GIGGLE CITY: Comedian Paul Sveen helps those battling cancer

The healing powers of humour are well-documented. Laughter releases endorphins, nature’s opiates, and allows humans to face tragedy with a little less fear. It’s a cliché to say that comedy is just tragedy plus time, but like a lot of cliches, it’s true.

Of the various “types” of comedy gigs Paul Sveen does, that every comic does to make a living – one is special: humour workshops for cancer patients. He doesn’t have cancer. He’s just known a lot of people who have, including one friend who’s mortgaging her house to get surgery in the U.S. He’s going to help her out with more than humour this weekend – July 21-23 at the Laugh Shop in Sherwood Park. He’ll also be taking donations for the cause.

Q: If you could be any celebrity, who would it be and why?

A: Walter Payton, the running back … his nickname was ‘Sweetness’ because he would help opposing players up off the field. Away from his sport, he spent his whole life raising money to help less fortunate people, and at the end of this life when he was facing his demise through cancer, he fought it with dignity and grace and humility. If I could be any celebrity, those would be the reasons and he would be the person.

Q: Best heckler story?

A: I had a guy throw an ashtray at me.

Q: This is the third time a comedian from Edmonton has said this. Are ashtrays a common problem in comedy around here?

A: I’m sure it happens a lot. I realize now that people don’t heckle comedians because they don’t like you. People heckle comedians because the comedian has touched a source of pain in that person, whether it’s molestation, breaking up with your wife or losing a job. You’ve touched a nerve. And if they get to the point where they throw an ashtray at you, they’re reliving the worst moment of their lives – and you’re doing comedy about it. So I had to run out of the club and up a flight of stairs being chased by everybody at that table. I just made it to my room. I don’t even remember what I said. But I do remember this: I have a joke I used to do. Here it is: I’ve been fighting a cancer for the last couple of years. I’ve just beat it. But I’ve moved on and now I’m dating a Pisces. I started that joke one day, said ‘I’ve been fighting a cancer these last few years,’ and someone said, ‘I hope you die!’ I said, what? ‘I hope you die.’ So I shut the joke down and start talking to this guy. I used to open with that because I’m an idiot. So we start talking about why he would want me to die. Some big farm boy stands up and says, ‘you want me to kill him?’ I say, hold on, we’re not going to riot in this club. It turns out the guy just got transferred to a shitty little town and he was in a bad mood, he’d been drinking and he apologized – but I never got a chance to finish the joke. So after the show about 20 people line up wanting to buy my DVDs because they think I’m dying of cancer.

Q: You did finish the joke for them, didn’t you?

A: I’m too much of a whore to do that. I sold all my DVDs!

Q: Do you have a favourite joke you don’t do anymore because you think it’s stale?

A: Eric Clapton, you remember when his kid fell out of that window? I said, well, Eric almost saved the kid, but he’s got that slow hand.

Q: At which point an entire table of enraged drunks chased you to your room?

A: Yeah, well, that’s the joke I don’t do anymore. That was a long time ago.

Q: What’s the difference between kids today and when you were a kid?

A: Nothing. Not a single thing. They have the same fears, the same peer pressure, the same parents with the same fears. The only thing that’s different is the calendar.

Q: Do you have a joke that you pause before bringing out because you think it might be over the line?

A: I was doing a club in Seattle once. I was the only Caucasian person at An Afro-American night. Before I even started, somebody yelled, ‘white men can’t jump!’ And I said back, ‘We don’t have to. We own all the teams. You jump.’ The place went wild – with laughter.

Q: Was there a moment there when you thought you were going to get killed?

A: No, the audience was just so happy I crushed this guy and said something that wasn’t small and stupid.

Q: Here is a question just for you: Why did you decide to go into comedy therapy for cancer patients?

A: I don’t have all the answers. I think we’re beings of energy that are here for a short while – and we’re here to learn something. We’re here to make other people feel they have value, we’re here to make other people feel like they’re capable of anything. When we do that for others, we’re blessed with that knowledge. Comedy is such a selfish business. It’s all I,I,I, me, me, me, you’re up there by yourself, on stage, look at me, you’re on the road alone, away from the ones you love. That kind of business fosters a lot of ego and a lot of false pride. I’m not a religious person, but I think that the more you give, the more you’re blessed.”