Comedy and Cancer With Jesse Case: The Laughs Are Real

By on November 19th, 2015 Categories: Community Knowledge

 29-year-old comedian Jesse Case and his family connected to three years ago when his aunt was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Last month, we brought you part one of this interview.

“I have no idea why I’m wearing a lei,” Jesse writes from his parents’ house in Nashville. He’s sending what photos he can find. Most pictures of Jesse performing standup are back in Los Angeles, where he’d been living until June when he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. He flew home almost immediately to start treatment at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Since then, he’s completed one chemo regimen, had surgery to remove liver metastases, and is currently plowing through a second stint of chemo — all while hosting a weekly podcast at Jesse vs. Cancer. Between twice-a-month infusions, he continues performing standup at comedy clubs in Nashville.

CN: So I’m going to ask you a question everyone asks comedians.

JC: Okay.

CN: When did you start to know you wanted to do this?

JC: Welllll… while I was growing up in Nashville, I played in punk rock bands, weird garage rock bands, and we were always awful. So terrible. And I had this moment where I was at a concert, and in between bands there was a comedian onstage. And I’d never seen a comedian live. And he was bombing so bad. No one was laughing, but he was great. He was really, really funny. I wound up making really good friends with him. But the issue was that the room was too cool for him.

And I talked to him and I said, “Hey, I thought you were great!” I didn’t even know there were comedy clubs in Nashville. I was 18, and he told me about comedy clubs and open mics, and I went and watched. And then I had that moment where I realized that my whole life, comedy had been my favorite thing to do. My favorite thing to do had been making people laugh. It had just never occurred to me as an option. No one had ever told me that’s a thing you can do. And I fell in love with it. I’ve never loved anything like that, ever. It was an immediate — it was one of those types of loving something where it was a relief. It was like, “Ohhh, this is a huge part of people’s lives, where they negotiate what they want to do with their lives. This is a huge relief. Because I’ve clearly found it.” And that’s never gone away.  That interest has never faded.

CN: That’s fantastic.

JC: Yeah.

CN: And how long after you finished the first chemo regimen did you go back out to do standup?

JC: I was doing it during chemo. I’ve done sets where I can’t feel my hands and stuff. It’s weird. [laughs]

CN:  You’ve mentioned that in the podcast — that you’ve been dealing with neuropathy.

JC: I think on my left hand, which sucks because I’m a lefty, I think I probably have some permanent nerve damage. But not a ton, and it won’t affect my writing or my guitar playing. It’s halfway down two fingers. And they told me that could happen. So far the permanent effects have been few. So it’s like survival. So you have to do it. It’s just strange to me how medieval this is going to seem one day. It’s going to be like leeching.

CN: Yeah. I think a lot of people feel that way. And when you go out and do standup now, through all this surgery and chemo, does it keep you grounded, connected to the person you know yourself to be?

JC: Yeah! Absolutely. When I’m not creating stuff, I get anxious. That’s the whole reason — I’ve had high anxiety my whole life, and producing things, even as a kid if it was just like making a weird sculpture with Playdoh, it’s always calmed me down. I’ve been doing standup for a decade now, every single day. When I was in L.A., as a comic, it’s not like you just have one show. It’s not like you’re in a band and you have one show on the weekend and the rest of the week is rehearsals. You’re doing five sets a night. It’s like a night shift job. I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not doing it. So there’ve been times I’ve done it here in town when maybe I shouldn’t have. And people are like, “Dude. Stay home.” But it’s worth it to me. It’s worth doing it.

CN: And has the comedy changed since the diagnosis?

JC: No, I mean, if anything, I’ve talked about it a little onstage, but I’ve never opened with it. I want to know the laughs are real first. I never want any pity laughter. So I’ll mention it at the end. I have some material about it. But it changes the tone in the room for sure. [laughs] It’s a shift. So I’ve sort of figured out — it’s very important comedically to figure out how to negotiate that tone shift. It’s like you’re coming out of the closet with something. And halfway through my set, it changes the tone. I’m coming out of the sick closet. So then I have to make them okay with it — and, you know, that I’m okay with it. And then I can just jump in with jokes about it, and it’s fine.

If anything though, I feel rusty. Because I was sick for a year and a half leading up to the diagnosis where I was performing less than ever, just because I was so sick. And then, you know, I didn’t do anything for two months — coming back home, getting a liver biopsy, hardcore chemo where I couldn’t even keep my eyes open, you know. So I’m just now getting back out there. So it’s been a little frustrating because I feel like my chops are a little off. I mean, that’s one of the narcissistic reasons I even did the podcast. It was like, “Okay. What can I do from home to try to keep some of these muscles working?”

CN: I don’t think that’s narcissistic. It’s expressing. That sounds healthy.

JC: Yeah. Well, and I always do the podcast at the same time every week. I always record it at the same time so no matter what’s going on, it’s a realistic picture. To me, that’s more important. Because there’ve been times where it’s halfway through the week, I’m not feeling sick, I know I have chemo coming up, so I know the next podcast will be a sick one. And I’m thinking, “I feel way more sharp right now; I should record right now.” But I don’t do it. I still wait and do the sick one. I don’t know why. I just want a more realistic picture of it.

CN: It’s authentic.

JC: Yeah.

CN: And for people who might be struggling to find a way to come to terms with a diagnosis — you’ve explored that territory; you’re exploring it. And like you said earlier, as a standup comic, you’ve got a bit of a different lens than many people dealing with cancer. Is there anything you’d say to people who are having difficulty there?

JC: I’m still negotiating with it, you know. Moment to moment, when I look at it, I am okay. A big thing in comedy, if I could analogy for a second — a big thing in comedy is the concept of “too soon.” You know, sometimes you’ll hear a joke, and someone in the crowd’ll go, “too soon.” Because it’ll be like a 9/11 joke or something.

If I could equate that to life, the deal is — we all have the same ending. Everybody has the same ending. You’ve gotta get okay with that no matter what. So the thing is — what I realized pretty quickly — is okay, what do you do if you survive? Well, then you just have to negotiate that again, just later. So there is no too soon. It’s a question of when; it’s not a question of if, and I think so many people view it as an if. And it’s not an if. We’re all f*cked. [laughs] So like, you know, umm, getting f*cked can feel good or bad. Wait — that’s a terrible analogy! [laughs]

CN: [laughs] I think it’s accurate, though.

JC: [laughs] So it occurred to me, really, the whole idea of getting okay with this, I mean, wait a minute. I don’t want to go through this again if I live. If I live, I don’t want to be an old man and it’s like, “Oh man, dammit! I have to die again anyway?” [laughing] You know. So …it’s coming. And that’s okay.  Everyone gets a different timetable to play with. We all — everyone has beautiful experiences and memories that only belong to them that no one else can have. Everyone has a little movie in their head and it’s awesome. And I think it’s okay. It’s not a good or bad — it’s just reality that there’s nothing to be done about, and I think that’s okay. So yeah. That might be a fairly zen outlook. But I would say, “How are you going to negotiate it later, anyway?” Because that’s coming, too. We all view death as something like, “Well I’ll start thinking about it when I’m 70.” [laughs] Everyone just puts it off. Like yeah, maybe after I retire, I might start rolling around the idea of what that might be like. But as a cancer patient, you’re forced to think about it. And you’re gonna have to do that again later if things go well. So either way, let’s get good with this.

CN: Yeah.

JC: So my whole life might be a too soon. That’s what I mean. “Tooo sooooon!”  [laughs] But who cares?

CN:  [laughs] I don’t want to sound cliché and use the word “profound,” but … Right on.

JC: Right on, sister. Hey, man. Right on.

CN: I’m picking up what you’re laying down.

JC: I just burned a bra. I don’t know why. [laughs]

CN: Wow. [laughs]

JC: Yeah. I don’t even know how I got this bra. Weird.

CN: Maybe you did that for us. Thanks for that.

JC: Yeah. You’re welcome.

Next month: Responding to the emotions of others; dealing with Lifetimey feelings

Claire Nixon, Editorial Director — Claire directs a team of writers, researchers, content managers, and physicians through the creation of high-integrity web content. She brings 20 years of experience in health communications and journalism to the team, as well as the lens of the patient – she was treated for breast cancer in 1998 and again in 2012. In her off-time, Claire enjoys creative writing, independent films, meditation, and the ocean.

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