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Knock Knock. Who's There? Cancer

16/09/2015 5:29 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Anna Mayberry

There's a couple of things you notice very quickly when you start doing stand-up about having cancer.

One, there isn't anybody in this world who's brave enough to heckle you. And two, some people will be unable to bring themselves to believe you are actually sick. You can stand there, wholly bald, doing material about chemotherapy to their laughing faces and on the other side of it they'll still just assume it was an ill-advised adventure in character comedy. As if it made more sense for you to have shaved your head and pretended to have cancer than it did for you to actually be making jokes about your condition.

I'll be the first to admit that cancer doesn't exactly sound like comedy's version of the Garden of Eden. We deploy the phrase 'that's about as funny as cancer' for a reason. On the other side of a cancer diagnosis, you're expected to pad off to a dimly lit hospital room, taking occasional visitors and repeatedly re-enacting the final minutes of Terms of Endearment.

People fear cancer in a way they don't even fear death, or being locked in a room with Tony Abbott while he does his morning lunges. But comedy has a way of inhering in even our darkest moments -- it's bound up in the very nature of why we laugh.

I've had cancer twice. First at 11, second at 22. At 33 I plan on exploding at a party of friends and loved ones. Just to really drive the point home. (See, the jokes pretty much write themselves.)

I started doing stand-up in the immediate aftermath of my second diagnosis, as a way of trying to escape what Christopher Hitchens so memorably described as 'the land of malady'. By defining my illness as comedic I figured I could prevent people from approaching it with the awkward seriousness that tends to be the default reaction to discovering someone has cancer. Don't get us wrong, the cards and flowers are nice, but having a beer with friends is even nicer, especially when you don't have to deal with people putting their hands on your shoulder, staring deep into your eyes and saying, "So, how are you?".

There's a theory about why we laugh called the 'benign violation' theory. The idea is that laughter evolved as a way for our primate forebears to communicate to others that something that could be dangerous actually isn't. Tickling is a case in point. It's a controlled threat -- something that requires vulnerability but which we still understand as being safe. Even today you can tickle a gorilla and they'll respond with laughter. Not that I'd recommend the activity if you're still on good terms with your arms, but the point remains.

Comedy works by taking our established models of the world and disrupting them in ways large and small. It's about tension and release, the element of surprise. Whether you're delivering a knock-knock joke or describing how it feels to be diagnosed with cancer, the comedy still stems from order sliding into chaos and then resolving out again. Too familiar: there's no vulnerability. Too extreme: we don't feel safe. In the middle: your brain being tickled by the comedian with the microphone.

We like to belittle it as an art form, but good comedy is about more than simple jokes. It's about making sense of a confusing and oftentimes menacing world. It's about taking the things that are bigger than us, the things that are almost too big to comprehend, and placing them in a rational order of existence. It's about fear and how we respond to it.

When I do stand-up about having cancer it's my way of facing the void and screaming out "you call that darkness?!" It's a way of taking this enormous, impossible thing that happened to me and telling the world that it's OK. That I'm OK. That we can talk about it and that nobody needs to freak out. That it's hard, but it's easier if we're in it together, laughing about the outrageous absurdities that are the inevitable symptom of being alive. It's group therapy, but a whole bunch cheaper.

Then again, it's also just an opportunity to mime the time that I had to provide a sperm sample in front of a paying audience, but who'd want to read a blog about that?

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Luke Ryan's 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo' show is at the Lithuanian Club, North Melbourne from 18 to 25 September. His memoir of the same name is out via Affirm Press.

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