Mara Wiles on her return to comedy following a kidney transplant
Comedian Mara Wiles hasn't had it easy the last few years. After establishing herself as an intelligently goofy performer on the local comedy scene, she was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening kidney disorder that, to say the least, interrupted her ascending career as a standup. And Denver's comedy community, which had grown to know her so well, came to her aid with old-school, pass-the-hat donations taken at regular events, as well as several standup benefits that brought together the best performers our city has to offer. Now home from the hospital after her recent kidney transplant (special thanks to Jessica Anderson for her selfless donation) Wiles chatted with us about about how her illness prevented her from working, saying goodbye to Ladyface, and why Denver comedians are so loyal.
Westword: I'm sure I'm about the zillionth person to ask you this, but how are you feeling?
Mara Wiles: I'm feeling great, actually -- and I don't mind you asking that, it's better than telling people I feel like shit. I could feel a change right after the surgery. But I still have to take it easy for the next few weeks; my immune system is low and I can't really be around people. And that's hard, because I really want to go out.
I can imagine, especially for a comedian. You guys live for the nightlife.
Yeah, since I found out about needing the kidney transplant I'd been trying to go out to as many shows as possible, but I really can't that much. Not as much as I should be, definitely not hitting open mics as much as other people are. Whenever I got booked for anything, I'd have to come home right after. And then when winter hit, I pretty much only did the [Arguments and Grievances] debate show once a month. Maybe sneaking myself onto Too Much Fun every once in a while.
Jessica Anderson (left) and Mara Wiles before their kidney transplant surgery
What are you looking forward to doing the most once you're feeling better?
Writing. I didn't realize it until halfway through my treatment, but one of the side effects of kidney disease is cloudy thoughts. So I haven't been working with my brain for, like, six months. You don't think straight, you get tired easily, nothing comes like it used to. It's like walking through a fog. At my job, things that I used to do easily were a struggle -- for a while I just thought I was getting dumber as I got older.
I'm really excited to get back into writing again, because the jokes I wrote while I was sick felt forced, they weren't my tone, there was no insight. So I'm going to take the next few months to get healthy, get back to feeling like a person, and write as much as possible. I want to get into some new things with sketch comedy.
I think you spoke with Kristin Rand about this, but Ladyface has disbanded during all this stuff. Kristin and I are going to be doing some kind of sketch show together, and that's what I'll be focused on. And getting my standup back to where it needs to be.
What was it like having to decrease the amount of events you could do, while at the same time the comedy community came to your aid with benefit shows?
I get emotional just talking about it, but it was really hard. When you don't feel like yourself, you go to a dark place. I had burned it at both ends for a long time, but I loved it. I loved going out, loved performing, love my comic friends, but at some point it was too much for me. I was just so tired. Sitting back watching all my friends do these amazing shows, I felt bitter.
The comedy community has been outstanding in every way. I felt so embraced by everyone. I feel lucky, because starting standup is never easy, but I gained a really good peer-group right way with Kevin [O'Brien], the Fine Gents, Grawlix -- they're all awesome. So I already felt supported as a comic, but when push comes to shove, comics are going to be the most loyal people you'll ever meet. The show last October was amazing; pretty much every comic I've ever done a show with was there. People donated their time, they brought food to me. They don't have a lot of money, and they're tossing in twenties to help me pay my medical bills.
Comedy Works has been taking up collections at the new talent night. And the creative community has been real supportive too; Buntport took up a collection, Propaganda took up a collection, and I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. Stuff like this has renewed my faith in people.
Did you have health insurance throughout this?
I had my own health insurance, but when I first went to the hospital in April, they dropped me, and then I couldn't get covered because it was a pre-existing condition. I eventually got covered by the state but there was a large period where I wasn't. And my insurance covered some chemo, but not all, same with lab tests and medication. I have Medicare now, and that's taken care of a good chunk of it.
It's all very confusing. The reason medical insurance is so screwed up in this country is because they give the most confusing paperwork to the people who are sick and not thinking straight. That's when you need people to help you out. Before the surgery, I probably had around $20,000 in medical bills, and we've raised about $15,000 so far.
Beyond all the money raised, you had a friend donate a kidney to you.
Yes, she was my best-friend growing up -- her name is Jessica Anderson. She lives in L.A. We were friends since we were ten, then college roommates, all that good stuff. It was an extra blessing getting it from someone I love and respect so much. She's been so graceful throughout this entire process.
That was another thing: I was kind of expecting close family members and friends to look into donation, but through my blog I was contacted by several people who I was just close acquaintances with, who were putting their name on the list. I was so moved that someone I hardly knew was willing to do that. And they were comics and performers in Denver.
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