Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. If you’re still with me, I admire you. It’s hard. It’s not funny. But sometimes, it can be, right?
Julia Sweeney was one of the first to bring cancer and comedy together, on stage. 20 years ago she was famous for her SNL character “Pat,” who was either a man or a woman but whose colleagues could never never tell which. After leaving SNL, Sweeney made "It's Pat: The Movie" -- but it was a flop. Then her brother got cancer. He moved in with her in Los Angeles. Then, Sweeney's parents moved in with her. Then --- she got cancer. Her sanctuary amid that chaos was a basement comedy club, where, every Sunday, she'd get onstage and chronicle the absurdity of living with cancer, and also, her family.
Sweeney: It was really mostly because of Kathy Griffin, who was my friend from the Groundlings, and she kept saying ‘this is perfect for you, this is perfect for you.’ Just come to this club called the UnCab - there’s a basement of a big club, it only fits 50 people, you can’t see anyone’s faces, its really for standups to break their pattern of telling jokes and for exaggerating. Around the same time all this crap was happening with my brother. He was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma, he didn’t have insurance, my parents moved in with me, and I had to kind of keep myself together all week during very trying situations, while we were trying to figure out what do you do when you have lymphoma and you don’t have any insurance. And then also my parents with their own crazinesses. And so I started going to the UnCab and telling stories about what had happened that week. And it was an incredibly satisfying experience, it allowed me to get through the next week,by just being able to vent.
Brooke: Now, the nature of those moments in the UnCabaret, that was really raw. I’m going to play a little clip of that.
Sweeney: Oh, please be with me tonight. Alright, so briefly, there’s five kids in our family, I’m the oldest. And my brother, who’s the fourth child, got lymph cancer. Hold for laughs. And it’s like very tragic, terrible situation, although he’s doing very well. And he’s at the UCLA cancer center. And every day he has radiation and every other day he has a spinal tap and spinal chemo. And every three weeks he has the big chemo. So my parents -- All you need to know about this is I’m with my parents in a very trying situation where I can’t really yell at them for the small annoying things that they do, which I would do normally because of the largess of the total situation.
Sweeney: Oh my god. Listening to that is really traumatic for me right. Okay. It was a really difficult time. It was a freaky time. And to me, feeling like you’re in the middle of a crisis and believing that somebody totally understands. Even if that’s a group of people in the dark. It was just enormously helpful to me getting through it.
Brooke: There were times on stage, early on, where you said things like, I’m going to try my hardest to make this effing funny and you ramble. You talk about some very unfunny things. How did you make it funny?
Sweeney: Well, I actually think it is funny. Like the whole idea that we’re trying so hard to deal with the situation and yet all of our annoying behaviors and personalities are at their full throttle. And yet you can’t really do anything about it because, you know, everyone is trying to help each other. And it’s a big disaster. And financially and emotionally and healthwise and in every way. I just realized that it sounds like it’s not funny but it actually is funny. I mean, like to me, that is really funny. Because, I guess there’s a lot of comedy for me in people trying to keep themselves together and do the right thing when it’s impossible to do the right thing. And I feel like when you have cancer and when you’re in a family with people with cancer - that’s just happening every hour.
Brooke: These evenings at the UnCab turned into “God Said Ha,” which was a one woman show, then a Broadway show, then a movie produced by Quentin Tarantino, and eventually a book.
Sweeney: God, that sounds so awful. I’m listening to this going, wow, you really exploited this situation Sweeney.
Brooke: No. Can I play you one of my favorite parts?
Sweeney: Mike had received so many different spinal taps that scar tissue had built up along his spinal column and they couldn’t access it anymore. So one day, we were at UCLA and Mike was on the examination table and the doctor came in and he said, “Mike, this is what I suggest. I think that we should put a shunt into your forehead, which is a plastic opening so that we can put the chemo directly into the cranial fluid.” And Mike immediately, said, “Listen doc, if you think you’re going to put a faucet into my forehead, you may as well give me a lobotomy at the same time.” And there was this awkward pause and then my mother chimed in and she said, “Oh Mike, I don’t think it’s like a faucet. I think it’s more like a spigot.” And then I think even the doctor was a little embarrassed. And he said, “Well, Mike, let me just tell you that my patients who have the shunts, well they...they love them.”And Mike said, “Oh they do, do they?Well then, by all means, give me a shunt.” And Mike did get a shunt. And after that, his refrain became, “I love my shunt.” And whenever the doctor came into the examination room, he’s say, “How you doing Mike?” And Mike would say, “I’m not doing too well doc, but I’ll tell you one thing, I love my shunt.” And to just show you how surreal things were getting, at night the whole family would watch shows like “ER” and “Chicago Hope” and whenever anyone would come into the emergency room, Mike would yell out, “Give him a shunt! He needs something to love.”
Sweeney: Oh god. I still get emails from people who say “I love my shunt.” I do.
Brooke: After “God Said Ha,” you started getting calls from pharmaceutical companies?
Sweeney: Yes. Well first I got calls from cancer charities. You know, like come to the Oncology Nurses Association and do 20 minutes of “God Said Ha.” I did so many of those, but the Oncology Nurses one is the one I really remember. Cause I love those women. And also they understood it was funny too. It was tragic, it was funny, but it was what they live for. So there were all kind of great experiences like that. But then, I started getting calls from big pharmaceutical companies. Like come, for just a huge amount of money. I mean - and they wanted me to only say certain things in my monologue. And there was one drug that they were promoting that helped build up the white cell blood count. And they were wondering if my brother, Mike had taken that drug. And I said no. And they said, “But he was tired all the time, right? So you could really emphasize how tired he was because we’re going to have these doctors there in the audience. And we’re going to try to get them to prescribe this new drug. That’s really helpful to people. and it’s such a breakthrough and such a wonderful thing. It was just really confusing. Like I had now gone into the creepy area of cancer. Because now it was big interests, paid physicians with me on stage talking about how important this drug was that I knew had to be getting paid at least as much as I was, which was a lot. Sometimes we would go to places where they would invite cancer patients because they wanted the cancer patients to request this certain drug. It was so creepy. And so disgusting. So then after that I just quit. And ever since then I just look with a very jaded eye at the whole cancer complex. I’ll call it the cancer complex. Because it is big. And it is lucrative.
Brooke: Talk me about cancer related memoirs in general. I mean, without casting aspersions on anyone. Your show was utterly engaging, neither completely gloomy nor predictably uplifting.
Sweeney: Oh Brooke. I can’t help it if I’m talented.
Brooke: But what’s the trap one can fall into, do you think?
Sweeney: You can be self-pitying. You can’t be self-pitying. That is just the number one rule. And you have to do your best to engage people. I mean you have to remember that it’s still an audience. You know, like you’re still there taking up someone’s time. But I also think - okay, let’s say my story is boring. And let’s say I’m not funny. And let’s say I’m not telling it in a unique way. And let’s say I’m even maybe a little self-pitying over it. I think it’s still valuable to tell people my story. Now I don’t think it’s valuable to try to get people to buy my story. But I think if you’re in a group of people who are all going through the same thing and everyone gets to talk, I think that is hugely beneficial.
Brooke: You know the term, comic relief - we have that term because humor is something that we crave in tough times. And you were one of the first to bring it to cancer. And despite how common cancer is in our lives, it’s not like cancer and comedy meet all that often. Why not? \
Sweeney: I don’t really know why not. I think it should be more. I mean, you first have to be a funny person. Like you don’t get cancer and become funny. You’re funny and then you get cancer. So I think if you have the ability to see the world in all its ridiculousness, then when you are confronted with a huge life threatening situation, if one of your defense mechanisms is to see things absurdly then that’s going to get dialed up.
Brooke: But the thing is is that relief part, that’s what you provide not just for yourself, but for everybody else. It’s a relief.
Sweeney: This is what I love about comedy, is that it’s vocal. When we laugh, we make a sound, it gets other people to laugh too. It’s a communal experience. And it feels good. It feels good to be in the audience and it feels good to be on stage.
Brooke: I want to play you one more, just to take you down memory lane.
Sweeney: Okay. Oh god. Oh god.
Sweeney: One morning, I walked into my radiation doctor’s office and he said, “Julia we have some bad news.” And I said, “Oh, bad news.” And I sat down. And he said, “It appears that we’ve lost one of your ovaries.” And I said, “Oh, don’t worry. My oncologist warned me about that. He told me that one of my ovaries might die because of the effects of the radiation. So you know, I was prepared. And he said, “Nooo, no no no no. I don’t mean that one of your ovaries has died. I mean that we’ve lost one of your ovaries. We’ve been looking at these X-rays and we see this ovary over here but this ovary over here has gone off somewhere.” And he said, “ You know, I’ve seen this before and it’s not unusual for an ovary once cut off from its responsibilities to travel. I said, “Oh. I guess I could understand that if I were an ovary and I suddenly didn’t have to deal with that fallopian tube anymore. I just might want to see some stuff. And he said, “Don’t worry, you know, it’s going to turn up eventually. We just have to keep an eye out for it.” And I said, “Oh, okay. Now I’m not going to like cough it up, am I?
Brooke: It did turn up eventually…
Sweeney: It did, although who cares if its there or not
Brooke: Julia thank you so much.
Sweeney: Oh Brooke, thank you, this is so exciting…
BROOKE: Julia Sweeney is a writer and performer, author of the one-woman show, God Said, Ha!
So Sweeney owned her cancer with comedy. Everyone who copes with it finds their own way. Today, you can choose. You can engage with the world from your bedroom, or withdraw with a click of the mouse, a swipe of the thumb. You don’t have to be what doctors or screenwriters or commercials say you are. Small consolation perhaps, when your cells are running amuck. But at least you have a little more control over the world you take in, and the world you project. Half a century ago, if you got cancer, the cancer defined you. It can’t do that anymore.
That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Kasia Mihaylovic.But the heavy liftuing this week was done by Meara Sharma. We had more help from Jesse Brenneman. And our show was edited by…me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week, I’m Brooke Gladstone.