Comedian Chrissy Burns went through something tougher than telling jokes on a stage. The comic from the oddly named Ypsilanti, Mich., spent four years treating seven different tumors while touring on the road. She named one tumor Thor, which was 97 percent terminal. "Nasty little stinker," she said.
Despite her health problems, Burns defied her doctor's orders to stay home and continued to perform on the road during her treatment. With her cancer in remission, she recounts her life-threatening battle with humor during a recent phone interview.
She comes to Comix Cafe in Tonawanda for a two-night stand Friday and Saturday.
Q: How did you get involved in comedy?
"I was in a play with somebody, and he said, 'Chrissy, you have really good comic timing. I have an improv troupe called the Portuguese Rodeo Clown Company. Why don't you come out and play with us?' I'd never been in a comedy club, but I went out, and I sucked. I was really bad at improv. We were working at a comedy club, and they had an open mike night. I did three minutes of comedy about my mom and fell in love with it. It was the longest three minutes of my life, but from there I decided it would be a nice hobby. Then some of the working comics started to ask me to open for them. (After some success), it was like two jobs, and I couldn't do both. I had already been diagnosed with my first brain tumor. When they told me I was in remission, I quit my regular job and decided to do comedy full time. Now that I know I'm going to live, I'm going to live, dammit."
Q: How has surviving cancer influenced your career?
"I really discovered the healing power of laughter. I would be really sick from the chemo, and I'd be at the club. I'd be thinking that I can't go on, and I would hear my intro music. When my foot hit the stage and as soon as I got that first laugh, I started to feel better. You would never know I was sick. About a year and a half ago, I decided that I needed to tell people about the gift of laughter. I introduced some cancer humor at the very end of the act, because the last thing you want to do is start off with it and have people feeling sorry for you. Either they'll think I'm funny or not."
Q: Comedy is traditionally a male-dominated business.
"It's a very male-dominated industry. It's a boys club, but funny is funny. The men end up respecting you if you don't do typical female humor, which I don't. My cancer played a role in that, because males become very protective. It's like having 250 big brothers across the country. A lot of them (have) driven me to treatment while I'm on the road, they've seen me get sick, they've been in the ambulance with me. There was one situation that was life-threatening. I was in Carol, Iowa, and I needed to get home. I didn't want to die in Carol, Iowa (laughter). But it was 11 hours from home. The comics from across the country set up a relay drive, where two of them got me and drove me to the next club, where the next two comics drove me to the next club. It was incredible. Here they were trying to get me home so I can die, and I didn't even die. I think they felt a little cheated."
Q: Compare that to dying on stage.
"When you die from an illness, you have a little more dignity than dying on stage."
Q: So what play are you involved with now?
"I decided that if I'm going to be home, I'm going to get involved in the community. I auditioned for 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.' It's a comedy, and since I'm a comedian, I figured I'd be a shoe-in for the lead role. No, they cast me in a nonspeaking role as a courtesan, which is essentially a prostitute. I'm a big girl. I do not look the type. But it's been fun, because I've gotten to be very physical. Go ahead and take away my voice, and I'll still steal the show."