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As self-employed sub-contractors, standup comics do not get
all the little perks that other workers get. We don't get paid
vacations or full medical or dental coverage. We don't get 401K
matching funds or stock options. We don't get to steal office supplies
and make long distance phone calls on the company's dime. Of course, we
get to drink on the job, so it all works out in the end. Another thing we don't get is paid sick leave, so when a comic is sick and can't
work, a comic doesn't get paid. Such is the nature of the
There are very few illnesses that will keep a standup comic
from working. The test is fairly simple: if you can't stand
up or if you can't leave the bathroom, you can't work. Anything else, you
I've performed sick more times than I care to admit. It's important to understand, however, that we have adrenaline on our side. There's something about adrenaline that makes sypmtoms disappear for the exact amount of time we need to be on stage. Naturally, when the show is over, we crash and burn faster than a Sharon Stone movie. But the important thing is that the show went on--just like the old show biz adage says it should.
Many years ago, my husband performed while fighting
mononucleosis. At one point, he was so tired that he actually fell asleep at the club before a show. The crowd undoubtedly thought he was one of those druggie comics that they've heard so much about.
Myself, I have a recurring problem with laryngitis. On more than
one occassion my voice has gotten so weak during my set that it's no
more than a whisper by the time I'm through. I've learned not to panick
when this happens because the weaker my voice gets, the more I kill. It's kind of depressing that the audience likes me better when
they can't understand a word I'm saying.
Comics somehow manage to develop impeccable timing when
it comes to taking ill. Last month, I was doing a college gig in West
Viginia when, a few hours before the show, I realized I didn't feel well.
I had an earache and a low grade fever. Since neither met the above
criteria, I had to work. On the way home, I began to get the chills and
by the next morning, I had tonsillitis. Fortunately, I wasn't scheduled to
work the following Friday and Saturday. This was a good thing, because I
would have had to cancel. (For the record, I couldn't stand up. I really
don't want any of you imagining me in the bathroom.) I was really sick.
I can always tell how sick I am by my husband's reluctance to make jokes at my expense. On Saturday, in the throes of my illness, I said to him,
"I can't wait to be able to swallow again." He merely blinked sympathetically--no Chandler-esque comeback (appropriate only if
Friends was on cable). I knew then that I was pathetically
There are rare exceptions to the can't stand up/can't leave the bathroom test. Back in 1993, I started to develop flu-like syptoms as we left our Burbank apartment and
headed north for a two-week tour of the Pacific Northwest. By the time
we hit the Oregon border, I had a full blown case of the chicken pox. Initially, I was too sick to stand. Shortly thereafter, when I had regained my ability to remain erect, I couldn't work because for a different reason: I
looked like a hideous monster! For weeks, I continued to look
like a ghastly pock-marked creature. I briefly considered writing
material about my condition. I could continue to work in my horrifying state and put the terrified audience members at ease concerning my condition. Then I realized that I would have to do the material for my neighbors, for the toll taker--for anyone else I might encounter on my way to the club. I quickly abandoned that idea for the sake of mankind. Best to stay indoors.
In light of this, I suppose I should take this
opportunity to refine the criteria for what illnesses might keep a comic
offstage: A comic can't work if a comic can't stand up, can't leave the
bathroom or can't show her face in public because of a horribly disfiguring childhood disease that makes her adult face temporarily freakish. Anything
else, we can handle.
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