KATRINE: Client wants us to make jokes about cancer.
SCOTT: How much does that pay?
Katrine and I just finished doing three days of shows about cancer. This was not the easiest subject we’d ever been hired to write jokes about.
Our client makes scanners and linear accelerators designed to find tumors and then blast them with radiation. They made it clear we couldn’t appear to be making light of the disease, the patients, the commitment of their company, or the sincerity of the doctors who would be our audience.
We figured this didn’t leave much room for comedy. Can’t make fun of the audience. Can’t make fun of the client. Can’t make fun of the situation that brought them all together.
Oh, and one more thing: No juggling.
So what’s left?
Turns out, a lot.
Script excerpt #1:
When we arrived on site, we discovered that instead of bringing a real MR-PET scanner, they only brought a 1/10 scale model. This led to these laughs, early in the show:
SCOTT: (Pointing across his body at a 1/10 scale model of a cancer screening machine in a way that also looks like he could be pointing at himself) Now obviously, this model is not full sized.
KATRINE: And neither is the guy pointing at the machine.
SCOTT: You know, insults about my height …
KATRINE: Or lack of it …
SCOTT: Or lack of it. Yeah. Whatever. Insulting me is not going to cure cancer.
KATRINE: Do you have a study that proves that?
SCOTT: (Incredulously) No?!?
KATRINE: Then you can’t legally say it here at ASTRO. [FYI: ASTRO was the name of the trade show, and any medical claim made there had to be backed up by a published, peer-reviewed study.]
Script excerpt #2:
Two major features of their full body CT scanner were:
- The hole in the middle (aka: the bore) was really wide, and
- The table the patient lies on to travel into it was really strong.
Both would be major selling points here in the USA because fat people get cancer too.
After failing to convince our client that “Fat people get cancer too!” would be a good slogan, we sold them on letting us both lie on the table and ride through the scanner together.
Obviously the funniest positions for this would be missionary or lateral cowgirl. We were confident our audience would love either and even more sure our client wouldn’t, so we settled for spooning. We specifically chose the least sexual and therefore least funny spooning position, with her behind me.
Here’s the dialog we wrote for it:
SCOTT: This table is extra strong. It can easily handle a patient load up to 307 kilograms.
KATRINE: That’s over 675 pounds!
SCOTT: Now I weigh about 165, maybe 170 after lunch.
KATRINE: I weigh about 90, maybe 95.
SCOTT: That’s kilos.
KATRINE: Everyone who laughed? You can all leave right now.
SCOTT: No, you can stay, ‘cause we’re going to show you how strong this table is and how large that bore opening is …
KATRINE: And we’re going to do it in a way you will not forget.
(SCOTT and KATRINE jump up onto the table. They snuggle together as they ride into the scanner.)
SCOTT: Now obviously, you’d never position your patients like this.
KATRINE: You’d never get FDA approval for that!
SCOTT: But this does clearly illustrate just how large this scanner really is.
KATRINE: (Now in the scanner) Yeah. Just take a look at this 80 centimeter bore. (KATRINE points at SCOTT and through him at the machine. SCOTT moves her finger so that it aims clearly only at the machine.) Oh, and the scanner has lots of room too.
SCOTT: (They ride out of the machine.) Now if we were to send images of what we just did to our dosimetrist, she might get confused. [FJI: A dosimetrist is one of the people who looks at CT images.]
KATRINE: You think?
SCOTT: She’d probably ask: “Where exactly is the healthy tissue?”
Script excerpt #3:
During rehearsal, while Katrine was lying alone in a different scanner with me narrating, I loaded the wrong slides by accident, slides showing prostate cancer instead of pancreatic cancer. The tech crew laughed, so we kept the accident in, and that lucky mistake metastasized into this hunk:
(KATRINE lies on the treatment table, as SCOTT shows how the client’s imaging + treatment combo can scan her and then zap her with high energy radiation to kill a simulated tumor in her pancreas.)
SCOTT: Here we’re showing a case of pancreatic cancer. (On screen the audience sees a CT scan of a prostate tumor, not a pancreatic tumor.) In these super-clear images, you can see how a tumor can move from day to day, even from minute to minute. In this case the tumor has moved from … (SCOTT looks up at the image and realizes what he’s showing) … her pancreas to her prostate.
KATRINE: My what?
SCOTT: I guess I brought the wrong slides.
KATRINE: You think!?!
SCOTT: Now obviously our patient here doesn’t have a prostate.
KATRINE: You didn’t know me in college.
SCOTT: But this does let us demonstrate how having a CT scanner right there in your treatment room lets you adjust for any last minute changes in a tumor’s location or shape. With this new information, all we have to do is make these simple changes to our target …
(SCOTT walks the audience through the steps of revising the radiation target while the robotic table moves KATRINE from the scanner to the linear accelerator.)
SCOTT: … And then begin the treatment.
KATRINE: Now of course, we’re just simulating this right now. We’re not actually turning on the machine, right guys?
(The techs at the control center at the back of the stage look at each other blankly, then in horror, then quickly start pushing buttons as if trying to turn the radiation off.)
SCOTT: Okay everybody. No need to panic. Just move your chairs back a bit. We’ll all be fine.
KATRINE: What about me?
SCOTT: You won’t be fine.
SCOTT: Hey, at least you won’t have to explain that prostate anymore.
Attack the periphery
You’ll notice that none of our jokes were directly about cancer. They weren’t even about fighting cancer. All our custom jokes were about giving a presentation about machines that are used to fight cancer. They were all out at the periphery, at least one step removed, yet they all still worked as “in jokes” for an audience filled with cancer doctors.
Healed by the power of tags
We built these hunks around three comic ideas:
- Make jokes about the small size of the 1/10 scale model.
- Ride through the scanner together to show how roomy it is.
- Make jokes about loading the wrong set of slides.
If all we got was one joke from each of these ideas, we wouldn’t have been able to write more than a minute of new material – at most. But by tagging these three simple ideas, Katrine and I were able to create 4-5 new minutes of custom cancer comedy.
All these custom jokes got good laughs in performance.
The beat where Katrine pointed at the bore hole through me, saying: “Take a look at this 80 cm bore …?” That joke just died, but at least it died gently, in its sleep, surrounded by its family.
We think the problem was bad sight lines. The bulk of the audience couldn’t see where Katrine was pointing. It also could have been that the joke didn’t feel real. Maybe our weak acting made it feel too forced or too staged. Or maybe we lost the laugh by doing a similar joke with the 1/10 scale model earlier in the show.
But whatever killed that joke didn’t infect the rest of the routine. Nobody was offended, the rest of the jokes worked, and the client hired us back for another year.
When Frank Olivier was doing a show for cancer patients in a cancer ward, he felt he had to deal directly with the painful truth they were going through, otherwise he felt his show would be irrelevant and fake.
A fearless and inventive performer, Frank Olivier doesn’t know the meaning of the word “taboo.” Or “abiogenesis.” Or “toast.”
But he did know that if he wanted to make jokes about the problems the patients in his audience were experiencing, like the the loss of hair and appetite caused by their chemotherapy treatments, he had to establish the right context first. He opened with this joke to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation:
FRANK: I know it’s strange to have a comedian here tonight. I realize there are a lot more appropriate speakers you could have had. A celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain. A world famous hair stylist like José Eber. Pretty much anyone but me.
Frank explains, “Because my style is so loose, and most of my laughs are from stuff that’s happening in the moment, I HAVE to deal with what’s real. I can’t ignore the elephant in the room. I have to ride it.”
That’s why, instead of using our tactic of stepping back from a topic that was definitely NOT FUNNY, Franky rushed right in.
“To be a good performer, you have to be in the moment. That means dealing with what’s really in front of you.
Frank sees the role of the comedian as a modern day court jester, the outsider who can say the unsayable truth:
FRANK: But it’s so good to see you all here. Well, it’s not good to see you HERE, but it is good to see all of you.
(FRANK turns and sees a man with an amputated leg.)
(Gesturing at the rest of the man’s body) Well, MOST of you.
No. Don’t applaud. You’ll pull out your IV.
Frank believes that everyone wants to be seen and understood. Everyone wants to laugh and be laughed at, but you do have to establish the right context first.
“Your audience needs to know that you’re not making fun of their misfortune. You’re pulling humor from it. This can be as simple as a sincere acknowledgement of their situation, with or without jokes.”
The Passing Zone dealt with a different but still sensitive issue brilliantly when performing a corporate keynote along with Aron Ralston, the real-life hiker and inspiration for the movie 127 hours, a man who had cut off his own arm to escape from a rock fall.
Their client told them, because Aron was on the bill with them, they obviously couldn’t do their fake arm bit in the lead-up to their chainsaw ballet.
Jon responded, “Of course not, obviously … but …” and then proceeded to explain how, if done right, this could be the funniest joke in the entire show:
OWEN: (From behind a screen while they’re changing into the costumes for their chainsaw ballet) Oh by the way. You’re getting really good with that thing.
JON: Oh yeah it took some getting used to but now I hardly even notice it anymore.
(JON places a prosthetic arm over the screen.)
The audience laughed, but more uncomfortably than usual.
JON: And you know what? I cut it off myself.
Some more laughs, but also a few scattered “ooooohs.”
(As the arm is dangling, ARON RALSTON walks out, grabs the arm, and walks off.)
The audience exploded with laughter, which turned to cheers followed by another round of laughs, which Owen then extended with one more tag:
OWEN: The joke’s on him. It’s a left arm.
Without Aron’s visible permission, the audience would be afraid to laugh and would think John and Owen are either idiots for not knowing Aron was there or jerks if they did know. With his permission, they’re comedy geniuses, and the audience thinks Aron is their best friend.
So far, we’ve explored three different strategies for safely making jokes about topics that most people think would be out of bounds:
- Attack the periphery
- Establish the right context
- Give the audience permission to laugh
Next month we’ll continue on this unexpected journey and examine several more techniques to deal with sensitive subjects. I’m thinking of calling it: “The Top 10 Ways to Make Jokes About Cancer.”
Pick a topic you’ve been told you can’t make jokes about. Write some jokes about it.