Star-Studded Short Film “Bug Therapy” Helps Destigmatize Mental Health

Photos from Citronella Stories LLC courtesy Michael Jann

Bug Therapy, created by a former Tonight Show writer with Main Line roots, is an animated short film that aims to destigmatize mental health and therapy.

When a nine-minute YouTube short has a star-studded cast that rivals most blockbuster movies, you know you’ve done something right.

Bug Therapy, written by Mike Jann and his wife, Michele Jourdan, is more than just a passion project. It’s a culmination of decades of writing experience and an adventure that took Jann from Connecticut to the Main Line and finally to Hollywood, where he was able to attract celebrities like Jay Leno, Meghan Trainor, Dr. Phil, Tom Green and Sterling K. Brown.

These names are the product of a little bit of luck, a lot of talent and a journey that began in humble Devon. Throughout his early adulthood working for advertising company LGK and helping brand M&Ms, Jann ate through Main Line towns like, well, a bag of M&Ms.

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Bug Therapy's star-studded cast shows up to group therapy.
The cast of Bug Therapy from left to right. Dragonfly couple (Michael Jann and Michele Jourdan), Dr. Pill (Dr. Phil), Fly (Jay Leno), Citronella (Meghan Trainor), Grasshopper (Tom Green), Praying Mantis (Emily Goglia), Spider (Jason Reisig), Stick Bug (Sterling K. Brown).

From Devon to Paoli, Wayne to Ardmore and even Bala Cynwyd, Jann lived in all of them at one point. If you can name a Main Line neighborhood, he has probably lived there.

“I was running from the law,” Jann jokes about his experience moving across the Philly suburbs every other year.

Despite having a “blast” living on the Main Line, Jan had a burning desire that couldn’t be fulfilled in Philadelphia. He wanted to write for The Tonight Show.

Most people have lofty goals. Some want to play professional baseball; others want to star in movies or be famous fashion designers. For 99% of us, those dreams are exactly that: dreams. Jann’s pursuit, though, became a reality through the most unlikely set of circumstances.

After hearing about a Philadelphia copywriter who was recently hired by an up-and-coming Jay Leno, Jann thought to himself, “Well if he can do it, I can do it.” So, like a child sending his list to Santa, Jann faxed lines to Leno, who began using the material live on the show and sending $50 back to Philadelphia per joke.

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Though there were likely thousands of others across the U.S. sending in bits after Leno let it be known that he would accept jokes from anybody, Jann stood out.

“I was just relentless… and hilarious apparently,” he says.

After enough time, Jann joined the staff full-time and moved out to Los Angeles. There he wrote Leno’s monologue for 23 years, then Jimmy Fallon’s for about a year before moving onto other pursuits, namely Bug Therapy.

As his time on The Tonight Show wound down, he and Jourdan began working on scripts together. Their screenplay, initially titled Citronella, originally had a broader plot. It was about a mosquito named Citronella who faints at the sight of blood.

Given Jann’s time in the industry, he and Jourdan were able to get meetings all over Hollywood, but not one bite on moving forward with the screenplay itself. DreamWorks, Sony, Paramount, Fox and more all sat down to talk about the screenplay, but nobody wanted to make a movie about a mosquito.

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“‘Your script was great. That’s hilarious. What else you got?’” Jourdan recounts of their meetings.

“They’re literally the least popular creatures on earth,” Jann says about mosquitos.

Frustrated, the duo realized that Citronella wouldn’t get them any further. Thus, they began working on a proof of concept and transition from a feature-length film to a short.

At a certain point, the story shifted from Citronella to Bug Therapy, a pivotal decision that helped boost the appeal and found the screenplay a niche. The story was no longer just about a mosquito, but about a mosquito struggling to build up the nerve to go to therapy, a situation more and more people find themselves in today.

 

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A post shared by Bug Therapy (@bugtherapymovie)


Leno was one of the first to agree to do lines, and Brown, a public advocate for mental health, came next. Then the National Alliance on Mental Illness endorsed the script, given that their mission statement is the moral of the film: reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Trainor, like Brown, is a mental illness advocate and, after she jumped on board, she convinced Dr. Phil, an obvious choice, to do the same.

Made on borrowed money from family and friends, the salaries of these stars could have sunk the project. Yet, to a number, they all chose to work for SAG minimums, recognizing the philanthropic potential of the endeavor.

Adding onto an amazing set of circumstances, EPIC Games (who you might know as the studio behind the videogame Fortnite), gave Jann and Jourdan a Mega Grant that allowed them to pay for the animation on the project, animation that cost $1,000 a second.

As if things could not become any more circumstantially relevant, Jann’s then 27-year-old son, Max, had a mental breakdown during the production of Bug Therapy.

At 3 a.m. one night, Jann received a FaceTime call from Max.

“‘Dad, I need to know, am I crazy?’” Max asked. “‘I died in 2010, my ex-girlfriend has my ashes and the government’s tracking their whereabouts. Am I crazy?’”

Appropriately, Jann was terrified, and Max hung up the call. At that point, the couple called the NAMI hotline, who calmed Jann down, explaining that mental illness is a process and that it wasn’t a problem that could be fixed that night. Instead, they would be in for a long ride.

The next morning, Jann met with his son at a local psych ward. He had been picked up by a police officer in the middle of the night at a busy intersection with a bible trying to direct traffic.

At the psych ward, Max looked up at his father and said, entirely seriously, “‘I’m God. What do you want to know?’”

“If you’re God, how come you’re locked in here and that guy has the keys?” Jann responded.

“‘He works for me,’” Max whispered back.

Diagnosed with THC-induced psychosis and Bipolar I, Max truly believed he was God that day in the psych ward.

“Now, thanks to meds and therapy, we’ve got him all the way down to St. Peter,” Jann jokes about his progress.

 

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A post shared by Bug Therapy (@bugtherapymovie)


Worried that it would no longer be appropriate to continue with Bug Therapy and make jokes regarding mental illness, the couple were at a crossroads. Instead of giving up the project, they added a new character, a praying mantis who doesn’t pray because she believes she is God, with Max’s blessing, of course.

Three years later in 2023, Max is doing much better. A year and a half sober, he’s working again and living on his own as an expert chess player and teacher. Now equipped to deal with the occasional manic episodes through therapy, Max is proof of the Bug Therapy’s, and NAMI’s, message.


Related: Havertown Native Mike Tollin Has Lasting Success As a Filmmaker

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