Flip the Narrative… with comedy.


Treating people, not illnesses: storytelling is at the heart of “holistic”

As we have shaped our ideas about how health care can be transformed into a more human, holistic experience, we’ve explored the impact of visual art, human-centered design, and sound. Through all this, storytelling has been a central theme: use art to make stories visible. Implement design that integrates storytelling with ease.  Transform sounds to make space for an authentic, empowering narrative.

All of this aims to humanize the experience of illness within a flawed system.

As we’ve connected with others who envision a more human health care system, we’ve discovered the disarming and simultaneously grounding effect of humor.

Does humor have a role in the narrative of chronic illness?

Can living with chronic illness be humorous?

If the answer to this set of questions is a yes (and I think it is), what does our need to laugh at ourselves – to find humor in our own imperfections – teach us about being human?

People who humanize health care use a dynamic, evolving toolkit. Patient-centered design, telehealth, storytelling initiatives, and inclusive conferences are like screwdrivers, wrenches, and hammers. They are the tools that build a better health care system.

Humor, however, holds a special magic. It makes the heavy things in life light.  Laughing at oursevles, discovering new parts of our selves, and most importantly reinforcing our ability to feel a release.


Does humor have a role in the narrative of chronic illness?

I begin this blog with an interview with Ann Feehan, a member of BATS Improv,  a theatre company that “cultivates and innovates the craft of improvised theatre through engaging, playful, creative performance and training.” Her work with improvisational theatre includes working alongside people who are dealing with serious illnesses through a program called Laughing Stock. I was inspired to explore the world of comedy and specifically Ann’s work because one of my closest friends who has stage four breast cancer took a class with Ann and absolutely loved it.

What is improvisational theater?

Improvisational theatre isn’t focused specifically on being funny or telling jokes – not in the traditional way. Right off the bat, Ann described improv as “story-based” and “in the moment.” Because “telling stories is a natural human ability,” this means everyone is capable of trying improvisational theatre: a form of performing art that relies on our collective imaginations and our ability to say “YES! And…”

lsTell us more about “Laughing Stock.”

Laughing Stock started in the HIV / AIDS community, and over time extended to life threatening illnesses, including hep C and cancer.  Laughing Stock is not drama therapy. There is no planned content about what people are going through; participants are invited to talk about whatever they please.


“When people are ill or have a disability, that’s how everybody sees them: [improv] is a sort of a vacation.”

The Laughing Stock team offers drop in classes, where some people come regularly, others are more sporadic. People who attend class and are interested in performing participate in shows and demos with organizations such as UCSF, a cancer center in Concord, CA, and the Marin AIDS Project.

4 reasons improv is important to people living will illness:

1. YES is an option


“Improv is important because it’s easy to feel powerless. [Illness can] derail you. Improv helps people to say yes to things. When you are sick, you are forced to accept things you don’t like, treatments you have to take – [improv reveals] there are other choices you can make, such as accepting help from others.”

2. A change of perspectiveeyeglasses-1846595_960_720.jpg

“In improv we play lots of different “statuses.” You might be the king, you may be a homeless person… You can expand your range of what you are feeling comfortable performing, but also what you are comfortable expressing. It gives you permission to express all the parts of your self. People realize that a part of them they didn’t think was important is worth exploring, expressing and developing.”

3. Shared community

communication-1991854_960_720.pngThe shared community and exchanges between people at Laughing Stock reveal that there are still opportunities in life, even if one lives with an illness. “It’s easy to feel like no one understands what your thinking, but then [during rehearsal, you try something] – everybody saw it, everybody gets it.” This unifying moment is transforming.

4. Laughter over pain


“Improvisational work starts with ice breakers: when people laugh together it builds a lot of trust. It’s hard to feel pain and laughter at the same time. One participant with cancer [who had been in extreme pain throughout the week] mentioned that they hadn’t felt pain the entire performance.” Improv allows us to release tension and feel closer to others.

Not a patient; a person. A hilarious person.

 Can humor empower those of us living with illness?

Laughing at oneself with the collective audience chuckling along as opposed to being the butt of a joke (or worse, a “buzzkill) is an empowering “flip” that parallels the epatient revolution. ePatients are people taking charge of the practical elements of their healthcare via self-advocacy and networking. People who take charge of their mental health, whose philosophies and daily perspectives are in direct resistance to the stigmas associated with illness are some of the best comedians among us.

We have compiled a modest list of comedians within the chronic illness community – focusing specifically on those of us living with Multiple Sclerosis.

Jim Sweeny


“You’re a long time dead…I can either sit around moaning about it now, or just get along with living and just take whatever happens.”


Renee Burkley

This one made us laugh out loud. If you know Renee Burkely personally, please let us know how we can get in touch with her!



Tim Fergeson




Dennis Tooley





Two women with cancer who rocked the stage with their groundbreaking sets:

Julia Sweeney


Tig Notaro


We acknowledge this is a very limited list; please feel free to share in the comment section and add to our portfolio of comedians who are flipping the narrative of illness.