Looking On The Bright Side Of Cancer
"Highly Evolved Human"
Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater
307 W 26th Street, New York
Thursday December 10th and 17th 8pm. $5.
More information actlikenick.com
By Georgia Clark.
Comedian Nick Ross. Photo by Allan Schoening.
2007 was shaping up to be a pretty good year for Nick Ross. The young improviser was performing on one of New York's United Citizens Brigade's (UCB) house teams, a memorable player due to his seemingly rubberised body, manic energy and shock of curly hair. Such a position was highly coveted within a theater known as a breeding ground for tomorrow's household names in comedy. He had his own successful one man show, "Cool Your Js", running at UCB, as well as working full-time. "I was starting to get recognised," he says. "Creatively, I was on an upswing".
Then he started to get sick. After experiencing four months of night sweats, weight loss, exhaustion and swollen lymph nodes, Nick was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Cancer. He was 26 years old. "Being diagnosed was such a startling thing," he says. Now out of remission, the comment is made with a calm dinner-party-anecdote ease. "I've never smoked, I'm not a big drinker, and I eat really well. What's funny is while I was in treatment I lost all my vegetarianism and started eating everything," he laughs. "I was a vegetarian for health reasons, but then it was like, 'Well, that didn't work…'"
Within a week of being diagnosed, he was on a plane home to Denver, Colorado, to begin chemo: six months of combination chemotherapy every two weeks, receiving treatment through a mini-port implanted in his chest. "It sounds so barbaric," he says. "Are you coming to the show tonight? That's the first thing I talk about – getting all the specifics out of the way."
From his experience with cancer, Nick created another sketch show, "Highly Evolved Human". "It became so noticeable how weird people are with cancer patients." He recalls having a stranger on a bus ask if he shaved his head was because he was going bald. When he told the stranger the truth, the guy responded by telling him all about his experiences being in AA. "It was like he needed to share something that was going on him too," he says. He composed the incident into a story, and took it to performance night in Denver called the Freak Train, a night he used to do in college. He had the MC introduce him as 'Nick With Cancer'. "I was like, 'Hi guys! I have cancer, and I want to share with you a little funny story."
After being diagnosed with cancer at age 26, comedian Nick Ross explores the experience in new show, "Highly Evolved Human." Photo by Allan Schoening.
It's easy to see how such an approach ballooned into a show that this year had a national run. Comedy often mines the irreverent. The 90s was defined by Jerry Seinfeld asking what the deal with airline food was – small, universal moments that do little to ask the big questions, in fact they all but work to do the opposite. Comedians look inwards to pull material out, and if the majority of performers at the UCB are anything to go by, these experiences are seen through the lens of white, middle-class, healthy, straight guys. It's not like audiences can't be engaged with more serious matters, it's just a matter of satisfying the number one rule of comedy - make 'em laugh.
Nick solution was to simply look on the funny side of his experiences with the deadly disease. "I laugh with the audience. I don't make fun of cancer," he says emphatically. "I only laugh at my experience with cancer." Prior to the show, he describes audiences as extremely hesitant about the approach – after all, everyone knows someone who has been affected by the traumatic disease. "Afterwards, they're like, 'Yes! Thank you!'" he smiles. "It's been very rewarding."
After exposure on Newsweek, "Highly Evolved Human" has struck a chord with the public, and the invitations that poured in everywhere from Georgia to Texas to LA laid the groundwork for a national tour earlier this year. In addition to this, Nick is back performing with a house team at UCB, and has had a hand creating and starring in two popular web series Old Friends and Park Bench. "This year has been the most creatively profound year of my life," he says. "My network of artistic collaborations has just exploded."
Nick's hesitant to name a philosophy – he's "a little bit" of an everything-happens-for-a-reason kinda guy, and finds it hard to swallow the concept that cancer is a manifestation of negative energy. "But maybe this is what I have," he says, thinking carefully, "My step-mother and my father say, 'Do your sweet work'. Do the work that makes you feel good, and that’s all you need to do. That really clicked."
Check out more of Nick's sweet work at http://actlikenick.com
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