Changing Perceptions of Diabetes through Stand-up Comedy - Changing Perceptions of Stand-up Comedy through Diabetes
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentMusic, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Clinical Sciences, Public Health and Health Services
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
Written and performed by Oliver Double, the stand-up comedy performance Saint
Pancreas uses the medium of comedy to enhance public understanding
of type 1 diabetes, and to challenge prevailing assumptions about the
condition within and beyond the community of patients and their families.
As a live performance and on DVD, the work has had impact on:
- diabetes sufferers
- diabetes organisations in the UK and the US
- charity and healthcare professionals
Furthermore, within the field of stand-up comedy itself, it has
contributed to challenging and broadening the aesthetic possibilities of
Premiered live in 2006 and released on DVD in 2007, the 90-minute
stand-up comedy show Saint Pancreas focuses on the experience of
parenting children with type 1 diabetes . It thereby extends in
a practical form Double's research on the issue of emotion and intense
personal experience in comedy, which was investigated in his book Getting
the Joke . In this work Double draws on comic theory,
interviews and analysis of stand-up performances to investigate how the
need to elicit laughter from an audience, which defines the form of
stand-up comedy, has been conventionally perceived as a barrier for
addressing certain kinds of intense personal experience, such as that
related to illness. Such topics might provoke ostensibly non-humorous
responses from an audience, such as empathy and pathos. Contemporary
comedians Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves express a widespread assumption
about stand-up comedy when they suggest that `emotional pain' is one of
the `still unacceptable taboos', (Jimmy Carr & Lucy Greeves, The
Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes, London: Michael
Joseph, 2006, p.188). From a theoretical perspective, certain strands
within comic theory suggest that emotion and laughter are even inherently
incompatible. Henri Bergson, for example, argues that laughing requires a
`momentary anaesthesia of the heart', (Henri Bergson, `Laughter' in Wylie
Sypher (ed.), Comedy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956, pp.63-64).
Double's academic research has concentrated on influential work by a
number of stand-up comedians (such as Richard Pryor, Andre Vincent and
Mark Thomas) who deal precisely with such material deemed unsuitable, even
unspeakable, tackling traumatic, confessional or disturbing topics. Double
argued that this work both extended the emotional range of the medium and
suggested new ways of developing rapport, empathy and solidarity between
comic performers and their audiences, as well as suggesting new ways of
negotiating the risks of working with emotionally intense personal
Saint Pancreas tested these arguments in the form of a stand-up
performance that drew on Double's own experience of being the parent of
two children with type 1 diabetes. St Pancreas thereby extended
the original scholarly research in the form of a practice-as-research
project, which involved analysing the performance and reception of the
performance in relation to comic theory and the work of the other comics
that had been the focus of the scholarly research. The show includes
material that deals directly with intense personal emotional experiences,
for instance with Double's younger son falling into a coma in a paediatric
intensive care unit. The central focus of this practice-based strand of
Double's research was to further investigate the effect of emotion on the
basic performance dynamics of stand-up. It explored three central issues:
i. the effect of the nature of the material on the way it was performed
ii. changes in the performer-audience relationship
iii. most importantly, the question of humour: would it actually be
In so doing, the research sought to expand and enrich the aesthetic and
imaginative possibilities of this popular performance genre, `Recalling
traumatic experiences in a way that was funny without suppressing the
horror' of them . Audience members who were interviewed
directly after the show testified to the success of the experiment. One
said, `You're still aware of how horrible things are, but there's nothing
wrong with it, it doesn't detract from the terrible situation, just
because you're laughing' .
A central part of the investigation was the idea of sharing intense
personal experience, one of three key concepts that emerged from
Double's research; the others being emotion and empathy [4,
5]. As part of this sharing of experience, the show then also
explained various aspects of diabetes to its audience, including its
physiological causes, its treatment, and the impact it has on families. It
also tackled some of the popular misconceptions surrounding the condition.
The research was undertaken at Kent by Oliver Double: Lecturer
(1999-2006), Senior Lecturer (2006 -Present).
References to the research
1. Oliver Double, Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of
Stand-Up Comedy, (London: Methuen, 2005). Revised Second Edition,
(London: Methuen, 2013). [REF Output No. 4]
2. Saint Pancreas, 90 minute live performance, premiere 3
November 2006, Horsebridge Arts Centre, Whitstable; DVD recording and
release through University of Kent, December 2007 (including film,
contextual interview, 10,000 word essay [see 3 below]).
3. `"That shit was funny now!": Emotion and Intense Personal
Experience in Stand-Up Comedy,' essay included on Saint Pancreas
DVD, University of Kent, 2007.
4. `Emotion and intense personal experience in stand-up comedy,'
paper at conference, Playing for Laughs, De Montfort University,
10th February 2008.
5. `Stand-up comedy — `Humour makes the difficult possible,'
public lecture at the AHRC-funded Public Engagement event Lifting the
Curtain, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 30th April 2013.
Details of the impact
The live performance and the DVD of St Pancreas reached beyond
the academic community by both enhancing public understanding of diabetes
and challenging some of the assumptions about the condition. The principal
user groups who benefited were diabetes sufferers, their families and
carers, diabetes organisations, healthcare professionals and charities.
Additionally, stand-up comedy culture — fellow comedians, critics, and
audiences as a central part of this community — benefited from the work's
exploratory and challenging expansion of the genre's accepted conventions.
Diabetes sufferers and their families, and the public understanding
By July 2013, 292 copies of the DVD Saint Pancreas had been sold
through the University of Kent. Order addresses show a distribution across
the UK and some internationally. The DVD was also acquired by the British
Library, by more than ten Universities (other than Kent), and by Diabetes
UK. Further free copies have been made available to journalists as well as
professional comedians. Many of these copies will have been seen by
The show and DVD were reviewed in The Guardian by William Cook,
who wrote that despite its `highly unlikely subject for comedy,' the show
was `a tender and uplifting monologue that's surprisingly funny' .
Furthermore, the DVD received positive responses from specialist diabetes
publications [7, 9].
The responses captured in the audience interviews published on the DVD
itself are indicative of this type of response, and thus of the
significance of the show's impact. Double also received numerous personal
letters from parents of children with diabetes suggesting that the sharing
of experiences was valuable to them, offering a sense of relief and
validation . For example, one parent comments that the show
`made me feel less alone...someone else out there "gets it."' Another
wrote that `Watching Saint Pancreas allowed us to have a good
laugh with someone who truly understood what living with diabetes is
really like. It was very cathartic but also made us feel that we were a
part of something with other families. Instead of feeling that our family
life was different and we had to avoid talking about diabetes too much, we
felt more normal' .
The diabetes community: professional healthcare and charity
The release of the DVD and the further dissemination of its underpinning
research, both scholarly and practice-based, led to an invitation to
Double from the leading charity, Diabetes
UK, to write an official blog for their website. Joe Freeman,
Digital Engagement Manager at Diabetes UK comments in an email to Oliver
Double (18.10.11) that `reactions to what you've written have been more
varied and frequent than those on posts from other bloggers... Parents of
children with diabetes seem to relate well to what you write ... and your
posts are the most popular on the site' . To end of July 2013,
30 blogs have generated a total of 15,319 unique views and Double's posts
have been shared 1437 times on Facebook and 150 times on Twitter.
Double's activities with Diabetes UK in turn led to invitations to
perform St Pancreas at key national and international conferences
and events, aimed at diabetes sufferers, their families and professionals.
These included the Friends for Life family conferences organised
by the US-based NGO Children with Diabetes (CWD) in Windsor, UK
(2010 and 2012), Orlando, Florida (2011 and 2012), and Glasgow, UK (2013)
[9,10]. Double's stand-up comedy show was also performed at the
Diabetes Wellness Day in Greenwich, UK (2011), organised by the UK Charity
Diabetes Research and Wellness Foundation (DRWF), and at the Type 1
Discovery Evening in London, UK (2013), organised by the leading
charitable funder of diabetes research, the Juvenile Diabetes Research
Foundation (JDRF). Through these routes, the show has been seen, as
of July 2013, by approximately 4,710 live audience members.
Jeff Hitchcock, founder and president of CWD, explains why stand-up
comedy in general is a valuable activity for diabetes organisations, and
the benefit of Double's performance in particular: `Humour makes the
difficult possible...when you are on stage...we are free from the burden
of the challenge before us, even if just for the few minutes of your
St Pancreas has also created direct financial charitable benefit
as each DVD sale generates a donation to JDRF, totalling by July 2013
£541.60, and an additional £286.80 of donations from ticket sales for the
Stand-up comedy culture
The research had an impact within the stand-up comedy community in terms
of its distinctive and challenging contribution to the development of the
form. This has been evidenced by, for example, responses from significant
comedians in the field, including Arthur Smith and Mark Thomas [7, 8].
Thomas' acclaimed 2012 one-man show Bravo Figaro tackled his
experiences dealing with his father's dementia with a similar blend of
comedy and empathy. Thomas wrote to Double to confirm that:
The important thing with [St Pancreas] is that it deals
with a medical subject
that is not often an area of comedy. This allows people to laugh at the
situations people with these issues find themselves, which makes it (for
of a better phrase) easier to talk about. It helps break through the
health being talked about by professionals in medical terms or lay
hushed and worried tones .
The impact of Double's St Pancreas project therefore can be seen
to range from its pragmatic and inspirational value to diabetes
professionals and organizations; to its beneficial role as a source of
relief and validation to individuals and families affected by diabetes; to
its cultural significance in helping to broaden the thematic range of
stand-up comedy; and through all of this, to its role in deepening public
understanding of type 1 diabetes.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Letters and emails from people affected by diabetes: a
selection of these, including fuller versions of those cited above is
available online http://www.oliverdouble.com/page12.htm.
They corroborate the impact on diabetes patients and their families.
kate fazakerley, parent of a diabetic child, whose email
to Double is quoted in the case study, and who can corroborate the
benefit for diabetes sufferers and their families
Joe Freeman, Digital Engagement Manager at Diabetes UK, who can
attest to impact on diabetes community of Oliver Double's blogs http://blogs.diabetes.org.uk/?cat=7.
Jeff Hitchcock, head of Children with Diabetes (CWD) charity,
who can corroborate the benefit for diabetes charities
Siobhan Murphy, Diabetes Research Foundation, who can
corroborate the significance of Saint Pancreas for diabetes
organisations and healthcare professionals
William Cook, `Oliver Double, DVD & Canterbury,
Whitstable,' The Guardian (The Guide section), 26 January 2008,
p.40. This review corroborates the reach and significance of the work
within and beyond the diabetes community.
Arthur Smith, `Arthur's Armchair View: Bent Double over
diabetes,' Balance, July-August 2008, p.78. Comedian Arthur
Smith corroborates the impact of the work on both the diabetes community
and on stand-up comedy culture.
Mark Thomas, stand-up comedian, can corroborate the impact on
stand-up comedy culture and how Double's work has contributed to the
development of this form.
Media coverage, which further corroborates the reach and
significance of St Pancreas' impact:
- `Saint Pancreas DVD', Diabetes Breakthrough, Autumn 2007,
- `Making illness a laughing matter', Times Higher Education, 10
January 2008, p.13.
- Nicky Findley, `Double trouble raises a laugh', Sweet,
December 2008, p.18.
- Hayley Jarvis, `Seriously Funny', Linkup, Autumn/Winter 2009,
(excerpts from 2010 Windsor show).
(full video of the 2011 Orlando show).