When cancer jokes are funny.

Dave Thornton asks: Can cancer ever be funny?



I remember talking to an audience member after a gig and he was about to cry – and not the laughing till you cry thing – actually cry. That is not usually the kind of reaction a stand-up comedian is looking for after a show.

As a comedian, our fragile yet inflated egos conjure up ideas of being chair lifted off stage and possibly asked to run for Prime Minister. But reducing someone to tears? Not so much. I kept telling myself it was the beer prices at the venue that sent him off the edge…

I bring this up for two reasons. The first is that this situation occurred while I was performing at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is happening in Scotland as I write this blog. The second reason is that on the weekend I read a story about American Comedian Tig Notaro. She performed stand-up comedy to a packed room in LA and talked openly and frankly about having breast cancer. Not only that, she was brave enough to talk about loosing her mother – all in the SAME YEAR.

From all reports she had the crowd in fits of laughter and of course, tears. After exposing herself (and I do mean that because to talk about these things reveals someone, like a male one hundred meter sprinter shot in slow motion from the waist down) the crowd gave her a standing ovation….. and no doubt chair lifted her off stage and asked her to run for President.


Recently I’ve found that when it comes to comedy it is literally, open slather on ripping into anyone and everyone. Social media means people get a bit of keyboard courage and all of a sudden #youresh!t is trending. Don’t get me wrong, handing out a bit of a ribbing is something I do myself but after reading too many notice boards online, you really can start loose faith in humankind. We forget though that comedy can be inclusive and cathartic. What Tig did may have been dark, it may have been brutal but she owned that problem and for her to confront it and alchemise the situation into comedy fodder is simultaneously brilliant and inspiring.

Tig Notaro

Oh yeah, that brings me back to the gentlemen crying. It was in Edinburgh a few years ago and I was performing a show all about my father’s death (that occurred when I was 19 years old). I know what you’re all thinking – that must be fertile ground for a good knee slapping! Let the chuckle fest begin! (Note: my manager says I should mention that the show is on DVD called ‘A Different Type of Normal’ you can find at my website but I said that kind of self promotion is not needed in this kind of forum)

Talking about something so personal was a first for me. I spoke of my father’s death, my brother being adopted and of my failed relationships. It puts you in a strange performance mind set – I mean, stand-up comedians are supposed to have witty quips to denigrate the most ardent heckler and yet when you’re talking about personal things you do feel unprotected. I contemplated bringing in a cattle rod for hecklers.


During this particular night’s show I talked to a father and his 15-year- old son in the front row. The father distinctly hated the interaction. His expression screamed ‘Id rather stab myself in the face with a bus than keep interacting with this lanky mo fo’.

Afterwards I saw the family out the front of the gig and the before unnoticed mother told me she loved the show. Her husband kept his austere disposition. Then he nodded and I saw he was holding back tears. Crying? Was that how much he hated my show? (Remember the beer prices, Thorno.)

His wife then leaned in and said ‘he loved the show- he only recently lost his father’. The gentlemen then shook my hand and said ‘thank you’. I was taken aback. I’d misread the situation – he didn’t hate me at all.

Tig showed on the weekend that it’s brave to confront your problems with humour and she did it live and in front of an audience. It took me 10- years to confront my father’s passing yet Tig is tackling something SHE’S GOING THROUGH AS WE SPEAK. I can be snide, I can be cynical, I may even have laughed at an old person falling over once but reading about Tig’s gig reminds me what comedy is capable of.

Dave Thornton is one of the hosts of Mamamia Today (that’s right! We’re on the radio!) and is known for his free flowing humor and extensive experience across TV, radio and stage, including regular appearances at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Have you ever lost someone close to you? How did you deal with the grief?