Jesse Case: A funny person answers serious questions
I feel lucky to know a bunch of funny people. People WAY funnier than me. But instead of asking them about comedy things, I like asking them serious, existential-level stuff. You know, the real LIFE stuff.
It results in some pretty fun, enlightening answers if you ask me.
Say hello to Jesse Case.
Jesse is a comedian and one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter. He also has a podcast, Jesse vs. Cancer, where he colorfully comments on a whole variety of issues, including dealing with Stage IV colon cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2015. But I have to tell you, the podcast is about a lot more than just that. Have a listen.
My questions and his answers below:
So Jesse. I’ve been following your story and podcast for a little while now. Why’d you start the podcast to begin with?
When I really analyze it, I think it was just to feel less alone. Getting diagnosed with cancer is one of the most isolating feelings in the world. To use the official oncological term, it’s “shitty as fuck”. The reality of mortality hits home in a very real, rare way. You walk around feeling like you’re on a sinking ship that nobody else knows is sinking. Simple conversations quit making sense. The absurdity of everything kicks you in the teeth. But it put me in a unique spot to provide a window into that for other people.
I was having trouble connecting to other patients, so the podcast was sort of me reaching out, when I think about it.
I’m not a religious or spiritual person, so that stuff was out. I mean I never thought “why me”. I figured “why not me”. We all know this happens to people. But down at the clinic it’s all self-loathing mixed with “hope” talk. And I despised that. “Hope” was too reliant on a positive outcome. I wanted to be okay with it not being okay. And there aren’t any support groups for people like me, at least not here. The “realistic, cynical douchebags” group is hard to get going down at the clinic.
So I thought, alright, the podcast will either be someone beating cancer or someone learning how to die, but, you know, with lots of masturbation jokes. Either way, I think that’s a valuable thing to record, and could contribute in some small way to other people dealing with the same thing. If I can make it funny and visceral, I’ve done something of value and given some relief.
I just knew when I got diagnosed that no matter what happened, it would get insanely hilarious and dark, and worth sharing. When I was told I’d have a colostomy bag for 6 months, I left the clinic that day and bought the podcast mic. That’s a true story. I just thought “well, this is gonna get real fucking weird, better record it.”
When you first started it, did you envision where it (and you) would be today?
Not at all. I didn’t expect anyone to listen to the podcast, that’s for sure. And the people that do are the coolest people in the world. They let a guy into their lives that might not make it, and that’s not an easy thing to do.
The listeners and I have each other’s backs, forever. It’s the coolest bond I can imagine.
As for where I’m at personally, well, honestly my survival has been fairly miraculous so I didn’t do much planning for this. I wasn’t envisioning much for now. I spent all my money and stuff. I’m just kind of figuring “survival” out, which is its own can of worms, but obviously I’ve never been so grateful for something.
This is grim, but there’s actually a contingency podcast that I recorded in case I croaked. It had this weird story arc where I can’t get into heaven because I didn’t forward a chain e-mail back in the 90s or something, so I wind up in hell but through a clerical error I get released. I put a lot of work into that contingency episode. And I’ve never been so thrilled to have work go wasted. But no, I didn’t envision being here, in any capacity really. I accepted the bad outcome, and then got a good outcome (knock on wood) and here we are. Everything’s crazy, man.
I had 3 brain tumors as a kid. It totally changed my perspective on life and shit. How has this experience shifted your life view, if at all?
Oh man, I’m so glad you’re okay! It’s been almost too transformative to explain. I mean, it’s not like the movies where you start staring at sunsets all the time and babies make me swoon. I’m still me. But it’s changed me completely. It gave me some ingredients I was missing, I think.
The first thing that hits is how impermanent everything is, myself included. And that informs a lot. I’m more empathetic than I’ve ever been, and more willing to be called out when I’m being shitty. I’m also less compromising if other people around me are being shitty. I’m less angry than I’ve ever been. Any weird career bitterness went away, and when my friends succeed my happiness for them is genuine now, instead of mixed feelings where my own failures gets involved.
My love for standup has never been stronger, which is great, but at the same time I lost any and all drive for fame and fortune, or the bullshit schmoozey steps to achieve that. I’m going to do this how I want to do it and anything else is unacceptable to me. You have to live your life in the best way that you can, pushing the ball forward the best you can. You have to be good and kind and loving. The fears melted away. Being informed by fear is a sickening feeling and I had no idea how cowardly I was living my life before this. It really hammered it all home. I feel stronger than I’ve ever been, as a person, I think. I’m the least insecure I’ve ever been, and that’s huge for me.
I don’t take things as personally. Aside from the having cancer part, having cancer has been awesome. Sure, I’m missing half a liver and most of my colon, but I’ve learned to cook lasagna! Give and take, ya know?
In a more immediate and tangible sense, it’s made me really politically active. You know, Obamacare saved my life. It has some problems, sure, but it’s irrefutable that it’s why I’m alive. Now, I’m a straight white guy, so I’d never felt truly marginalized by my own government before. I’d had the insane economic stuff that everyone feels, but nothing truly demeaning. And when they started talking about repealing the ACA, it punched me in the gut. They were basically up there saying “it’s cool with us if he dies.” That’s how that sounds to me. It really opened my eyes that so many groups of people live their lives thinking their own government just doesn’t give a shit about them. I mean I’d always known that, of course, but never experienced it. Even worse, so many fellow voters don’t seem to care, or realize the deal. It was a horrible, sinking feeling.
Hearing people I’ve never met discuss my life like that was harrowing, and so many people deal with that. You know, when women tune in to hear a bunch of old guys they’ve never met discussing abortion legislation. It’s disgusting shit. And I finally felt that too. Just the “man, they really don’t give a fuck do, they?”. It was terrifying.
So I’ve been taking a lot of action in that department with social services, criminal justice reform, and so on. I’ll never fully get there of course, but this thing beat a lot of the naive cracker out of me. So many people need help getting on their feet and aren’t given a fair chance, it’s all being threatened even further, and I’m not good with that.
What do you think is the meaning of life?
There’s a fine line between a meaning and a reason, but it’s a distinction we have to make. I don’t think there’s a “reason” for life. That implies some sort of plot or agenda. Nature’s only agenda seems to be to keep living. So, no, I don’t think there’s a meaning to life if that means a “plot”. But it’s moot.
You’re here. Get into it.
Plus demanding a plot for your species is weird. Why are we writing Rotten Tomatoes reviews of our existence? You need the human condition to have a story arc? That’s so demanding!
We’re still in this together and that’s really beautiful. We have to help each other out and be good to the animals and make this a nicer place to live. We matter to each other very much and our emotions are real and valid. Our own survival depends on us loving one another and working together, like scientifically as well as morally. That’s a point if there ever was one. A lack of meaning doesn’t mean it’s pointless.
Humanity is basically a modern art installation we all got dragged to, where the theme is that there isn’t a theme. We all need to go to the bar next to the gallery and make fun of the artist together and have a good time and not trash the place. There’s strength in that. The art show we’re stuck in might suck, but we can still make this a really fun night.
We all feel down sometimes. What do YOU do to perk up?
I’m one of those 5 million comics that fell into it after failing at music, so I have all these instruments lying around. I still write a lot of music and it’s really calming to me. It perks me up. Lately I’m messing with old synthesizers a lot. Just old, 2 oscillator synths that go out of tune after 5 minutes. I love it. I just got a vocoder and I’m usually up until 5am running weird stuff through it and sequencing things.
I don’t watch a ton of TV. I’m not a “I don’t have a TV” guy, I just run out of time in my day and forget to get around to it. My TV is super nice. It’s way out of my league. I think what Samantha Bee is doing right now is groundbreaking work. ‘Always Sunny’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ will always make me laugh. ‘Alan Partridge’ is hilarious. I love really despicable characters with huge blind spots. I won’t name standup comics I’m enjoying, because I’m friends with too many of them and people get fucking weird when they feel left out because everyone’s a sociopath, but there’s a generation of comics coming up right now that has some of the best talent in a long time. I really mean that. They’re getting weird and going for it and it’s awesome. The good stuff is easy to find.
Any advice for others out there dealing with illnesses?
I’d say the biggest advice is to give people around you a pass. You’ll want to snap on them sometimes, but try not to. Know that they love you. They’ll flood you with pseudoscientific articles about how rubbing some ginger on your tits will cure your breast metastasis and they’re wrong, it won’t, but they mean well. They’ll tell you “it’ll be okay, you’ll be fine” and they don’t get how silencing that is. You’ll be asked the same 5 questions 100 times a day. They’ll demand answers about something that has no answer. Accept that they can’t really understand, and that’s okay. You’re not alone.
More importantly, give yourself a pass too. You may find yourself having to cheer up those around you about your own condition. They’re so sad around you that you jump into caretaker mode. Don’t worry about that. You’re dealing with enough. You’re the sick one. The least they can do is quit slobbering all over your nice sweater.
Do everything that you want to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or yourself. And I repeat, you’re not alone. If you need a friend, I’ll be your fucking friend. Everyone’s life has the same ending. It’s a question of when, not if. Hang out with people that know that and act accordingly. Leave the others to their jello shots.
Glass half full or half empty?
Both, all the time. Never one or the other. It’s what we do with it. Right now the glass is half full, but with water from Flint.
Anything else you’d like to share with readers? Anything you’d like to plug?
Well, I’m writing a book right now that’ll actually be published. Which is crazy. So that’s something. The most immediate stuff would be my standup. I’ll be touring a ton in 2017 and all the details will be on my twitter and podcast page and whatnot. Come laugh at stuff! As for anything else to share…go outside. Quit reading this and go outside.
I feel lucky to know a bunch of funny people. People WAY funnier than me. But instead of asking them about comedy…medium.com