Steve Young is a stand-up comedian. His job: make a 19 year old terminally ill girl’s birthday party the best ever.
It was Saturday night in the living room of a nice house in South Pasadena. I set my notebook down on a table next to a bag of syringes. I stood at the foot of the bed where a frail girl lay, hooked up to an oxygen tank, laid out by stage 4 bone cancer. Tonight was her 19th birthday. In her email she said it would be her last. Her friend was laying in bed next her, looking at me with depleted sadness. About ten other people were in the room, gazing at me expectantly. I looked at the group and said, “Could we move all this stuff? Maybe push back the bed and the oxygen tank because it’s kind of killing the comedy mood here.”
There were appreciative chuckles. This was the bedridden girl’s birthday party, and I was the entertainment. I’d been hired by the birthday girl herself to do a standup comedy set to liven things up. A few days prior, I saw her ad online seeking a comedian for a birthday party, and sent her a message with a link to my stuff on Youtube. In her reply, I learned I’d be the last comedian she’d ever see. No pressure there.
This isn’t what I typically do. Hospice comedy is not my niche. I’m used to performing for tipsy tourists who wish you were Dane Cook, frustrated Hollywood types who are too analytical to laugh, and indifferent barflies who regard you as background noise. Occasionally I’ll do good shows for appreciative crowds at places like The Hollywood Improv or the Laugh Factory. But more often, I’m doing shows where I’m basically ambushing people who want to eat or drink in peace. I’ve done shows in hamburger restaurants, barber shops, an AA convention, a teachers’ lunchroom at an elementary school, and a nautical-themed bar by the train tracks. If the train goes by during your set, you get a free drink.
In her email, the birthday girl wrote: “In addition to jokes about death, drugs, sex, and cancer, you can also include jokes about religion because most of the people here are friends that I’ve met through Methodist churches (so I’d like to shock them!).”
That was the email that made me start salivating. My apprehensiveness about being Her Last Comic Ever was overruled by my warped need to be an instigator, a quality that’s practically a job requirement for standup comics. “I can shock the churchy types without trying,” I emailed her. Then I didn’t hear from her for a couple days.
I stood at the foot of her bed, recounting how she left me hanging. “My first thought was the obvious,” I said. “Is that bitch trying to play the C card to get me to lower my rate?” More laughs. Nervous ones, tentative ones… I had no idea. Unless it’s complete silence or roaring laughter, it’s hard for me to accurately perceive how an audience is responding, and tonight it felt impossible. I also kept worrying that I was offending the birthday girl, because— Fun Fact! —as her caretaker walked me inside, he told me she couldn’t muster the oxygen to laugh. “Oh, that’s all?” I thought when he told me that. Come on, caretaker, raise the stakes! Can’t I perform on a tilting stage while dodging laser beams and being lowered into a shark tank?
I kept shifting my attention throughout the room, and each time I returned my gaze to her, I had to remind myself it was impossible for her to laugh. I also had to remember her emails encouraging me to push the envelope. The one she sent the night before said: “if you haven’t put together all your material yet, like I said—loved your more ‘shocking’ one. And jokes about death and cancer or how much it sucks wins extra points.” Her specific requests for a certain type of content were another thing pushing me out of my “comfort” zone. By “comfort” zone, of course, I mean, my “don’t make fun of someone’s terminal illness to their face while they’re dying in front of you” zone. Because here’s the thing: I’m fine being crude and in-your-face when I’m talking about my own life, but it’s much harder to decide what’s okay to joke about when someone is right in front of you, their time slipping away. But I did what I could to get past that because she’d been clear about what she wanted and she was paying me.
So I proceeded as requested: “I had to go back to temping this year. I hate to admit it but I got this huge chip on my shoulder and was really ‘woe is me’ and mad at the world. But my first day on the job, I met my new coworker who had lost all her hair to chemotherapy. I said, ’Okay, God, I get it.’ If I could just look up from my self pity for all of two seconds I would see how lucky I am … ”—everyone in the room was nodding solemnly, duped into believing I was some Oprah-esque motivational comedian—“ … to have this amazing medical marijuana hookup right there on the job to help me deal with the shitty hand that life has handed me. Because seriously: I’m a twelve dollar an hour temp. What am I going to do? Go home every night and not get high? I need something to take the edge off of that harsh reality! So two hours later, cut to me and Baldy getting high in the parking structure.” BOOM. People were laughing. It was working.
“God, the bullshit people must have been saying to you with all of this,” I said, directly addressing the birthday girl. “I mentioned this show to a few people and they got so morose so quickly, making it all about them and people they know who’ve had cancer and blah blah blah. They were getting a total tragedy boner,” I said, and took another sip off the beer I was white knuckling. I’ll admit it: I’m proud of coining the expression “tragedy boner.”
Here’s the one joke I couldn’t pull the trigger on: “Everyone lionized Steve Jobs as the greatest man in the world right after he died, but now we’re hearing about how inhumane the working conditions are at the iPhone factory in China. So if I find out later that you’re running some child labor empire, I’m going to be so pissed I didn’t ask for more money.” I backed off because it specifically referred to her death. That didn’t feel right. It probably would have been fine but you can’t be funny if you’re afraid of your own punchline.
I ended with a joke that generally horrifies everyone and saw some appropriately horrified church faces. Mission accomplished. Fortunately, I also saw one of her friends doubled over with laughter in the kitchen doorway. After I was done with my set, the birthday girl grabbed her purse from the end table, counted out some bills, and handed them to me. I resisted the impulse to refuse her money and said “thank you.” I went to the bathroom and wiped the sweat off my face. I never sweat when I do standup, even when I was brand new. I joined her friends in the kitchen and stayed for a piece of birthday cake.
They were really complimentary and said some nice things, but I was convinced I sucked. And when you’re convinced of that, all the nice things people say sound like white lies. A little while later, I decided it was time to go and her caretaker walked me outside. Just before I left, he hugged me and said, “You did a great job.” On the drive home, I started to believe he may have been right.
I’ve been thinking about this experience a lot since it happened last month. I’ve also been reflecting on what I was like when I was that age. My first time at a comedy club was when I was 21, drunk at the Comedy Store in London. I just wanted button-pushing profanity and to hear someone call life out on all its bullshit. By those standards, I think maybe I did a good job. Because she just wanted a night to have fun and horrify people and not give a fuck. Because she’s only 19.
—Photo Will Clayton/Flickr