Erik Bergstrom Went From the Cancer Ward to Comedy Central
When comedian Erik Bergstrom was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015, he had no idea what cancer would do for his career. “Cancer is the best agent I’ve ever had. When I got this special [his Comedy Central Half Hour, which premieres tonight at 12:30] I got emails from agents wanting to know if I wanted to sign with them, but I was like, ‘If I want another TV spot I’ll just have more cancer.’” Bergstrom was already an established New York City comic and illustrator before the diagnosis, but as is common when facing your own mortality, the news of his cancer made him want to work harder. Just a few short months after the completion of his chemotherapy, he took the stage at New Orleans’ Civic Theatre to record his Comedy Central Half Hour. I sat down with Bergstrom immediately after his taping to discuss his feelings on the Half Hour, the funny side of cancer, and the correlation between dick jokes and survivor’s guilt.
You just got off stage after taping your Comedy Central Half Hour. How do you feel?
I think it went well. There’s a part of me that will always kick myself for little timing issues and stuff like that, but I had fun. They were a good audience. I feel relieved. I can have new thoughts and not run through the same half hour again and again like I have for the past month.
How long have you been working on this material?
I’ve been doing standup for eight years. There are some one-liners that are probably from earlier on. Within the last three years is most of the stuff about dating and the past year is the stuff about cancer.
You are one of the few comics this season that are currently unrepresented. It’s one thing to have a manager, agent, or team of people pushing you and your work, but you did it by yourself. What do you think tipped the scales in your favor?
Cancer is the best agent I’ve ever had. When I got this special I got emails from agents wanting to know if I wanted to sign with them, but I was like, “If I want another TV spot I’ll just have more cancer.” I think that and I don’t think that. Having cancer was an angle that probably tipped it over, but also I had a lot of jokes that we’re ready outside of the cancer material. I’d been working really hard and had to take a year off from cancer. I had a lot of support from the comedy community, which might have caught some attention. I got emails from people that were very flattering that said, “Oh man, it sucks that you got cancer because you were actually funny.” That’s super nice even though it’s an odd compliment because it means they already thought I was funny before I got cancer.
When you got your diagnosis did you feel a stronger urge to push your creativity?
Like, I might die, so I have to try?
Yeah. When faced with something like that did you feel that you needed to step up your game?
There’s no denying that I have felt that way. Even now there’s a small percentage of a chance that the cancer could come back, so I always have that fear and it makes me want to work harder.
You’re also an illustrator. What came first, comedy or visual art?
I started doing cartoons because I was too socially anxious to talk to people when I was younger. I always had ideas that I thought were funny, so I would draw them out. Then I forced myself to do standup.
Would you say that Grimmer Tales is your biggest accomplishment in illustration?
Yeah. I’ve also done cartoons for the New Yorker and stuff for Barnes & Noble, but Grimmer Tales is an actual book with everything put together.
During the time you were laid up, what was your primary creative outlet?
Social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Because I was balding I would make these silly pictures. I would boil spaghetti and put it on my head like hair. The TV in the room I was staying in would turn blue if you left it sitting long enough, so I would do Blue Man Group pictures. So many times I tried to do an Uncle Fester picture where I put a light bulb in my mouth, but I was too skinny at the time. That was really heartbreaking. I wish I had been fatter.
How are you feeling now that you’re done with your chemo?
I’m doing well. Again, there’s always that fear of stuff. They found a little growth in my right lung, which they’re thinking is just scar tissue from one of the chemo chemicals. But I’m feeling well. I’m going to the gym and running five miles a day. My eyebrows are back. I’m happy about that. I can make human expressions normally again.
I wanted to ask you about this tweet you posted: “I can tell the quality of women I’ve slept with when all of them text when I have a TV special, but not a word when I had cancer.”
I got a ton of texts within the last three days because I was posting about taping this special. But that was only three days. For six months I was putting up silly pictures of me bald, sick, or in chemo with tubes hooked up to me and no word. I know that they follow me online. It’s like…
Why did not get some love on that spaghetti hair picture?
Yeah. But I don’t hold it against them entirely. Cancer is not glamorous by any means. I got sick and there were a lot of nice lady friends I have that offered to make cookies and stuff like that. They would ask me how I was doing and I would say, “Oh, just a lot of bone pain today.” It was like as soon as cancer became real in their minds they checked out and didn’t talk to me until I was better again.
I think if somebody has had a friend or family member that’s gone through cancer they could probably be more equipped to deal with it. There’s a commonality there. But if they never had that experience and they see things looking grim for someone in your situation they probably don’t even know what to say. They could just be waiting, hoping you get better. Then they see that you’ve got something exciting coming up and you’re doing better now so they jump back in like, “Hey! So glad you’re doing great! Congratulations on the comedy special!”
That’s a good point. I guess it could just be, “Way to go! You made it through the whole the thing.” But I really like my negative angle on it, so don’t ruin how I’ve already ruined it. But I understand it’s hard. The way people felt around me is the way that I felt around people that knew they were going to die from cancer. I didn’t know what to say. It’s like, you’ve got a guy with two kids and he’s going to die of cancer, but I’m going to survive so I can tell my dick puns? I’ve been told it’s survivor’s guilt and that I shouldn’t feel that way, but none of it makes sense.