Finding the Humor in Cancer
Welcome to our new series Tragedy Plus Time. Each segment will focus on a particular ‘life crisis’ — sometimes globally tragic, sometimes more of a personal affair — and we’ll explore how many of the comedians we know and love have dealt with it.
Cancer is the disease that perpetually reminds us that we are all a bunch of vulnerable, fleshy meat sacks, and that everything we touch, eat, breathe or spend too much time standing near is eventually going to kill us. It affects millions of people every year. A late diagnosis is effectively a death sentence, and the variety show of pain it has provided humanity has torn apart countless lives, including those of some famous comedians.
While everyone has their own method of coping with something so devastating, comedians have one particularly refined coping mechanism that separates them from the rest of the population. How does someone with the ability to laugh at, over-analyze and make fun of anything react when they come into contact with one of the most humorless topics on the planet? The answer is a combination of anger and frustration, really dark, macabre jokes, and more often than not, some truly inspirational thoughts.
2012 was an incredibly rough year for standup comedian Tig Notaro. In the span of four months, she had to deal with a debilitating bout with pneumonia, the death of her mother, the sudden ending of a long term relationship, and finally, a diagnosis of cancer in both of her breasts. She was scheduled to perform at Largo in Los Angeles very shortly after receiving this last bit of news, and despite all the personal trauma she had recently experienced, she decided to go through with her set. The routine Notaro thought she was going to give (involving being passed by bee on the freeway, as she references throughout) was quickly thrown aside as she opened to the audience with: “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?”
Notaro’s brutal honesty and fear at that moment of what was yet to come led to a set filled with pockets of dead silence from the audience alternating with huge bursts of laughter. Lest you think the crowd wasn’t fully enjoying what they were hearing, at one point Notaro apologizes to the room and suggests switching to regular jokes, before someone begs her not to, shouting: “this is fucking amazing!” To which Notaro replies, shortly afterward: “now I feel bad that I don’t have more tragedy to share.”
Louis CK remarked via twitter about the event, that “in 27 years of doing this, I’ve see a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”
Mike Birbiglia discovered blood in his urine one day when he was 19 years old, before his career as a comedian had even started. This greatly upset him, as he’d been playing a game with himself where he’d drink lots of water to see how clear he could get his pee. The blood counted as a big loss. His story – which is actually trumped by a longer, more in-depth health-related piece about having to deal with his sleepwalking woes – mines plenty of laughs out of the whole experience, which involved visiting a urologist, getting a cystoscopy, and dealing with his post-operation high. Birbiglia’s full bladder cancer story can be heard here.
(As a side note, his short aside about being asked to “cut the theatrics!” might be one of my favorite bits of all time)
The happy ending, along with the benefit of time, makes the piece a lot more lighthearted than Tig Notaro’s set, but it’s easy to imagine how, for a brief period of time, a very young Mike Birbiglia came face to face with death.
Gilda Radner’s post-Saturday Night Live life was met with a series of obstacles. Her career as a performer didn’t take off as well as expected, especially compared to some of her fellow SNL alums. She suffered a miscarriage from an unexpected (though welcome) pregnancy with her husband Gene Wilder, and during the filming of the movie Haunted Honeymoon in 1985, her health began to deteriorate. After many painful months of misdiagnoses, she was finally told she had ovarian cancer in October of 1986.
Gilda’s now famous struggle with cancer was detailed in her book It’s Always Something, titled after a catchphrase from her famous character Roseanne Roseannadanna. She chronicles much of the painful struggles involved with her disease, but she also has moments of levity, describing the joys of farting after dealing with some serious stomach problems, making her first appearance post-baldness with hair resembling “a newborn Easter chick,” and finally, coming up with this anti-cancer mantra turned song with a friend from the Wellness Community that she belonged to:
I am well.
I am wonderful.
I am cancer-free.
No little cancer cell is hiding inside of me.
But if some little cancer cell is sneakily holding on,
I’ll bash and beat its fucking head and smash it till it’s gone.
During her remission in 1988, Radner also made an appearance on It’s Gary Shandling’s Show on Showtime, full of pep, and very much willing to address the elephant in the room:
After she plainly announcing that she’d been away because she had cancer, she asks Gary Shandling: “what’d you have?” He smiles and responds: “a very bad series of career moves, which by the way there’s no cure for whatsoever.”
Sadly, Radner’s cancer spread past further into her body and more of it was discovered in her body in late 1988. She ultimately succumbed to the disease on May 20, 1989. Gilda’s Club, a community organization for people living with cancer was founded in her name. It is now known as the Cancer Support Community.
Randall Munroe is the creator of popular xkcd webcomic, “a [mixture] of romance, sarcasm, math and language.” The stick figure drawings you see on his site belie the intelligent, insightful and quite often hilarious scenarios he creates in a mere handful of panels.
After maintaining a diligent three day a week midnight posting schedule for years, he began falling slightly behind in late 2010. Because of his close relationship with his fans, he posted the comic to the right apologizing for the lateness and confessing that he was dealing with a “serious family illness,” which was later revealed to be his fiancée’s diagnosis of stage III breast cancer.
Throughout the trauma, he never completely stopped posting comics, and several of the ones he put out in the interim actually dealt with how his fiancée’s disease affected his thoughts and his/their life. Matching his comic’s overall tone, some were light-hearted and silly, others were more thought-provoking and poignant:
By all accounts, Munroe’s (now) wife is recovering.
After steadily building his career as a “song and dance man” throughout the 70’s and early 80’s (he actually did not consider himself to be a comedian), Andy Kaufman’s audiences slowly learned to expect the unexpected. From reading the Great Gatsby to crowds expecting to see his famous characters, to faking a rebellious refusal to participate in a sketch on live television, to dabbling in a career in inter-gender wrestling, Kaufman was constantly setting the bar for outrageous stunts that may or may not have had a punchline.
When he discovered he had a rare form of lung cancer in late 1983, he vaguely alluded to an illness in public, but audience members couldn’t be blamed for assuming it was yet another gag. From The Last Days Of Andy Kaufman:
People on the street would approach Andy (sitting in his wheelchair) and say “Andy, come on man. This dying bit is just too much!” Andy would turn to friends and just shrug in astonishment, “Can you believe it? They think I’m making this up!” His years of (in)famous characterizations totally transfixed audiences to the point that they believed he had no other off-camera reality. They were convinced the “dying thing” was just another cleverly-crafted Kaufman performance piece.
Despite his attempts to cure his cancer with radiotherapy and, more desperately later, “psychic surgery” in the Philippines, the cancer spread to his brain and he passed away on May 16th, 1984. Or did he?
Yes, he definitely died. But many fans refused to believe it, assuming for years that he would make a reappearance at some point down the line. The idea wasn’t totally crazy – Kaufman had at one point actually discussed the idea of faking his own death as a stunt, saying he would return in 20 years. And his comedy partner Bob Zmuda only helped stoke the flames by continuing to perform as Tony Clifton, a crass character Kaufman created and played as an alter ego. The speculation continued throughout the 1990’s, culminating in Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman in the biopic Man On The Moon, which ends on a deliberately ambiguous note regarding his death.
Though cancer took his life early, Andy Kaufman created a legacy for himself that lived on in more ways than one.
After spending four seasons on Saturday Night Live where she became best known for her role as the gender ambiguous Pat, Julia Sweeney decided to move on in 1995 and try her luck in Los Angeles. Before she could gain any traction however, her personal life hit a major snag. Her brother was diagnosed with lymphoma, and shortly afterward Sweeney herself was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Though she ultimately survived, her brother did not, and the experience had a profound effect on her.
Sweeney workshopped stories from her brush with death, and was eventually inspired to use them to compose a solo show based on her life called God Said Ha! Here’s a small excerpt from one of her monologues that was featured in an episode of This American Life:
Oh yeah, this is another sick thing that I do. It’s not funny, only sick. I have this thing where the clothes in my closet don’t know that I have cancer. And if I haven’t worn them since before when I found out I had cancer, I have to tell them when I put my clothes on. So I’ll put on a dress, and I’ll think, “Oh this dress doesn’t even know.” And so then I’ll put on the dress and I’ll think, “Oh dress. Don’t you realize what’s happened to me? And the dress goes, “That’s terrible, but you’ll be OK.”
The show gives an honest, uplifting look at this difficult time in her life. Sweeney describes living with her parents again, her struggle with cancer, losing her cervix and her chance at giving birth, and of course, her brother’s untimely death. God Said Ha! was a big hit, and eventually made it to Broadway. It was recorded as an album, which later got nominated for a Grammy. God Said Ha! also came out in print and finally was turned into a feature film, produced by Quentin Tarantino, despite the noticeable lack of cursing and violence in Sweeney’s story.
Sweeney, still cancer-free to this day, has since written and performed in several new solo shows, In The Family Way, about her adoption of a child from China, and Letting Go Of God, a story about her loss of faith and eventual conversion to atheism. She also has an upcoming memoir, “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother.”
Known mostly for his shock humor, Tom Green gained notoriety for being willing to straddle and often cross over the line between decency and outrageousness. He became famous for organizing stunts on unsuspecting passerbys in ‘man on the street’ style pieces, while also frequently using his own parents as victims on his talk show. In his trail to stardom, he managed to infuriate almost as many people as he managed to entertain. For many years a rumor floated around that he had dressed up as Hitler and walked into a Bar Mitzvah for an unaired segment on his MTV show, which allegedly led to the show’s cancellation. Though it was untrue, many who’d followed Green had no problem believing it, and this unfortunate urban legend followed him around for years as a testament to how far his audience thought he was capable of going.
While at the height of his fame in 2000, Tom Green was diagnosed with testicular cancer. True to form, he shot a one hour special for MTV entitled The Tom Green Cancer Special, which showed graphic footage of his own surgery. The entire show can be seen right here:
Gimmicky stunt or not, Green was ultimately praised for showing a “vulnerable, human side” of himself, and was later asked to speak in front students at the University of Florida, where he sang a song called “Feel Your Balls,” about self-testing for testicular cancer.
Though he was unable to shake the Hitler story, Tom Green was able to beat cancer, for the price of one testicle. Years later, he wrote an autobiography titled: Hollywood Causes Cancer. The allegation remains undisputed.
Best known for her role as the titular character in The Nanny, Fran Drescher has lived a colorful life, to put it mildly. Outside of her impressive acting resume, many details of her life – getting divorced to a man who later came out of the closet, and being assaulted and raped in her own home – will likely be the subject of future iterations of Tragedy Plus Time. For now though, we’ll focus on the topic at hand. After a lengthy period of misdiagnoses (not unlike Gilda Radner) taking two years and going through eight different doctors, Drescher was finally diagnosed with uterine cancer in June of 2000. Thankfully, time was still on her side, and she was given a clean bill of health after receiving an immediate hysterectomy.
Drescher shared her experience in her 2002 book Cancer Schmancer, with her mission statement becoming more about informing the public than simply entertaining them. The book even eventually led to the start of the Cancer Schmancer Movement, Drescher’s way of spreading the word and “turning patients into medical consumers.” She writes on the site:
I wrote Cancer Schmancer to tell my story of survival so what happened to me wouldn’t happen to others. After I went on my book tour, I realized that what happened to me happened to so many women like me. And so it was then I realized the book was not the end but rather the beginning of a life mission to improve women’s healthcare in America.
Fran Drescher, her signature laugh, and her cancer movement live on to this day.
There are comedians who suffer for their art, and then there are comedians who just seem to suffer. Robert Schimmel is in the latter category. Along with the poverty, the self-doubt, and the empty stares from audiences – staples of the early life of a comedian – Schimmel had to deal with a number of personal tragedies. It started with the death of one of his children to cancer in 1992, followed by a heart attack in 1998, and finally, a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in June of 2000 just as his career was starting to take off. (Side note: the year 2000 was apparently the year cancer decided it really hated comedians)
But not even cancer could keep Robert Schimmel down. He made his comedy part of the healing process, incorporating his stories into his act. From the Jewish Journal:
Later, between Schimmel’s own chemotherapy treatments, he incorporated his illness into his nightclub act, complete with a slide show of his deterioration. (“That’s me when they told me what the co-pay was,” he quips about one skeletal-looking picture.) Club owners warned him that audiences wouldn’t appreciate the dark subject matter, but viewers roared with laughter, rewarding him standing ovations and rushing to hug him after each show.
Schimmel believed strongly in the power of laughter to heal, that it was the best possible way to give cancer the finger. He performed for fellow chemo patients at the Mayo Clinic, wanting to help be a part of their recovery, saying: “in the moment that they laughed, in that one moment, they weren’t sick, and they weren’t afraid.”
Sadly, though his cancer eventually went into remission, the universe wasn’t finished piling problems onto Schimmel’s life. Several years later, he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver as the result of a hepatitis C infection dating back to his time in the Air Force. Shortly after that, in August of 2010, he was involved in a car accident with his 19 year old daughter. His daughter survived, but he did not.
Before he passed away, Schimmel put together a memoir entitled: Cancer, on Five Dollars a Day (chemo not included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of my Life.
You should hurry up and pick it up now before some unseen force decides it wants to posthumously punish him by having every single copy of the book catch fire and burn up.
Note: While many other comedians have dealt with cancer – including, but not limited to: Jennifer Saunders, Bill Hicks, Scott Thompson, Christina Applegate and Tommy Chong – those not listed here have mostly dealt with their own or their loved one’s illnesses in private, off of the screen, stage, and/or printed word.
Matt Shafeek is a writer and performer living in Astoria, Queens. He performs at the Magnet Theater in NYC, and has blogs about life, productivity, and Batman. His love for comedy is matched only by his love for games. He’d love it if you’d follow him @mattshafeek.