Meet Luke Ryan – a comedian who survived cancer twice; first at 11 and then again when he was 22. So instead of just waiting around to turn 33, he thought he’d tour the country performing a show called Luke’s Got Cancer – A Comedy, and then write a memoir, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo. (Because that’s what all those brochures in the waiting room say you should do.)
His plan has been to take ‘laughter is the best medicine’ to the next level. Luke’s idea wasn’t to diminish what he or other cancer patients were going through, but to bring it out in the open and get people discussing it and feeling okay to discuss it.
Always a fun assignment, comedy and cancer. So we thought we’d throw a few questions his way.
Hey Luke, so this book is based on your 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Show ‘Luke’s Got Cancer’. Fun topic, naturally. Please explain.
Luke’s Got Cancer was the natural end-point of a creative detonation spurred on by my sheer, unadulterated shittiness at getting cancer again after 11 years in the clear. When I was diagnosed for the second time at the end of 2007, I was really just filled with a burning desire to not let this new prognosis derail my life in any way. One of the most immediate ways I could think of to pay out on that sentiment was to continue on with my still nascent stand-up career and to make it pretty much entirely about cancer.
A whole show about cancer. Wow.
I really cannot overemphasise how insane it was to try and turn my limited success with a 5-minute routine (from the WA 2008 Raw Comedy competition) into a full 50-minute solo show. I still sometimes wake in sweat thinking about it.
Certainly would have been a tricky one to heckle… Okay, so that’s the show. But tell us more about this book – how and why did that come about?
I always had the feeling that there was more to this story than a one-off show, and as my career carried me more towards writing, the idea of its transformation into a book became more and more compelling. Still, these thoughts were very much anchored in the realm of the purely hypothetical when I was approached to write what is now A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo towards the end of 2011.
Approached? Our readers are intrigued.
My editor, Aviva, stumbled across an adaptation of ‘Luke’s Got Cancer’ that I had penned for [bi-monthly magazine] ‘The Lifted Brow’ earlier that year. As always, there is much serendipity in these matters, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to forego that sort of opportunity when it tumbled into my lap.
Love that word, serendipity. Anyway, writing stage material and writing a book are two very different processes. For one, as a comedian you get to test your material on audiences. How’d you go with the book?
I used to think that stand-up audiences could be unforgiving of ill-prepared material. But then I dispatched the first draft of my manuscript to my editor, Aviva. Good Lord. Right there, as they say, is a woman who is unafraid to call a spade a f**king shovel.
Ouch. So she’s that one in the front row hurling tomatoes and yelling, “get off the stage!”…
Obviously all in the pursuit of the greater good! And I am forever indebted to her for persisting through some god-awful early versions of the book. Still, the emotional devastation wreaked by some of her more candid reactions to those early drafts is enough to make stand-up seem like child’s play. With that said, having a backlog of material that I already knew worked as comic anecdote certainly helped provide a framework from which the rest of the book could grow.
So when you were writing the book – and we love asking this one – did you have a writing routine or process that you followed?
During the actual writing of the book I basically discovered that if I didn’t have any other work on, I worked. And if I did, I didn’t. The only thing that really allowed me to give the book the focus it required was physically taking myself out of the city, forgoing all other employment and bunkering down for 1-2 weeks at a time.
Beyond that I am also indebted to the computer program ‘Freedom’ for shutting down my computer’s ability to connect to the internet for hours at a time. And also to my morning coffee for being love itself.
Ah yes, Freedom – the Youtube cat video’s nemesis. And, well, coffee has inspired many a writer. Speaking of inspiration, have any other authors inspired you along the way?
I cannot overstate the help and guidance provided by Benjamin Law at many different stages in this process, both through his own writings, in particular ‘The Family Law’, but also as a personal mentor, on hand to offer advice when the going got tough or I felt particularly lost. Beyond that, there were many whose styles I sought to at least in part emulate across the length of the process: Marieke Hardy, Paul Feig, Spalding Gray, Sloane Crosley and, all too inevitably, David Sedaris.
Nice. Well you also clearly have a great sense of humour. Where do you think this came from? Mother? Father?
Fair enough, the usual genetic trickle-sideways effect then.
Liam is five years older than me, and my entire childhood I followed him around like the most devoted of Branch Davidian members. Liam possesses a natural charisma and comic sensibility the likes of which I still have rarely seen and all my life I’ve been trying in some small way to learn and imitate what he so instinctively owns. Beyond that I can thank my Uncle Ray for introducing us to Looney Tunes and the sheer, unalloyed pleasure of watching a cartoon coyote get crushed by a 50-tonne rock.
Everyone needs an Uncle Ray. And yeah that roadrunner sure rode his luck. Okay, so A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo was released last month (congrats!). So what do you have planned next?
First: a few weeks/months where I try not to answer that question. Perhaps also featuring a stint on a beach drinking cocktails out of a real coconut. Beyond that, I want to look into transforming the book into a 6-episode comedy series, but I guess the likelihood of that happening depends upon people actually reading my book in the first place. So, here’s hoping…
Luke’s book is available to purchase at Booktopia. And if you’re interested in penning your own memoir (life-threatening illnesses are not mandatory), take a look at our brilliant Life Writing course.