For over ten years, Deacon Gray has mentored young comics as the New Talent Coordinator at Comedy Works. Under his stewardship, the scene has flourished, with hundreds of new comics flooding the stage, eager to test their mettle and benefit from Gray's experience. One of the blessings of a career in standup is being part of the small but fiercely loyal community of comics sharing the same journey; when one of our own is down, the shock reverberates through the scene and comedians scramble to help out. So when Gray was diagnosed with oral cancer in December, the local scene scrambled for ways to help, from hosting benefit shows and passing around donation buckets to help deal with Gray's expenses, to offering him rides to and from the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in a tremendous outpouring of support. Now that the course of Gray's treatment is mostly completed and recovery is within sight, he's ready to take the stage again and will do so in grand fashion this Sunday, March 1, at "The Answer to Cancer: A Comedy Roast," an evening of cathartic entertainment featuring a dais full of Denver's best comics and cancer itself in the hot seat, all in Gray's home club, Comedy Works. In advance of this showcase, Westword caught up with Gray to discuss the final stages of his treatment, returning to the stage after such a long absence, and his gratitude for Obamacare and the health-care professionals who treated him.
Westword: So, you did Freak Train last night to warm up? Was that your first set back?
Deacon Gray: That’s the first time I’ve been onstage since my birthday, which was December 29.
Oh man. So compared to since you started doing standup, has that been your longest stretch you’ve gone with getting up onstage?
Yeah, that was a long time.
Was that one of the more frustrating parts of going through this treatment?
Definitely. Feeling like I couldn’t get onstage because my voice would give out, or I would start choking.
One of the biggest problems I had was what they call mucositis, which meant I always had a tons of like, bile in my throat.
Enough to choke on.
I couldn’t sleep at night. There were nights when I’d sleep like an hour or half an hour and I’d have to get up and clear my throat. So the last couple weeks were really hard. But now I’m two weeks out and things are drying up. The only thing that’s frustrating now is that I can’t eat yet. I’m still on a feeding tube because my tastebuds haven’t come back So everything I eat still tastes kinda meh. But man, I am craving food.
It’s got to be rough to still have your olfactory senses taunting you.
Oh, yeah. Everything else works great. It’s just that I can’t taste anything. I keep trying stuff, like I have a whole refrigerator full of little soft foods, and every morning I try something. It’ll be like, “Maybe I can do pudding?” and then it still tastes like crap.
Do you have any idea what the recovery window for that will be?
They said two to four weeks. I’m at two weeks, so now it’s just waiting, you know? It’s so frustrating. I’m eating a plain slushy right now. Thank God for Sonic, they’ve kept me hydrated throughout this whole thing.
Their slushed ice does have a certain consistency.
It’s perfect. It fools my throat completely. It just slides down and it’s so good.
There’s an unexpected endorsement.
The people at Sonic must be freaking out because I buy like four of them at a time. They’ve gotta be like, “Who’s that guy who’s always getting the plain slushies?” It’s the consistency that makes it so good. I’ve got two more of these in my freezer, and I’ll get some more on my way to the clinic tomorrow.
So, how’d it feel to perform again last night? Did it feel like people were happy to see you back?
It went really, really well. I was running cancer-specific material.
I was going to ask, how much material have you been sitting on, having it burning a hole in a hole in your jokebook?
I did about six minutes last night and it was all cancer jokes. I’m pretty happy with them and I have other ideas that I need to explore for a bit, but I’m pretty happy with where it’s going. The hard part is convincing people that it’s gonna be funny.
That it’s okay for them to laugh?
When I come out and say, “Hey, let’s all laugh at cancer!” people are all like “whaaat?” It’s a hard topic to broach. Once they realize that you’re not being disrespectful, that you’re not trying to make light of people with cancer —because I’m definitely not— they tend to go along. And the people who’ve gone through it —which is a lot of people— they really appreciate it. They came up to me after the show and told me, “You kind of took the sting out of it.” That’s what I’m hoping to do with these jokes and this show.
Did writing the jokes help take the sting out it for you?
Everything helped. Everything helped. I was lucky. I didn’t have a very —I don’t even know how to say this— I didn’t have a very bad form of cancer. I mean, all cancer is bad, but compared to some of the people that I would see at the cancer center, it wasn’t that bad. I’m sure that everybody who goes to the cancer center does that. The first week I was there, I sat down on a bench next to a guy who had liver cancer, which is the same kind that killed Bill Hicks. And he was positive. He told me, “Things are going great!” — and meanwhile, he’s got nine months to live. Liver cancer is one of the worst kinds, you know? But he’d seen someone who had it worse than him, so he thought, “Okay, compared to that guy, I’m doing good.”
It’s like the opposite of how comedians think.
It really is. But there were a lot of things that made me think I had it light. I didn’t have to put on a robe because they were only treating my throat, so just a T-shirt was fine.
You posted some pictures of that weird futuristic mask you had to wear for treatments.
I’m bringing the mask to the show on Sunday. You know how during a roast the roastee is on stage the whole time? So I’m going to put the mask in a chair and then I’m going to have an IV bottle draining into. I may even write “two drink minimum” on the bottle.
But yeah, compared to other people, I feel like I got off easy. Obviously, it’s not something I’d want to go through again. Hopefully I’m past it now.
It’s hard to say for sure, right?
Well, the kind I had, they say oral cancer, but specifically it was cancer of the tonsil. It’s one of the few types where after two years of me going in for check-ups once a month, if there’s no recurrence, they’ll be able to say I’m cured. With a lot of forms of cancer, you can’t really say it’s ever “cured.”
Yeah, usually remission is the best you can hope for. So, does it give you some peace of mind to know that there’s that possible goalpost in the future?
Yeah. And the fact that they just took one tonsil, and there was no sign that cancer had spread to the other tonsil or my tongue and throat, that gave me a lot of hope. We caught it very, very early.
Part of the focus of Sunday’s show is to draw some attention to health-care professionals, right?
You know, the whole time that they were taking care of me I was trying to think of ways that I could do something for them. Because, God, just the infinite patience these people have, and the tenderness and care that they give you is unbelievable. I’ve been wanting to do something for those guys so badly. That’s why the show’s on Sunday. Most of them work Monday through Friday, so it’s a chance for them to go out. It’s early enough —the show’s at 7 — so they can come see the show and still be home by 9 p.m. I’m hoping a lot of them come. They sent an e-mail to all the Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, so I’m hoping we get a lot of medical people. I can’t do enough for them. On my last day, I took slushies in for all the radiologists.
Yeah, they got good ones. Strawberry, grape. I brought cupcakes to everybody on my last day of chemo. I’m so grateful for them. Here’s another sort of strange thing: This is the first time I’ve ever written a letter to a standing president.
If it hadn’t been for Obamacare, I would’ve been screwed. Totally screwed. Having it just made it affordable and easy for me.
Comedians don’t typically get a lot of benefits.
Actually, this is the first time in my life as a comedian that I’ve had any healthcare. It’s so amazing. If you know anyone who says, “Obamacare sucks,” you can tell them it literally saved my life. So yeah, I wrote a letter to Mr. Obama to thank him very, very much.
So, who do you have lined up for Sunday night?
It’s still evolving, but I can give you the basics. It’s gonna be hosted by Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, who’s had his own struggles with cancer. George McClure, Phil Palisoul and Nora Lynch had family members with cancer. Ben Roy has been great, and we just added Adrian Mesa. We may add Rick Bryan because he's been through treatment. I tried to get comics who had some connection to it, people that have had cancer touch their life in some way.
How’s the roast format going to work?
It’s supposed to be a roast format, but we’re roasting cancer so it’s not traditional. Usually at a roast, you’re roasting each other. I’m sure some potshots will be taken, but the main focus of the night is to put on a good show for the medical people. Not just them, anybody who has gone through cancer, either as a patient or if they had a family member with it, the show’s for them, too. I’ve had a lot of people contact me saying, “My dad had throat cancer and I’m bringing him to the show.” We just want to take the sting out of it, show support and I hate to say “inspire people,” but we can at least try to show them that there’s hope and there’s life after this diagnosis.
That catharsis must be so important. To be able to laugh when you’re terrified?
Yeah, that’s definitely it. You know, the first week was the hardest for me. I got the diagnosis on December 2. That was the hardest week because you’re so scared, you can’t stop worrying about how it’s gonna go. Eventually, you get to point where you realize, “I have no choice here, so I’ve gotta make the best of this.” Hopefully.
It all happened pretty fast for you too, right?
Yeah, December 2 was the diagnosis and by December 8, I went in for surgery and they took the tonsil out — less than a week after the diagnosis. Like I said, I was lucky. After the initial bad news, everything I’ve heard since then has been positive. It’s only in one tonsil. It’s not in your throat. Your chemotherapy isn’t as heavy as it normally is, so it won’t effect you so much. You’re not going to lose your hair. You don’t need as much radiation treatment, so you’ll only be on the bench for about five minutes. The Rocky Mountain Cancer Center where I went, the one out in Aurora, is apparently where they send lots of prisoners. Like if they’re in jail and they have cancer they have to go there. So I’d show up, and the first time I’d realized that there was an armed guard outside the radiation room, and then another guard showed up to escort a guy who was in a robe with a walker, and he’d been in there getting radiation for like twenty minutes, so it had to have been something really invasive. I kept thinking, you know, this guy is not a flight risk, I don’t know why they need two guards. This guy’s not going anywhere. Another time, there was a lady in an orange jumpsuit getting chemotherapy, sitting there still shackled and a guard standing behind her. I’m trying to figure out how to make a joke out of it.
Nothing like freedom to keep you grateful.
They tell you that attitude is everything. One of the radiologists told me that they had two people come in the same week with the same diagnosis, pretty much the same age, profile and treatment. But one of them had a good attitude and one of them had a terrible attitude. The person with a good attitude went through with almost no side effects and the person with the bad attitude just broke down time after time. Hope is such an important part of this. A positive outlook can mean so much, so if we can help somebody find that, then I feel like we’re doing a good deed.
You were back at work pretty soon.
I only missed one Tuesday, and that was the week after my surgery. The hard part being back was every week when the schedule would come out for the opening comics and not having my name on there. I had old friends coming into town and I knew I couldn’t even go see them, much less perform with people I’d normally be working with. That was really rough. I’m still not really signing up yet, it’ll probably be another week or two. I want to get where I’m eating. As soon as I get the tube out of my belly, then I think I’ll really start going back at it again. The other hard part is that standup comedy is kind of like a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it, it’ll atrophy.
You’re worried about getting your sea legs back.
I’m worried about stage chops and missing my timing and stuff like that. I know it’ll come back, but right now it’s just rough. So is trying to write jokes that aren’t about cancer.
It’s got to make a lot of other premises seem pretty frivolous.
Here’s a weird thing. I probably have about twenty minutes of pot material, but I’m officially an ex pot-smoker now. It seems like smoking anything right now is tempting fate. It seems hypocritical because smoking pot isn’t what gave me cancer.
But you don’t want to aggravate anything.
Now I get mad when I see comics smoking cigarettes. Not pot, but if I see them smoking cigarettes, I just want to go up and slap it out of their mouth. If I had been a smoker or if I had been a drinker, my prognosis would not have been as good. They gave me an 85 percent success rate, but if I’d been a smoker or drinker, it would have been at around 50 percent, so why even tempt that? Nothing against marijuana, I’ll probably still do some edibles. In fact, early on in the treatment, I was doing tincture — the Dixie Elixir Dew Drops. Just three drops were enough to calm my stomach down so I could eat. Those drops were fantastic in the early stages before I had the feeding tube. Even the Doc said, “Anything that helps your appetite or calms your stomach is fine.” But I doubt I’ll ever go back to smoking the way I was.
Was it helpful to continue running New Talent Night every Tuesday?
I didn’t miss any Tuesdays, which was huge for me. It made me feel connected still. I was mostly just staying home a lot, so if I hadn’t had Tuesdays I wouldn’t have had anything to look forward to.
Is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we wrap up?
One thing I want to make sure we include are the two best things to come out of this experience for me, personally. How everybody rallied around me was just, wow. I’ve never felt so loved in my entire life. I want to thank everybody who gave me a ride to the clinic because I would have had to take the bus out to Aurora for every treatment, but people lined up to give me rides. Terri Barton-Gregg housed me for a couple weeks after my surgery, she put me up in her house and took care of me. Nora Lynch set up the give forward account which provided funds early on. Wende Curtis has been great, and they’ve been raising funds at the club for me; that took away all my concerns. For a while, I was afraid I would lose my apartment, but because of the fundraising all I’ve had to worry about is getting better. So that was amazing. My comedy family did more for me than my actual family.
The second part is kind of tied to that, but I feel like it kind of validated my job. I’ve been New Talent Coordinator for ten and a half years, and I often asked myself, “What am I doing? Am I just running a glorified open mic? Am I helping anybody?” So to have so many people come out and tell me that they feel like I helped them is really validating in a lot of ways. I am doing something. I think a lot of teachers maybe go through this, too, where they don’t find out until down the road that they were successful. So those have been the two best things, feeling like I really have helped people, and then feeling all their love coming back to me. That’s a big reason why I want to give back to the people who’ve helped me.
The show begins at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 1, at Comedy Works downtown. Tickets cost $12 on Comedy Works' website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.