Can a devastating disease ever be funny?
The fierce backlash last week against a proposed comedy about President Ronald Reagan suffering from Alzheimer’s disease while in the White House — which had star Will Ferrell briefly attached — shows how difficult that is to pull off.
But others find comedy alongside the challenges of illness. Jeremie Saunders, a twentysomething Canadian podcaster with a show all about illness and humor, speaks from experience when considering the comedic potential of Alzheimer’s.
His grandparents struggle with dementia. On the one hand, when his grandmother forgets her own sister, “there’s nothing funny about that at all. That’s so sad,” he said.
But on the other hand, when his grandfather posts a picture on Facebook showing some bruises on his hip after a fall and accidentally exposes, well, a whole lot more of his anatomy …
“If that is an aspect of the dementia, that’s really funny,” Saunders said. “There’s something to be said [for] communally all together appreciat[ing] the humor that comes with that.”
Saunders himself lives with cystic fibrosis, which is, oddly enough, the foundation of his comedy. Along with friends Brian Stever and Taylor MacGillivary, he has launched a podcast dedicated to the concept called “Sickboy.”
“My entire life, I’ve used humor as a form of therapy for my CF, both mentally and physically,” Saunders told STAT. “Laughter is really good for my lungs, it’s really good for helping me clear out the mucus of my small airwaves.”
But it’s also a mental relief, he said, “to find lightness and levity in a situation that otherwise a lot of people would look at as a dark situation.”
Given the subject matter, the conversations can still be quite serious (a recent episode featured somebody with post-traumatic stress disorder), but the trick, according to the trio, is in taking aim at the right target.
“One of the things that we say is illness and disease are not funny,” Stever said, “but there are funny situations and experiences that you can laugh at.”
It started with Saunders telling his own stories, like the time at age 14 that he defecated on a nurse — “the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen” — when she gave him an enema.
“In the moment, when I was 14, that was an extremely awful experience. It was embarrassing, it was painful, it was traumatic,” said Saunders, who added he grew up watching comedians like George Carlin and, yes, Ferrell. “However, I look back on that experience, and it’s also really funny now.”
They’ve started bringing on guests — the first was a friend of theirs, Matt, who has brain cancer — to discuss their illnesses and whatever humor they find in their situation.
Whether “Reagan” will find that sweet spot is hard to know until it hits screens; some reviews of the leaked script have actually been quite positive. But Hollywood has given people plenty of reasons to be skeptical that its comedians will treat the sick with the same sensitivity that Saunders and his collaborators strive for.
When “Saturday Night Live” mocked legally blind former New York Governor David Paterson in 2008, a lot of people didn’t see the joke. When the Seth MacFarlane film “Ted” deployed the insult “From one man to another, I hope you get Lou Gehrig’s disease,” audiences and patient advocates condemned it.
There is some precedent, though, for big-name filmmakers getting it right: 2011’s “50/50”, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. Levitt’s character is diagnosed with cancer, and his friend (played by Rogen) thinks the possibly terminal illness could be a good way to pick up women.
The synopsis sounds like another disaster-in-waiting. The critics, though, found “50/50” to be “a good-hearted film about a difficult topic” that “maneuvers between jokes and drama with surprising finesse,” as the website Rotten Tomatoes summarized the response.
Even so, the film faced the same problem that threatens to derail “Reagan.” Rogen dismissed some of the Oscar buzz the film was receiving at the time, according to Entertainment Weekly, and the reason he was so bearish is telling.
“I know for a fact that some people are appalled by the movie,” he said. “I think it must be people who have very, very personal connections to the subject matter and just can’t emotionally disconnect from their own experience.”
“I respect that,” he continued. “But what we found for the most part is that people like to laugh at tragedy. It makes them feel better.”