The art of making trauma funny requires a nuanced understanding of human emotions. Some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of using humor to deal with trauma, while others say it’s a great tool for healing.
However, experts believe using humor to deal with trauma is an effective way to get people through it.
Laughter can reduce stress, promote positive emotions, and build connections between people who have gone through similar things. But what if that trauma you were trying to turn into something funny was death?
While many might not be able to find anything to laugh about in the prospect of losing their life, comedian Jacob Sharpe decided to turn his frustration and fear into an opportunity.
He was diagnosed with stage two brain cancer at the age of 25, as the global pandemic began to plunge the world into lockdown: “I remember thinking at the end of the day, this is hilarious, just because of how ridiculous it was,” he says.
“It was so crazy that I couldn’t NOT talk about it. Being a young person with brain cancer is enough to deal with, but to be diagnosed in a global pandemic, there was just too much to talk about. I just didn’t want to never touch on it.”
Jacob adds: “Once I started talking about my experience in my comedy sets, I discovered I had a huge community of people who understood what it was like to go through something difficult and try and find the funny side. And it made me realize I could help them find an outlet for whatever difficulties they were facing.”
For Jacob, he says when he was first diagnosed, crying and feeling sorry for himself wasn’t an option: “As soon as I was diagnosed, I never really had a moment of crying. I’m sure that’s because I was compartmentalizing, he recalls.
“I was thinking like I’m 25 the beginning of a global pandemic, and I get diagnosed with brain cancer. It felt like I was disassociated from what was going on for other people.
“People were moaning because they couldn’t go to the pub and get their favorite IPA and my take was, ‘well you’re well within your rights to be annoyed but I have other stuff going on in my life right now!’ But I was beginning to see there was some humor and possibly some material in what I was going through.”
It was a few weeks into the pandemic when Jacob began to experience the first severe symptoms of his brain cancer: “Obviously I couldn’t work because the comedy clubs were shut. Instead of deciding to bake bread every day or pick up a new fun hobby, my thing is I’m going to work out a bunch I’ll just try to get really in shape.
“I started working out or whatever and began to get these really horrible, horrible migraines that were completely debilitating. I assumed I had injured myself. But when I stopped working out, they came on pretty aggressively.
“At the time, my theory was I had been ignoring this pain for a long time. But the headaches kept getting worse and worse.”
Jacob’s cancer wasn’t lifestyle based. He explains it was the result of a “random collection of cells” that began to form a tumor in his brain: “I got to the point where I couldn’t even say my own name or speak, he recalls.
“I ended up going backwards forwards to the hospital for a few days, which you can imagine in the lockdown was not fun.”
It was on his third visit that the doctors finally realized there was something seriously wrong: “I tried to say to the nurse, ‘My name is Jacob,’ but I was just stuttering and crying in frustration. Then I passed out.”
When Jacob woke up, he discovered he was being transferred to another hospital for an emergency craniotomy. A biopsy revealed he had a non-metastatic tumor the size of a grape right on his pineal gland at the bottom of his brainstem.
The position of his tumor meant Jacob was suffering from a condition called Hydrocephalus, which caused him to have mini aneurysms where his brain was pressing against his skull.
In typical fashion he makes light of the situation saying: “It was two and a half centimetres. People assume you have to have this big thing in your head. They always ask me what size it was, and they say, ‘That’s not so shocking!’ But it was causing me immense pain.”
It was the start of four rounds of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of inpatient radiation treatment. And it was during this time Jacob was really able to dig into finding the funny in his very unfunny situation.
He says: “I tried to talk about like the mundane part of cancer because everyone kept saying, ‘Oh it’s such a battle and you’re such a warrior.’
“My opinion was, no I’m not really. I just had diarrhoea for the fourth day in a row and I’m in the hospital, and I looked like a thumb because I have no hair. I didn’t feel super brave. I was just trying to stay alive.”
Jacob adds: “What does it say about people who of cancer? Were they not brave? Were they not strong enough? I want to normalize cancer a little bit and make it not such an untouchable or grandiose thing.
“So many people have been affected by it. It almost feels taboo and it shouldn’t be.”
Jacob’s dark take on his experience has guaranteed he is a sought-after talent on the comedy circuit. He had performed at some of Canada’s most prestigious venues, including The Comedy Bar in Toronto.
Jacob has also performed sets to much acclaim in the US, including the critically acclaimed Zanies in Nashville, The Chicago Theatre and The Wilbur Theatre in Boston.
He has also played well-known Candian venues Yuk-Yuks and The Phoenix Theatre.
As well as his sell-out live performances, Jacob had garnered himself a large online audience, with hundreds of thousands of people watching his comedy sets on Youtube.
He says: “I talk about cancer constantly in my videos, and of course, it is a very large part of my comedy set. Cancer was a huge thing for me. But what I am most proud of is that after shows, I get to hear people’s unique experiences with being sick or having cancer. I can connect emotionally with people because I’m joking about my cancer.”
In a bid to normalize the disease, and bring hope to those who may be suffering from it, Jacob works with the charity Young Adult Cancer, which offers support to those who get the disease.
He has spent time as a mentor to others who have had similar experiences and also given advice to aspiring comedians, judging their work, and sitting on panels.
Dani Taylor, is the manager of programs and partnerships at Young Adult Cancer.
She says the mentorship, advice and support Jacob has given others is immeasurable: ‘Jacob brings a really fresh perspective to people with his experience. He is incredibly skilled, generous and open. It was lovely to find someone so authentic and supportive not only of the charity but also of our audience.”
Dani adds he was able to teach those who were struggling to cope with their diagnosis to find light in the darkness of their illness: “We typically work with people who are aged 18 – 39 and finding out you have a potentially life-threatening disease is incredibly difficult.
“The fact that Jacob has this unique ability to help them realize there is a way through, is an exemplary skill. He speaks to normalizing cancer and that is no easy thing. And as a man who has gone through cancer at his age, he is a role model that is hard to find.”
Comedian Kurtis Conner has toured with Jacob on sell out shows. They first met when they studied comedy at Humber College.
He says: “He’s a great listener and observer. That really shines through in his sets. Jacob is also very positive and it has enabled him to really embrace his experience with cancer and use it to help others.”
Kurtis adds Jacob is professional to the tenth degree, making sure whether he is playing to a packed theatre or a small bar, the audience always gets the same high-quality experience watching him work: “He brings so much energy it’s like a breath of fresh air. Where ever he performs, he will give everything his absolute best. And it’s amazing to see how he’s turned a terrible thing that happened to him into some of his best work. And through that, he really helps others who may have been touched by cancer in some way so they can learn to look at it in a different way.”