The funny thing about cancer … how a shock diagnosis led to comedy gold

On the eve of his Fringe Festival show in Perth, comedian Michael Shafar reveals how he found his cancer something to laugh about.

When comedian Michael Shafar learned in 2017 that he had testicular cancer his initial reaction was, understandably, shock and despair, followed by concern about how the diagnosis would affect those around him.

Michael Shafar has mined his experience with cancer for its comedic value.Credit:Monica Pronk

A lot less predictable, however, was the realisation during the ensuing round of chemotherapy and surgery that he was sitting on comedy gold.

"When you’re a comedian and something weird or different happens to you you think, maybe this is something I’ll use on stage," he says.

Two years on, the former lawyer is in remission and about to tour his second stand-up show about his experiences with cancer, titled Getting Better.

Initially, he had serious doubts about whether audiences would be able to laugh at what, for most of us, is the ultimate health nightmare.

"I was really nervous about it because I’d never spoken on stage about anything that dark before," he says. "But then surprisingly it went really well. I think maybe people were laughing because they knew it was so real. They could see I was sharing something that is really vulnerable."

People don’t ‘valiantly battle’ against cancer, they suffer through it and it’s shit.

And once he started re-casting his cancer and treatment as something to laugh about, the material flowed surprisingly easily – from jokes about making sperm donations to people’s eagerness to tell him he now shares with Adolf Hitler the distinction of having only one testicle (Shafar is Jewish).

"The jokes were actually quite easy to write, to be honest," he says. "I didn’t really have to come up with anything. I just had to say things that I was feeling and thinking and going through at the time."

However, Shafar recognises that for many people, especially those who have had people close to them die of cancer, his taboo-busting material may go too far.

And for that reason he is very clear his humour is directed only at himself.

"I’m only talking about my own cancer, my own diagnosis," he says. "At no point do I make a broader statement about cancer survivors or cancer generally. I don’t think I have the authority to do that. I don’t know anything about other people’s experiences, so I just don’t try to talk about it."

One of the broader issues he does take aim at, though, is the language often used around cancer, in which patients "battle" or "fight" the disease.

"It’s really immature and shallow," he says. "I would never use that kind of language because I know what it really is. People don’t ‘valiantly battle’ against cancer, they suffer through it and it’s shit."

And Shafar freely admits the nature of his particular disease has given him some free kicks in the comedy stakes.

"I think that of all the cancers [testicular cancer] is probably the funniest one," he says. "If I was going to get a cancer, that’s the one to get."

Michael Shafar's Getting Better is on at the Casa Mondo at Yagan Square for Fringe World 2020 from Sunday February 9 – February 16.

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