brought my family together. As I got older, that feeling never really left me. I seek that feeling out, and it’s a longing that pierces me but ultimately empties me. Anytime I want to say “I love you,” I do it in what I’m working on; I pepper in the emotions into anything I touch. The love, the loss, the joy, the hope and dreams. They all make their way to the image, the film, the movement of the camera, the scripts I write. I just let it all bleed.

A lot of my work has been focused on translating pain; digesting it, and finding meaning in it. The words of Audre Lorde have always guided me: “Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it.” That quote struck me the first time I read it. At the outset of my career, I focused a lot on the dramatic word and finding stories that told a truth about family. Exploring the messy, imperfect and beautiful ways families collide. A reflection of my own lived experience, one in which my family barely held together in the often violent waves of surviving New York City as a broke kid. I still want to tell those stories and I still see that as part of my film journey. Funny, though, how life leads you to places you’d never expect. Funny is the word.

A few years ago, Hannibal Buress randomly flew me out to Arizona for one of his shows. I ended up watching him perform his newest hour of material. It was hilarious — absolutely wild — and it had an experimental audiovisual vibe I gelled with. I laughed a ton, but still wasn’t clear why I had been invited to tag along. In the green room, a stocky comedy manager pointed at me and snarled, “Who is that guy?” Without missing a beat, Hannibal responded: “That’s Kris Merc. He’s directing my next comedy special.” It all clicked. If I smiled, it was on the inside.

Hannibal Burress with Kristian Mercado.

I’ve always enjoyed comedy. Laughter heals, and it lets you digest difficult truths when it’s done right. It illuminates something honest about the absurdity of life. When I directed Hannibal’s special, a lot of the accolades that I’d previously received were for dramatic works. One was a screenplay about the colonization of Puerto Rico that won an award at Slamdance, and I also won at SXSW for telling a story about Hurricane María. I had lost my grandfather to the hurricane and it’s still something that haunts me. I’d always envisioned myself as a dramatic filmmaker first, but now comedy had begun to settle in, like a frown slowly widening into a smile.

Why do we laugh? Is it a form of controlled aggression? A sense of superiority, like we know something others don’t? When animals in the wild bare teeth, it’s an aggressive gesture, yet in a comedy club, that’s what you crave. Laughter is an addiction. We laugh at ourselves, our circumstances, but maybe most of all to survive? I love Richard Pryor. He didn’t chase laughs, he spoke uncomfortable truths; audiences had to think about what he said, then come to terms with it and laugh at the absurdity of it. The truth was fed to you in a punchline, tickling your brain to make some kind of uneasy peace with it all. Maybe laughter can be cruel, maybe it can save. It’s hard to tell …

I found myself hesitant to say I was “in comedy,” yet I discovered I was slowly falling in love with it and working with people who, like me, felt a bit bewildered by life and sought out the outsider’s path. The comedian started to take on a new dimension for me as I began to delve into their art. I fell in love with comedy so much, I kind of lost myself in it. The laughter made me feel joy, feel at ease, and it also made me crave to show the world how I saw it, which was a delicate dance of words unfolding to a pace almost invisible. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel seen, but I always try my best, and I give comedy my all. This world smiled on me, with my flaws and all. It didn’t just embrace them, it celebrated them. Being an outsider was a vibe, a truth that was respected.

A joke felt like a punch, a joke felt like a truth, a joke kept you off guard.

I began to feel that a lot of the pain I’d been carrying would go numb for stretches. I dug deeper and tried to learn as much as possible about stand-up, researching and studying legends like Pryor and Carlin, but also examining what exactly was the magic to a great set, and what was the visual language of comedy that made it work. In fact, I wanted to challenge it. I felt the call to explore what makes comedy work in the now, and see how it can be pushed, teased and made bigger. And I did all this while writing dramatic screenplays, working to find a way to fuse those two feelings into my work. It was a rush, and I felt motivated and inspired. Comedy became my friend, and my partner. Drama was still there, but it too was learning something from comedy. The whirlwind I was living, it felt like I could hold on to both.

But let’s get back to my crippling depression.

Trauma sometimes has us seeking out things that hurt us, because we think they are love. The pain we felt in the past manifests itself to our present in cycles. I wondered if film was making me happy or if it was blinding me to the truth of how hurt I was in life, how trauma had defined my childhood, and how film was the rope I latched on to, pulling myself out of this well of despair into the light above.

Comedy was exciting and new like a childhood crush, but it wasn’t a cure. The anxious spirit, the empty feeling, was still there. How do you fill it? “Art” was my only answer. To make things. Make things that make people happy. To find joy in making others feel less alone, feel seen, feel like they have a film to look to for comfort in the darkest of times.

I began to want so very badly to feel seen, to be loved, to be held. My culture insists that we all should be self-sufficient, especially the men. It’s what tends to drive us, for better or for worse. All I wanted was to see it all, feel it all, float above it all. All the misery — mine and everyone else’s. All the doubts and anger and fear. I wanted to move easier than I was normally allowed to in the world. I wanted to find something that made me feel alive again.

That’s when I would remember being at a show, shooting a set, finding that moment. Being in sync with a performer’s tone, work, and voice — those are the moments when the sky truly felt wide open. It felt like I understood the idea of baring oneself on a stage. My work in drama was just me pouring myself out to strangers, hoping to be understood. Comedy felt so similar. I respected the craft, I respected someone telling a story in such a raw way. Just a person and a microphone.

Maybe if I showed my scars, the world would show me theirs, and maybe we could be less alone. Maybe we could all feel closer together if we stopped being so distant and were vulnerable together. Being an open wound felt right. Crying is just as important as laughing.

I recently said to someone, “I need a lot of love to survive.” I almost felt shame saying it out loud, like there was something wrong with admitting I need love. I believe we choose our lot in life, but when it comes to the pain we feel — which inspires the songs, films, and even jokes around us — that all comes from the love we have or the love we’ve lost. We can acknowledge the risk of heartbreak, but must not let it deter us. “Survival is survival and not just a walk through the rain,” as Lorde said.

Kristian Mercado, in directing mode.

In the end, the biggest love in my life that’s endured is the one I feel towards film. When I’m sad, it sees me. When I’m happy, it cheers me on. Now, with comedy, we share laughs too. But I won’t stop there. Not just for myself, but also for others who feel alone too. If my films, and my comedy, make people feel what I feel, then that’s something to keep waking up and walking in the rain for.

I guess I’m depressed; I have been for a long time. Laughter and love and loss have all collided into me. Be kind. Be kind, because sometimes kindness is all we have. All I can tell you for sure is that filmmaking is our own experiences – the loss, the love and the heartbreak, without any pretenses or artifice. It’s the most honest thing we have.

I belong here.

Featured image of Kristian Mercado by Matt Chavez; all drawings by Kristian Mercado. All images and art courtesy Kristian Mercado.

While Kristian Mercado is known for seamlessly transitioning from comedy content to projects addressing issues of identity, family, and systemic oppression, he is currently solidifying himself as one of the top directors for comedians to hire for their comedy specials. In 2021, he directed Phoebe Robinson: Sorry, Harriet Tubman and Aida Rodriguez: Fighting Words, both for HBO Max. Additional stand-up specials he directed include Hannibal Buress: Miami Nights, Ilana Glazer Presents Comedy on Earth: NYC 2020-2021, London Hughes: To Catch a Dick and Sam Jay: 3 in the Morning. His psychedelic animated short, Nuevo Rico, debuted at the 2021 SXSW Festival, garnering the prestigious Animation Jury Award, and is currently being developed into a feature. On the music front, Kristian has directed content for such artists as Billie Eilish, Bad Bunny, De La Soul, The Peach Kinds, and J Balvin, to name a few. His music video for Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “Pa’lante” won the Jury Award at SXSW Film Festival in 2019. (Photo by Storm Santos.)