Is laughter the best medicine? In this episode we explore the power of stand-up comedy in fighting HIV stigma and explore its potential benefits as a therapeutic tool. Host James Watson first chats with James Tison, a queer, HIV-positive, gender nonbinary stand-up comic and actor from New York City, and then reaches out across sectors to speak with David Granirer. David is a stand-up comic, counsellor, author and founder of Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH), a program that teaches stand-up comedy to people experiencing mental health issues.
Our episode guests
NYC-based actor, stand-up comic and writer
James Tison is a NYC-based actor, stand-up comic and writer. Before the pandemic, they performed all over the city and were featured this year in the NYT for their outspoken work as a nonbinary comic living with HIV. Once the vaccine is out, they'll return to stand up and hosting "Snowflake Mic," their monthly show at Club Cumming.
I'm undetectable; it means you can't detect the virus in my system. I can't give it to anybody. I can ejaculate inside each and every one of you, and you wouldn't catch anything more than a good time—and herpes—scientists are still chasing after herpes.
Counsellor, stand-up comic, author and founder of Stand Up For Mental Health.
David is a counsellor, stand-up comic, author and founder of Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH), a program teaching stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues. David who himself has depression, is featured in the VOICE award-winning documentary Cracking Up. He also received a Life Unlimited Award from Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, an Award of Excellence from the National Council of Behavioural Health, a Champion of Mental Health Award, and a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada, and was recognized as one of the 150 Canadian Difference Makers in mental health.
…you can't change the past, obviously. But you can tell your story. Through comedy, you can take control of your story by telling it your way and putting your own ending on it. So in other words, you get the last laugh.
James Tison is a NYC-based actor, stand-up comic and writer. They perform all over the city and were featured in the New York Times for their outspoken work as a non-binary comic living with HIV. They said that once the vaccine is available, they will return to stand-up and hosting "SnowflakeMic," their monthly show at Club Cumming.
James opens by talking about how getting sober from alcohol has helped them to be vulnerable on the unforgiving stand-up stage. Stand-up comedy has become a way for them to process life on a daily basis, and that includes living with HIV.
James goes on to point out that stand-comedy is a very effective way to combat HIV stigma. They mention that stigmatizing audience comments are really just ignorance and James uses those moments to disarm and inform the audience through humour. That being said, they want to ensure that they are not just soap boxing on stage and that their focus is on comedy. It’s a balancing act.
James also touches on the work of other comics, most notably Dave Chappelle, and the hurt feelings that can arise when material is written about a community without that writer having any real understanding of the community.
With a TikTok following of over 20,000 people, James has found a large audience and a great way to share jokes during the pandemic. With the tag line, “such nice skin…” their website is a great spot for a number of acting and stand-up videos, and for insights into what is meant by “gender non-binary.”
On the later part of the show, host James Watson is joined by David—a counsellor, stand-up comic, author and founder of Stand Up For Mental Health, a program that teaches stand-up comedy to people living with mental health issues. David himself has depression, and is featured in the award-winning documentary Cracking Up.
David talks to James about how he has run the Stand Up For Mental Health program in over 50 cities throughout Canada, the United States and Australia. David runs classes online and turns real-life events and experiences into stand-up comedy. The online work is then followed by a live show. David points out that it is a great way to ease internalized stigma around mental health issues, adding that, “the ability to make people laugh is a huge confidence builder.”
David points out that stand-up comedy is not for everyone, but that people coming into the program know what they are signing up for. They want to be part of it, and know they only need to disclose what they want to disclose.
When asked about why this program works so well to fight stigma around mental health, David points to the stereotypes that surround people with mental health issues. They are often thought of as dangerous or scary, but when they perform live at shows, people see friendly, likeable and courageous people.
David notes that while Stand Up for Mental Health is therapeutic, it is not a substitute for therapy or medication. But he points out that the classes are very supportive and offer an opportunity for bonding.
David goes on to discuss his role as a counsellor, his challenges with depression, and closes the interview talking about the positive changes his students have experienced after their first live shows, and how the program might be transferred to people living with HIV.