Mind Reading: Comedy Helped Brittany Furlan Lee Cope As A Child. Now She’s Using It To Help Others (2024)

At 37, Brittany Furlan Lee has already lived many chapters in the public eye. The comic, actress and content creator once was the queen of Vine—a title that landed her on Time’s 2015 list of the 30 most influential people on the internet alongside Taylor Swift, Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian. She’s garnered praise as a standup, experienced cancel culture and attracted the spotlight as the wife of Motely Crue drummer Tommy Lee.

All along, she’s been living with mental health struggles dating back to her early childhood in Pennsylvania, where she first turned to comedy as a coping mechanism. It’s a craft she continues to hone not only to bring laughs but increasingly to help normalize the kinds of conversations she was unable to have.

“I grew up in a pretty chaotic home. My parents got divorced when I was young, and my mom suffers from borderline personality disorder. While she’s doing a lot better now when I was younger it was really hard. She would talk about how she was going to kill herself and I would have to talk her out of it at 5, 6 years old. I would try to distract her and make her laugh so that she wouldn’t be sad. I was basically walking on eggshells and living with fight or flight for years,” she says.

“As I got older I was really struggling and the only way I would be able to escape is when I would go to school and make people laugh. I loved making people feel good because I didn’t feel good. I was voted class clown, out of the girls and the guys, in high school. There’s just something about if you don’t feel good, you never want anyone else to feel the way you do so you do everything you can to keep them from feeling that way.”

While things looked sunny on the outside, Furlan Lee says during her teen years she was slipping deeper into depression and anxiety. When a high school physical revealed she was cutting herself, she was sent to a residential facility for a short stint, an experience she describes as “one of the worst experiences of my life” but with a silver lining: She connected and started seeing a psychologist who diagnosed her with panic disorder and prescribed medication she still takes today.

Feeling more grounded, in 2005 she moved to LA and started doing open mic at The Comedy Store and other venues, where she was scouted and recruited for television series including “Reality Hell” on E! and “Prank My Mom” on TLC.

She was becoming a staple on the standup circuit before her panic attacks eventually forced her off stage. “I ended up stepping away from it because I would get so much anxiety going on stage, and I still do,” she says.

It was around that time short-form video platform Vine was taking off. Furlan Lee discovered she could create content without ever leaving her house. As her characters and bits exploded, she became the most followed female star on the app for two year, amassing more than 9 million followers.

She also started to speak more openly about her visceral panic attacks. “As I got older it became more acceptable to talk about mental health and I started finally speaking out about it. I think a lot of people would watch me and think, ‘Oh she’s just a happy, funny person’ and didn’t realize how much I struggled with anxiety.”

And she’s recently found her way back to comedy clubs. “My therapist has really been working with me in term of exposure therapy,” she says. “She asked me, ‘What’s your biggest fear, and what’s stopping you from doing?’ And I said I’d really like to go back to standup.”

Though she says her legs were visibly shaking her first time back at The Improv, Furlan Lee says the set went well, “and the feeling is so huge it releases all this dopamine and you really start to feel better and better. I don’t always do well. I do a lot of crowd work and I’ve had a lot of audiences that are not in the mood to be talked to. But I’ve been doing it more consistently.

“I don’t want to say it cured me because I don’t really believe there’s a cure, I just think mental health isn’t linear. But it’s put me in such a good place with my anxiety. Forcing myself to do things outside of my comfort zone has changed my life. I think I’ll probably have nerves forever, but getting up there again has been so healing.”

As it turns out, Furlan Lee is also helping heal some people in her audience.

“I go on stage and say, ‘Does anyone here have mental health issues?’ And people will cheer. It’s gotten to a point where they’re not ashamed of it anymore, and I love that. I think so many people struggle. Life is complicated, and for my whole life how I deal with things is to take things that are uncomfortable to me and try to make them funny. Even if it’s a dark funny, I try to find it,” she says.

She shares a recent bit. “I have a joke that my husband married me because I’m ‘bi.’ I told him I was bi, and he was like ‘Oh that’s hot. We’re going to have threesomes after the wedding.’ And then I said, ‘No, bipolar mother****er.’ I don’t I’ve never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but that’s my joke.

“I do make jokes about mental health all the time and I’ve met so many amazing people because of it. People who have really been touched, who can relate and who’ve reached out to me and said, ‘I’m so thankful you shared that because I go through these things and I felt very alone in it.’”

Furlan Lee’s latest stage is the podcasting realm, to which she’s returned with a new twist on her previous series “Worst First.” For the new weekly “This Is The Worst,”

she and comic Brittany Schmitt give their takes on listeners’ worst moments, while sharing their own unhinged stories in an unapologetic, and often cathartic manner.

“There has been some polarizing feedback—people either love us or hate us and that’s understandable because we’re talking about unconventional things and joking about it and trying to find the light in the dark stuff,” she says.

“All my life in the entertainment industry I’ve been misunderstood. I’ve apologized a million times for it; I never meant to hurt anybody or offend anybody. I was just trying to do skits. There are always people who are going to hate me and that’s fine.”

Regarding negativity that finds its way to her socials—she has more than 2 million followers on Instagram—Furlan Lee has this to say: “I used to get really upset but now I don’t think anyone who’s feeling good in their own life goes onto someone’s page and says something mean. I think people who do that are hurting in some way. So I just try to make a joke out of it or send them love or whatever.

“There’s light everywhere. We just tend to focus on the bad. So we try to find the funny; we try to find the light.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, texting “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or going to the website 988lifeline.org.

Mind Reading (formerly Hollywood & Mind) is a recurring column that lives at the intersection of entertainment and wellbeing, and features interviews with musicians, actors and other culture influencers who are elevating the conversation around mental health.

Mind Reading: Comedy Helped Brittany Furlan Lee Cope As A Child. Now She’s Using It To Help Others (2024)
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