Laughter is the best medicine, especially when being a stand-up comedian is a nursing side gig that helps nurses deal with the profession’s stress. Just ask Kelli Dunham RN BSN, Community School Director of NYC Public Schools. Dunham has been performing comedy as a nurse for 25 years.

Dunham is the author of How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Nursing School  (FA Davis), the best-selling puberty guides The Boy’s Body Book and The Girl’s Body Book (Cidermill Press), and a collection of hilarious tragicomic essays, Freak of Nurture (Topside Press). Dunham also does some per diem home health.

Dunham chatted with Daily Nurse about how she got into her comedian side gig.

How did you get interested in being a comedian? What drew you to it? How long have you been doing it?

I’ve wanted to be a comedian since I knew it was a thing a person could be, which was when my dad let me stay up an hour past my bedtime to watch a Steve Martin special. I grew up in rural Wisconsin and had a mile walk from where the bus dropped me off at my house. After I watched the Steve Martin special, I was late for chores every night because I would be telling jokes to the cows in the pastures on either side of the road all the way home. You could have worse first crowds! I’ve had tougher audiences since then!

However, the way to be good at being a comedian is by being bad at as a comedian in front of people. There’s no substitute for that stage time. And I didn’t have the confidence it took until my mid-20s, and I have nursing school to thank for that. You know, at the beginning of clinical rotations, you feel so lost? (that’s not just me, right)?) You must call your instructor because you don’t know how to get the side rails down. A patient calls out, “hey, nurse” and you think, “oh please, please, please don’t be talking to me.” You go home covered in four different body fluids from four other people. But progressing through nursing school, and seeing how my skills improved despite feeling quite hopeless in the beginning, gave me the courage to make a fool of myself on stage. 

In addition, worrying about making a medication error puts stage fears into perspective. If you bomb on stage, the worst thing is that you won’t get laughs. Maybe someone will heckle. Or I will call you a very personal name. Maybe at the worst clubs, someone will throw a beer at you. But you’re in no danger of killing anyone.

All that to say, I’ve been performing comedy for the same amount of time I’ve been nurse-25 years.

Did you have to get additional training/education to do it? Or have you always been funny? 

There’s no specific training/education for being a comic (see above). It’s a learn-on-the-job, fail-on-your-feet kind of situation.

See also
Nursing Side Gigs: Boxing Coach

When was your first gig/presentation? Did you know then that you wanted to become a comedian? What types of people/clients do you perform for? What are they looking for, and what do you provide for them?  

First, this is a great question, and I rarely get asked this question: what are folks looking for when they book me?

My very first time on stage was at an open mic at a comedy club in the basement of a hotel in Northeast Philadelphia which did not advertise comedy but did advertise its drink specials. It was extremely unpleasant for everyone involved. After a few months, I realized that perhaps performing for extremely drunk people and with extremely drunk comics might not be honing my skills the way I might have hoped. I started modeling my career after my indie musician friends, performing at coffee shops and church basements. This was much more hospitable, and I didn’t get thrown up on nearly as much. (you know your comedy career isn’t in the right place when you see more body fluids at the clubs than at the hospital)

Now I’ve built a career as a trauma-informed comic, often performing/presenting at times and places you might not expect a stand-up comedian. For example, at a child protective services conference last year, I asked, “why are you at my presentation,” and a person in the front row said, “yours is the only workshop that doesn’t have the word child abuse in the title.” That pretty much sums up what this aspect of my career offers-I am comic relief.

Nurses (and others in the helping professions) often use humor to de-stress. But I can invite them to allow themselves to laugh and provide tips for deliberately finding and creating positive and constructive humor.

I think of the other service I provide as Spoonful of Sugar comedy, working closely with healthcare facilities and organizations struggling to make their services LGBT-inclusive. Although this is a serious and important topic, I can provide the information and guidance and include funny personal anecdotes so that participants feel more at ease. I reinforce that better care for LGBT patients is better care for everyone. Plus, I have a nice, round, friendly midwestern face and say, “hey, ask me all the things you maybe shouldn’t ask your LGBT patients.”

Do you find being a comedian easy to do even while working as a nurse? 

If my goal had been to build a more traditional comedy club career, it’s possible that would have caused scheduling headaches. No one wants to run around town, hitting a half dozen comedy clubs after working a 12-hour shift. However, because I’ve been performing at colleges, conferences, faith communities–even occasionally a livestock auction–I’ve been able to flex my schedule to accommodate shows.

See also
How to Do Nurse Recognition – During Nurses Week and Beyond

I am still a Wisconsin farm kid inside, and I like to get up when many club comics are just coming home. I’ve had a few conferences where I was a 7 am breakfast keynote! That might be a nightmare for many comics, but it’s a dream for me! Well, not a dream exactly because I’m awake, even though it’s early. But you get what I mean.

What do you like most about working as a comedian? 

What I like most about working as a comic is helping people laugh even (or perhaps especially) during hard times.

Sometimes this comes in the form of sharing my own experiences. For example, my current one-hour show, Second Helping, is about losing two partners in a row to cancer–sounds hilarious, right? But more than the losses, the show is about my struggle to learn how to ask for and accept help. Relatable nursing content!

Other times, this is simply about reminding people, “hey, it’s okay to laugh at the funny parts,” and also reminding them that crying at the sad parts is important.

What are your biggest challenges as a comedian? Have you ever bombed doing a gig/presentation? What are your greatest rewards as one? 

Oh, I have bombed! As referenced above, you get good at comedy by being bad at comedy. So there have been times when I’ve misjudged the crowd, written material that seemed like a universal experience but turned out to be unrelatable, or didn’t take the stage with enough confidence, and the audience didn’t know what to do with me. Being met with silence can make the time you’re standing there with the mic seem very long.  

Once, I was asked to perform at a boating expo in a big convention center. Even though it was early in my career, it made sense, I was living on a houseboat, and I did have some liveaboard material. I was impressed with myself. But when I arrived at the convention center, I found I had been booked to perform at an individual booth. The person sold special floating keychains with very early GPS technology. She set up a karaoke machine and a step ladder and said, “here’s the stage,” and I was just supposed to, I guess, shout comedy at people as they walked by. I was using the karaoke mic, which I did for 10 hours. She paid me 100 bucks. Talk about comedy boot camp! But if you can perform comedy standing on a stepladder to streams of hundreds of uninterested boat enthusiasts, it makes any situation with a stage, and an audience look like you’ve won a comedy sweepstake!

I want to say I have never made another mistake like that, and while I’ve never made that exact mistake again, I’ve had to learn the hard way to ask important questions before I say yes.

Will there be a stage? Will there be a microphone? Will there be an audience? Will the audience know they are an audience? Will they be expecting comedy? These are all important questions to ask.

See also
Nursing Side Gigs: Mental Fitness Coach

No show is so bad that you can’t learn from it or at least get a good story out of it, but I’m glad I have much fewer character-building shows these days.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that is important for our readers to know?

In the past few months, there has been some well-deserved uproar about nurses on Tiktok and other social media platforms who have posted ostensibly funny but ultimately disrespectful/inappropriate content referencing patients. I’m glad discussions about that kind of content are happening, but I’m also worried about humor ending up as the scapegoat.

Context is important here; a funny remark about a frustrating situation to a coworker in the breakroom (assuming nurses get their breaks- ha, now that’s a real joke) might be a perfectly reasonable way to deal with a difficult day. But that remark might be harmful (or potentially even a HIPAA violation) on social media or in the hallway where a patient’s family member might overhear.

We need positive, constructive humor and laughter to deal with the profession’s stress and have conversations about what positive, constructive humor looks like. This is a whole discussion. I do a presentation for RN students called Nursing Has 99 Problems, But The Jokes Aren’t One, in which we consider these issues). Still, one simple way to think about constructive humor is to consider punching up versus punching down. Punching down is making fun of someone or a situation with less power than you- making fun of a patient’s use of the call bell is an example. Punching up means satirizing a person or situation who has more power than you. For example, making fun of the healthcare administration’s ridiculous rationalizations for chronically understaffing nurses is punching up. Of course, I’m not saying punching up will never get you in trouble, but it’s the kind of trouble that can advance important conversations.

Oh, and also, please, someone start some initiatives to send creative people with a caring and science aptitude to nursing school. Patients get nurses who are also actors, comedians, or playwrights with other interests but still have the energy to care about their job, and the creative folks get the world’s best day job!

Michele Wojciechowski
Latest posts by Michele Wojciechowski (see all)
Share This