Adventures at the Clown Palace: Stand-up comedy helped me confront my depression and cultural taboos

"You get on this stage, and it doesn't have to be funny," my comedy teacher said. Time to get honest with myself

Published January 28, 2023 7:30PM (EST)

Spotlight on a microphone stand on stage (Getty Images/Adam Taylor)
Spotlight on a microphone stand on stage (Getty Images/Adam Taylor)

"We wanted to see development, we wanted to see growth, and we just weren't seeing it." My boss, the showrunner of the cop series, sat across from me in my barely furnished writers office. His face was impassive.  

 "But I was doing good work, wasn't I? Even Aaron said I had a good outline." My voice went up an octave, squeaky in its terror.

The showrunner didn't respond to me at first. Then, finally, he spoke. "You can take your stuff out of this office tonight. You can use my parking space if you want."

His eyes weren't even angry, just unemotional. My boss went back to his managerial duties. Perhaps he was going to look over an edit of Episode 108. Perhaps he was going to write the new season's arc. I didn't know. But my firing was just a quick part of his day, a checklist to finish before he moved on to other work. I took my "Empire Strikes Back" poster and some sundry supplies out of the office. My days as a professional screenwriter were done.

Driving home, my belongings in the backseat, I talked to myself. "There's been tons of famous people who were fired, right?" I repeated, a desperate mantra. "Francis Ford Coppola. Didn't he get fired from 'The Godfather'? Or was it 'Apocalypse Now'? Hmm. Spielberg. He got fired, too. What was his movie? 'Jaws'? Can't remember, but he definitely got fired from something." 

If somebody was watching me on the 405 Freeway, they would have seen a lone driver, sweating obscenely, mumbling to himself like a madman. People do indeed get fired in Hollywood every day; it's not some world-altering event. But for me, on a high from my first television writing job, being fired so quickly plummeted me flat on my ass. Already the owner of an anxious and depressed nervous system, I was truly and devastatingly rocked. A wave of negative wouldn't stop ricocheting in my head. "You're a failure. You never had any talent in the first place. You didn't deserve it. This is proof." 

A normal person might have been able to brush off the loss. But I had inherited my father's depressed DNA, and like him, I couldn't recover. 

* * * 

The next day, I called my manager Paul, a kindly man in his late fifties, with frizzy hair and a gregarious manner. We met at a writing convention in Burbank a few years back. He liked a couple of my movie pitches and we developed a friendship, and from there, a working relationship. 

"I need to talk to you, it's important. Can we get together?" My voice on the phone was anxious. 

On a high from my first television writing job, being fired so quickly plummeted me flat on my ass. 

He quickly agreed. My office belongings still packed up in my car, I drove to Canter's Deli on Fairfax. Paul and I sat across from each other, a bowl of matzo ball soup in front of each of us. 

"I got fired yesterday."

"I'm sorry, Kuang." He looked at me kindly. "I could tell by the sound of your voice."

"Thanks for being here." I looked down at my matzo ball soup. It looked like a beached whale. 

"It's fine, buddy. This happens all the time. You write a new script, we get back right at it," he said.

After that, we ate our food in mostly silence. As we left the deli, Paul handed me a ticket with a clown face on it. "What's this?" I asked. 

"It's a stand-up comedy class. Comp ticket. I forgot to give it to you last time we met." 

"Um. Sure." I shoved the ticket into my pocket, my shoulders slumped. Paul gave some more encouraging words about getting back to writing and a hug, and we parted ways. 

The next morning, a dull dread enveloped me. I listened to a voicemail from my mother. "Kuang. Your father wants to talk to you. Can you call us back?" Talking to my Baba was the last thing I wanted to do. But I didn't have a job to go to, and after wallowing in my own sweat for what seemed like hours, I pulled Paul's crumbled comedy class ticket out of my jacket pocket. 

I drove over to downtown Los Angeles' Garment District, a neighborhood that wasn't unsafe per se, but one I'd never visit if I didn't have to. I looked up at my destination: a building with a bizarre extra-large clown head hung over its awning, with a sign, The Clown Palace, written in giant Comic Sans. My thoughts went into overdrive. This class, a gift from Paul, was supposed to just be a lark. I was supposed to squeeze this in between my Emmy Award party and a flight to Vancouver to oversee my season finale episode. It was supposed to be a cherry on top of my huge crest of success. 

I walked inside a large studio filled with bizarre clown paraphernalia, and saw a group of aspiring stand-ups, old and young, of all races and body types, staring at a tallish man in cowboy boots standing beside a microphone stand on stage riser. That man turned to me.

"Kuammmggg right? Hey, have a seat!" A native Texan, the teacher, Cash, was a handsome man with craggy lines on his face, stamping down his shit-kicker boots onto the stained floor as he spoke. He looked at me with wide-open eyes, waiting for me to respond. 

"Yeah. Kuang. That's me," I murmured. 

"Sit over here. We're clearing now." 


"Just sit, Kuanmmg." He raised his voice, his hoarse Texas accent growing stronger. I went and sat in the back of the class, wary of the eyes of the other would-be comics surrounding me. 

A bald middle-aged man stood up, "I've had sexual thoughts about my aunt. And my grandmother. And my kitten. All at the same time." I squirmed in my seat. 

One woman got up and simply shouted hoarsely into the mic for a minute, with no actual jokes. Or words. There were some funny folks who got up onstage, but Cash shouted out to them, "You don't need to be funny! This is just clearing!" 

There were some funny folks who got up onstage, but Cash shouted out to them, "You don't need to be funny! This is just clearing!" 

For the next couple of hours, I got to understand what "clearing" was. It was getting onstage and just getting shit off of your chest. As the class cleared, I witnessed the greatest assortment of weirdos I've ever encountered. Hollywood burnouts, fringe folks, individuals with serious mental health problems. They were all here at the Clown Palace.

Then Cash himself went up to clear. He told us about how he self-destructed a promising comedy career to end up here, teaching comedy at the Clown Palace. "Here, I'm among my people, my fellow clowns." Cash smiled wildly, pointing to the eerie jester statues and paintings throughout his studio. "There's Jack, Devon, and Ulysses. They're way better company than club promoters or industry people. They don't talk!" 

I wanted to get out of there. This wasn't my tribe. I came from a good upbringing. I had Hollywood options. But here was the truth. Mental health struggles? Check. Hollywood reject? Check. Unemployed? Check. 

"Kuannngggm? Do you want to go up and clear?" Cash again looked straight at me. 

I looked away. "I'm sorry. No, I need to head home." 

He put up his hands, "It's gonna be good for you, man, trust me."

I grabbed my car keys and phone. "Sorry. Gotta go." I rushed out of there. I quickly looked behind me, where the comedy weirdos watched me leave. 

The next morning, my body and mind railed against me. I had nowhere to be, no real purpose. That realization expanded into an existential uselessness throughout the day. It only subsided in the late afternoon. The medication that my psychiatrist recommended? It wasn't kicking in yet.

Glum, I listened to another voicemail from my mother. "You haven't called in a few days. What's going on?" I texted instead of calling her back. I wrote that I was fine. That it was just a work thing. She texted back immediately. "Did something happen with your job?" I ignored that text, but another one came quickly from her. "Kuang, your father wants to talk to you. Can you call us back?" 

This wasn't the first time my mother called on me on my father's behalf. But that time, it was Baba's depression she was concerned about, not mine. 

* * * 

One evening, when I was a sophomore English major at UCLA, my mother called me at my dorm room, when I was about to go out to the apartment parties near campus. I was ready to drink cheap Keystone beer and meet girls. 

"I think you need to come home for a few weeks", she told me. 

"Why?" I was looking out my dorm room window. The night beckoned. I could already hear the sounds of the Friday night partying, the tinkling laughter, the clinking of glasses. My friends had told me to meet them up at the party on the corner of Gayley and Westwood. Annie said she actually had some mushrooms tonight. 

My mother's voice knocked me out of my wishful thinking. "Your father's having some problems." 

"What kind of problems?" 

"Problems with his nao tze." That was the Chinese word for brain. Looking back at it now, almost 25 years later, it's significant that she didn't actually say the word depression. That was typical of our family, and actually the entire Chinese culture: keeping a stoic face during a severe mental health crisis. 

"Problems with his brain? Um. Can you give me a little more context?" 

"Just come home. Tomorrow!" My mother's brisk voice rattled into my landline phone. She had lost her patience with me. Click.

I came back home from UCLA, back to my suburban home in Agoura Hills to help take care of my father, because Baba's depression (or problems with his nao tze), made him incapable of self-care. That was the first time I had heard of these words, this kind of mental health condition, and my mother tried her best not to talk about it while I was at home. 

* * * 

After the Clown Palace encounter, I met with my own psychiatrist. Dr. Wong was a Chinese-American man in his sixties who rocked John Lennon glasses, his office featuring pretentious South American and African furniture.

"I got that particular piece in the early '80s, during my travels to Brazil." He swelled in pride while talking about his precious items.

Meanwhile, I was in a full-blown mental health crisis. "Can we talk about my situation, Dr. Wong?" I finally whispered, unable to continue our conversation about from which boutique art dealer he got his finely carved Brazilian table. At a steal.  

He scratched his beard, looking at me as if I was a puzzle he was trying to solve. "How is the Lexapro doing?" 

"Like I said, it hasn't kicked in yet." 

"You still have the anxiety and depression symptoms?" 

"You have depression in your family, your father in particular. I'd classify you as a depressive. It's in your best interests to continue on the medication."

"Yeah. Dread in the morning. Anxiety and depression throughout the day. Sometimes I wonder if even worse when my parents try to help me — "

"You can talk to your therapist about that." Dr. Wong quickly cut me off. I guess that wasn't his responsibility. 

"Noted." I tapped my foot, anxious. 

"You should start feeling the medication soon. The anxiety and depression should level off shortly." A pause, then Dr. Wong continued, "What are your plans after that?" 

"What do you mean, what are my plans? Once I get through this, I'm going to stop taking the Lexapro and get back to my life." 

He looked at me again, a gaze that made me feel like I was a butterfly on a pin. "I'd advise staying on it." 

"Um. For how long?" 

"You have depression in your family, your father in particular. I'd classify you as a depressive. It's in your best interests to continue on the medication." 


"If that's the way you see it." 

"I'm not sure I want to do that." I shifted in my seat.

"Like I said, you are a depressive. I'll see you next time."  He stared at his furniture, the signal for me to get the hell out. I was furious. 

"You know, your furniture sucks. It's pretentious and looks like a middle school kid could've carved it."

I didn't say that, of course, but I wish I had.

On the drive back to my apartment, I heard a voicemail from Cash. "Hey, Kuannnggmmm. I hope you come back for another class, buddy." I suppressed the urge to click Delete and finished listening. I could hear the sound of cats, meowing in the background. He continued, "You should at least clear. It'll be good for you."

* * * 

The first few days I was back at home from college, I tried my best to help my mother. I'd go grocery shopping for her, and tried to help Baba with what he needed. He was prone to sleeping past noon in those days, the anti-depression drugs making him hazy, tired. One afternoon, while my mom was in the kitchen, getting lunch ready, I approached her. 

"What happened to Baba that made him like this?" 

She looked at me, blinked a couple of times. "When your Baba was teaching in Taiwan last semester, some burglars snuck into his University apartment and stole money."

"Oh. Wow. How much?"

"About two thousand dollars." 

That was a lot of money, I thought, but it wasn't that much money. How did he become a shadow of himself because of just two thousand dollars? He wasn't physically hurt; he still had his family. 

"That doesn't seem to be enough to cause this to happen," I said.

"It's not just that. It's something that's physical. A disease of the mind."


"It's part of our family. His mother. Your Nai Nai, she had this too. Depression." There. She had finally said it. The word that she hid away from for so long. Depression. The word itself made me feel very uncomfortable. A sense of shame bubbled inside me. We didn't talk about this subject in the family. Why was my mother talking so openly about it now?  

"If you feel yourself going through this, Lexapro is the drug that worked for your Baba and your Nai Nai. He's taking it now." 

"I'm not going to need it." 

"You should just have the information. It's good for you to know." 

* * * 

My mother came over to my apartment after my visit to Dr. Wong. It started to rain, hard drops onto the Los Angeles cement. She brought over some food from Sam Woo restaurant, setting plates of hot noodles and duck on my kitchen table. 

"Did you see your psychiatrist?" 

"Yes, I did. His furniture sucks." 

"What?" My mother narrowed her eyebrows. 

"Just a joke," I said. "I'm taking the medicine he prescribed. The same one Baba took."

The word itself made me feel very uncomfortable. A sense of shame bubbled inside me. We didn't talk about this subject in the family.

My mother smiled slightly, then closed the lids of the takeout, placed them in my refrigerator and gently closed the door. 

"How is Baba?" I asked. 

"He's fine. He's worried about you."

I pushed my plate away. "I think I'm going through what Baba did when I was in college." 

"I know." My mother responded, her eyes kind.  

Later that night, I got an email from my father, telling me he was thinking of me, just like my mother mentioned. He wrote that he hoped I felt better soon. He told me about the medication that was making his new depression go into remission. Then he quickly got back to telling me about his newest Physics textbook. "It's my best yet." 

I turned off the computer and went over to my balcony, overlooking the starry Echo Park night. The rain had stopped, and the streets had a lovely glistening texture. Neighborhood folks strolled outside, ready for a night out at the local bars. 

I thought of my father. I took solace in the fact that my father had this problem as well. I wasn't alone. Perhaps I was wrong to keep it all bottled up. 

"Thank you for the message," I replied. "I appreciate it." 

* * * 

I went back to the Clown Palace. It was just Cash inside the studio that day. He was sitting on the stage, on a weathered stool. 

"Hey Kuannggmm." 

"It's Kuang." 

"Sorry about that." His face became less exaggerated, more open. "What would you like to do today, buddy?" 

"I want to work on some material."

"That's great. Do you want to do some clearing first? It looks like you have a lot on your mind." Cash looked at me with empathy. It was a huge change from the cartoon comedian from last week. "You get on this stage, and it doesn't have to be funny. You just get some shit off your chest." 

A pause from him. "I think you might need it." 

"You're probably right." I stepped on the stage and Cash took a seat. The stage was just a platform a few feet off the floor, but I felt high up on a ledge, as if I could fall down thousands of feet. 

"I've been having some really bad thoughts lately." The microphone made my voice expand, the volume filling the room. 

"Talk to me, brother!" Adam hooted and hollered, as if I was Chris Rock at Madison Square Garden. 

I spoke a little louder. "I had some suicidal thoughts, but I didn't do anything about it. I guess I was never that good at follow-through." 

More barking laughter from Cash. He looked at me. But this wasn't like Dr. Wong's clinical look — this was supportive, generous. 

"Which is weird," I continued, "Because I'm Asian. We're overachievers. I would've thought I would have gotten that right."

"Better than us white hicks from Texas for sure!" More peanut gallery antics from Cash followed, but I was loving it. I was feeling heard. 

"I've never really been that amazing at anything, if I'm being honest. I've always been an average Asian." 

More laughter from Cash. "The 'Average Asian!' I love it!" 

That afternoon, we worked on some jokes. But really, we worked on my sanity. 

* * * 

The journey back to feeling myself again wasn't straightforward. It was full of twists and turns, from doing therapy to pushing my body to its limits with a marathon. But my self-healing began that day with Cash at the Clown Palace, with a commitment to being honest with myself. 

This irony isn't lost on me. Our Chinese culture is full of stoicism and saving face. Letting it all hang out on a grimy comedy stage was the furthest thing from that. When sadness and despair take hold, we often turn to shame and hide our emotions. This silence only worsens our mental state and deteriorates our self-worth. Although clearing was awkward, weird and sometimes not even very funny, it forced me to be truthful. 

Just like my mother took a brave step and opened up about our family's depression to me, I took her baton, and let it rip on the Clown Palace stage. And that made all the difference. 

If you are in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

By Kuang Lee

Kuang Lee is a writer and filmmaker. He is the founder of Satellite Films, an Addy Award-winning production company specializing in commercial films and documentaries. 
Kuang’s narrative feature, "BUDDY SOLITAIRE," starring Golden Globe Award Winner Sally Kirkland, was distributed by Hulu and toured major film festivals. 
You can find Kuang’s work at and get in touch with him at


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Asian American Comedy Depression Essay Mental Health Stand-up Comedy