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Comedy as a Path to Healing With Dr. Sam Shay

Comedy as a Path to Healing With Dr. Sam Shay
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Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And today, I’m here with Dr. Sam Shay, who in his day job, solves health puzzles for busy entrepreneurs, health-conscious moms, and adults with Asperger’s so that they can exit survival mode and reenter their community. And he has a very personal journey along these lines with overcoming his own struggles, including fatigue, insomnia, addictions, anxiety, gut problems, chronic spinal pain, and much more. And he now works in the functional medicine world and also in the genetic world. But today, we talk about something that he doesn’t talk about as much, which is his stand-up comedy. He uses clean, observational comedy to educate and entertain, specifically around the area of Asperger’s. But we talk about comedy today from the perspective of what it can learn and what it can teach and both of our experience with stand-up comedy is, this is something that I’ve experimented with as well as a way to get out of my comfort zone. So a little bit of a deviation from the normal, strictly health-focused conversation, but I think an important one, and how he says comedy helps us get through tragedy, how art is the receipt for pain, and stand-up comedy is the way to itemize that receipt in public, and how he is using this to help himself and to help others. So let’s join stand-up comic and functional medicine specialist, Dr. Sam Shay. Dr. Shay, welcome. Thanks so much for being here.

Sam: It’s great to see you, Katie.

Katie: Always great to see you and talk to you as well. And I’m really excited for this conversation because we’re going to get to deviate a little bit. We’re going to do two episodes together, but our first one, I’m going to deviate from just the realm of physical health. And we’re going to talk about something that is a personal hobby and passion of mine and even much more so for you because you are much better at it than I am, though I’m still in the process of learning. And that is stand-up comedy. And my listeners may have heard me mention this because every year I challenge myself to do something that is entirely out of my comfort zone. And one of the years it was learning stand-up comedy and performing in front of people, which for anyone who hasn’t done it, for me at least, was right up there with scary things to do, especially the first time you ever do it. I know you have quite the story with this as well. So for background and context, can you share how you got into stand-up comedy and maybe contrast that a little bit with your background and what you were doing, sort of like, quote-unquote, what your day job is?

Sam: Okay, so my day, I’ll do it through the reverse. So my day job is that I’m an online functional medicine practitioner, and I support people, moms and entrepreneurs and adults on the spectrum so that they can exit survival mode and reenter the community. That’s the big overall picture, using functional medicine. And for those, your audience is very familiar with functional medicine. Just my definition, real brief, is functional medicine is using the best of Western medicine diagnostics with the best of natural medicine, lifestyle, and diet interventions. So it’s kind of the estuary. It’s the meeting of salt and freshwater, combining the best of both worlds. And how I got into that is also very similar to how I got into comedy. I was very sick and unwell as a child, and that launched my whole journey. Which we can talk more in detail at another time. But the comedy is very similar, that I got into comedy the same way that most comics get into comedy is through tragedy. And we use comedy as a way to make sense of the world and to navigate fraught situations because, because comedy is, I mean, one of the, one of the ways that I open up with in my sets is like, what is a stand-up comic? It’s a person with a problem who no longer pays for therapy. And my, another way that that’s been said is that art is the receipt for pain. So people’s art is their expression, is how they’re able to metabolize pain.

My addendum to that description, art is the receipt for pain, is stand-up comedy is the way to itemize that receipt in public. So, so when I started out growing up is I had an extremely fraught home environment and school environment. My parents had a nuclear divorce when I was six years old, and both me and all my sisters were caught in the blast radius. And my parents, despite both being psychiatrists, despite maybe because of, I don’t know, this is in the 80s, they did not handle the divorce well at all and did all the wrong things you’re supposed to do as a divorced parent, which was you weaponize a child against the other parent. You use the child as the go-between to answer financial disagreements between you two. I remember being like eight, nine years old and being shuttled between one and the other about financial issues over me instead of these two grown shrinks being able to just pick up the phone and talk to each other, which is both tragic and hilarious, which is also another way to describe stand-up comedy. And there was a lot of gaslighting and emotional abuse at home.

And then at school, there was a lot of physical violence and gaslighting. Willful blindness on the part of the school, the principal, my quote-unquote friends who stood idly by as I was being attacked in plain view. And the thing, and comedy was, I got into comedy because the thing that I could do at home, by myself that had some modicum of fun to it and just be left alone was watch TV. And so, I watched sitcoms. No, I watched sitcoms to understand, what, try to make sense of the world. Now there’s a risk to that. So, like learning, understanding family dynamics through Married with Children is like learning rhetoric from Beavis and Butthead. Like it’s not, there’s risks in watching sitcoms to try to understand your world. But some sitcoms were extremely helpful. Family Matters, and before anyone knew any better about his, about his egregious transgressions, you know, The Cosby Show, was extremely helpful for me to try to understand what it’s like to have a functional family that had their disagreements and their problems, but ultimately all came back together by the end of the episode.

And, and, so comedy was the way I could try to make sense of the world. Also, comedy was, through comedy, I learned the difference between a threat and a joke. And I’ll say that again, the difference between a threat and a joke. And what I mean, I’m being very technical here. And when three larger boys would approach me in school and one of them would say something funny, but only the three of them were laughing, that wasn’t a joke, that was a threat. If they said something and I laughed and we all laughed, then it was a joke. So I also learned that there’s a subtext to how people speak. And the other reality that I share with the audience is that I’m also on the spectrum. And in fact, my stand-up comedy is about talking about what it’s like to be on the spectrum. Back then, no one ever told me what Asperger’s was. It wasn’t really out in the zeitgeist yet. And I didn’t understand social cues. I didn’t understand facial expressions. I didn’t understand how to navigate a social environment, both at home and at school. And humor was, humor was a way that I could start to understand stimulus response and social engagements.

And the other thing was that if I learned to make people laugh in school, they hurt me less. So if that became useful in terms of being funny, as opposed to an outlet for whatever they’re, for whatever the children sometimes just indulge in petty cruelties. And, If I was, if I could make someone laugh, then they didn’t want, then this was something novel as opposed to using me as an outlet for their petty cruelties.

And lastly, humor. Humor was a way to point out painful truths in a way that was palatable. And I think that’s one reason why humor rocketed up to particularly The Daily Show. I mean, The Daily Show, I think, singularly was the most important cultural phenomenon that from, starting in like 2000, 2001, where humor or Jon Stewart basically brought humor, elevated it up to a level of a level, basically as a truth delivery system. And I think at some point, it was like a third. I don’t, I’m going to fudge these statistics. I don’t quite remember. They’re easily looked up-able, you know, something like one-third of all adults under a certain age, got all their entire news from Jon Stewart, you know, at the peak of his fame. So, that’s kind of the origin story. Again, it’s equivalent to the wounded healer archetype in functional medicine. You’ve interviewed so many people in natural medicine. I will guarantee 80-plus percent of them had a wounded healer narrative of some type or another. It’s the same for comedy. It’s exactly the same.

And we use comedy as a way to get shared reality on extremely difficult things that happened in our lives and do it in a way that we now have community, laughter, we have feedback because at the root of almost every trauma is, is separation that, that the root of trauma is the distance from belonging. And laughter is the closest distance between two people. So, laughter is medicine in a very real way because, you know, growing up, I felt very isolated. Now laughter is a way to bring people closer.

Katie: I love that. And you’re definitely right that the majority of people on this podcast do come from a wounded healer perspective. And many of us got into the health world, researching our own issues and trying to find our own answers and then had a desire to share with others. I also think you’re absolutely right that laughter is medicine. And you even hear those stories of people who recovered entirely from really advanced illnesses by just literally watching comedy and laughing every day. And it truly is purpose system medicine, its connection. And I think you’re right, it allows us to touch on our pain in a way that we might our subconscious and our nervous system might otherwise lock down. Laughter is kind of a cheat code to get into that. And I know from conversations with you, that you also have a desire, and I believe we’re even working on a way to use stand-up comedy to help people who are on the spectrum as well. And I love, I love our conversation about this. So if you’re willing, I would love for you to elaborate on that. Because I think this is actually like a much-needed medicine in today’s world.

Sam: Sure. The, I wish someone took 60 minutes with me about 30 years ago to explain what being on the spectrum meant. You know, I’m on my, you know, sliver of it, of Asperger’s, and the, if someone had just taken like an hour, even 30 minutes to just explain to me, hey, kid, look, this is this is your brain. It’s not, your brain was not, does not fit in easily into the world as it is. The world was not built for you. So here your brain is different. So, you’ve got, these couple of superpowers, this buffet of cryptochromes, and here’s what you need to learn and understand in order to adapt to the norme world. Now, comedy comes in because I only found out I had Asperger’s like five years ago. And if someone had shared with me what this was all about, it would have saved me so much drama and trauma and trouble.

And so what I’m doing is I’m using comedy as the vehicle to create and deliver this 30-minute, 60-minute story narrative, this kind of safety package to people on the spectrum and those that love them to help understand what our experience is like, what we can do and how we can better navigate the world. So, I’m using comedy to make the message palatable, and then making social media, using social media, to make it scalable. And then, ultimately, I’ll have a coaching program built on the backend of it to support people on the spectrum and those that love them to make it practical. So, I mean, there’s, you talk about business here on this podcast. It’s like, I’m not sure there’s really any other functional medicine doc out there that’s creating a one-hour comedy special as their lead magnet for the top of their funnel. You know, I’m not sure that’s a thing. So my, and I’m doing it, and I’m creating, I’m creating the comedy. I’m about 45 minutes done with the hour of it. So I’m just finishing, I mean, this next quarter coming up when I study, I study with my teacher, Zoe Rogers here. And I do a class with her writing class twice a year. And so it’s like building it over these past four or five years, just building, building, building.

It’s very much in what we were just describing before, which is the wounded healer, the wounded comic. It’s using the pain to then create something beautiful that can then be shared at scale to prevent, mitigate, or reverse the damage that someone else has experienced in a similar track that you did. And that’s when a healing truly happens is when, my, my thought is like, when is a healer, when is someone truly healed is when one is truly resourced enough that now you can help another reach that place as well. Not just I have resolved my thing, but I’ve helped another person, you know, mitigate, reverse, or prevent the thing from them happening to them in the first place.

Katie: Ooh, I like that definition a lot. And it definitely seems to apply here. I also know from being on a similar journey with comedy myself, that for people listening, thinking like, oh, just an hour, an hour is an eternity when you are doing stand-up comedy, and you can do so much work and think you have so much great material and it’s like five minutes. So, to commend you on that, because I know, and I’m not as far along as you are, but I know what that journey feels like. I would guess some people, not everyone listening probably wants to or is willing to embark on learning stand-up comedy. But for the people who do want to learn, I know I’ve had my own very winding journey of this. And I’m guessing you have as well. How does one even learn? Because I can say from firsthand experience it is not so simple as just getting up on stage and attempting to be funny.

Sam: No, it’s not the Marvelous Mrs. Maisie where you have your day at work, and then suddenly, you’re up there drinking alcohol and just doing a five-minute set super easy. That’s not how this works. Just to give you a sense, comedy is likely one of the most, it’s one of the most egoic, destructive art forms in existence. And the reason why is because, as a comic, you are never the person who determines if your work is done or good. As a painter, you can finish it. As a songwriter, you can finish it. As a poet, you can finish it. But with comedy, there’s that real-time feedback. Do people laugh? Yes or no. And so, it’s one of the most meritocratic ways disciplines out there like you have comics come from literally all walks of life we’re all like running our sets and all, all we want to all we care about, and support is do you make the people laugh, whatever you’re doing, whatever’s going on in your life.

And how to do comedy, there’s a couple of ways. The first one is to just open your ears to comedy, and that means like getting the reps in of listening. I did that as a child all through from a child all the way up through adulthood listening to comedy. And there’s a cadence, a lilt, a beat to it. In fact, there’s an incredible interview of Jon Stewart interviewing George Carlin in the 90s. This was before Jon Stewart was even a thing, like he blasted off on The Daily Show. And George Carlin, I’ve watched that video dozens of times because there’s so much gold in that interview where George Carlin describes that the comedy is less like prose and more like music. You can hear the musicality of it. And for people that are really wanting to learn, I suggest, one, find your three favorite stand-up comics. And I say three specifically because you don’t want to model after one person. You want to create your own. And having three inspirations are very helpful. And just watch them with a studious eye as opposed to just a casual ear.

And there’s other methods as well. I have I put together for your audience a primer. It’s a nine-page document of going through how I think about and write about comedy. And people can just, I’ll give you the link and people can just get that nine-page write up on how to how at least think about and write comedy and includes prompts and everything else. The other is that there’s a bunch of books now on how to write stand-up comedy that are available. Then the best way, in my opinion, is to find a comedy coach where, mine’s Zoe, Zoe Rogers, and she is an actual stand-up comedy instructor. And I’ve studied with her for four coming on five years now. And the best way to learn comedy is to have a writer’s room where you are part of a small group of people and you meet about once a week and you share your material and you get feedback on how to improve. And you have a deadline, meaning there is a show that is imminent in a couple months that you have to perform your three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, whatever it is in front of a live audience. So, there’s that pressure to actually create a final product. And that, to me, has been the single most effective way to really learn how to and perform comedy is having that group accountability with the performance accountability.

Katie: Yes. And to echo what you said, do a five- or 10-minute set when you are learning. And for your first set, do not try to jump into something long because it feels like an eternity when you are up there and a pressure cooker all at once. And it’s exhilarating and amazing and will definitely get you out of your comfort zone. With that said, when do we get to hear the Dr. Sam Shay Special?

Sam: Okay. So as of this recording, I’m applying for the Denver Fringe Festival, and I’ll be applying for an hour slot, I don’t know. Some applications aren’t even open yet. But I have on my YouTube channel, which I’ll also give you the link for, I have a playlist for stand-up comedy. And you get to see a whole bunch of videos. There’s one in particular, the title is called Asperger’s, Physics, and Bears, Oh my. And it’s an 18-and-a-half-minute set I did last year where the first 10 minutes is on what it’s like to have Asperger’s and also what it’s like to live with someone who is even further down. My father is at least a standard deviation or two more on the spectrum than I am. So I was in this very strange place where I was, I wasn’t connecting with the normies. And then I also wasn’t connecting with my father because he was even further down than I am. So I’m in this middle ground where I’m not connecting to anybody. And I talk about that as well because I can empathize with people who are trying to understand what people are like on the spectrum. I actually also get what that’s like, strangely enough. So, so we’ll see once the plan is that if I get onto the stage for that, I’ll have, you know, talk about a deadline, then, that’s a major deadline to get that all put together. And then from there, honestly, like recording comedy, so actually getting a full hour done, but then there’s like doing all the micro polishing and the micro finishing and everything else. That’s why you see comics, they don’t just write an hour and release it. They actually go and do it in multiple crowds over and over, and it takes a lot of time. And then they finally pick a point where they really lock down the show and all the cadence, the liltz, the expressions, the physicalities, everything else. Then, they actually hit the record button for formal distribution. And I have no idea how long that’s going to take.

But what I am doing is releasing parts of it on my channel. So I just finished a set two weeks ago, actually, where it was another seven minutes on Asperger’s, a completely different set of topics, including the history of it. And because one of the things I want to do, Katie, is I want to reclaim the term Asperger’s as a word of pride. And just briefly, for people that don’t know, the term Asperger’s has fallen out of favor to use to describe someone like me on the spectrum. It’s all been subsumed into Autism Spectrum Disorder. I mean, officially it was subsumed, I think it was in the DSM-5 in 2013 before it was deputized in 1991 in the DSM-IV. But Asperger’s was a totally legit term. But what the, the reality is that there’s a lot that’s come up about the history of the name. Dr. Hans Asperger had credible ties to the Nazi party. And that’s why his name has been removed because it has been pulled out of favor because it’s unclear, and there’s two really big debates over whether Doctor Asperger was trying to protect his quote-unquote little professors from being sterilized or exterminated. Or if he was complicit in the Nazis co-opting Dr. Asperger, his own work, to mark these children for sterilization or elimination. And I would have been one of those kids marked for sterilization or elimination. And so then, why would I say, why would I have pride in calling myself an Aspi? It’s because Asperger’s ultimately brought down the Nazis, and I can prove it with three names: Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Turing. All three had Asperger’s. So, to me, it’s kind of like I am Frankenstein’s monster here that we, because of Asperger’s, we brought down the very entity that was trying to destroy us. So that’s why I’m reclaiming it as a mark of pride. And people shouldn’t be ashamed of calling themselves Aspi because regardless of whether Dr. Asperger was complicit or not in how his information, his research was used, we won. And that we should have a lot of pride in.

Katie: I think that’s quite the incredible story that a lot of people don’t know. And I know you’ve mentioned some of your work online and a guide for people who are listening. I’ll make sure those links are included in the show notes. And I will also say, please stay tuned for our next episode that we get to do together, where we get to learn from your other area of genius, which is in the health side. And we’re going to get to go deep on some of those topics.

But I also think what I love about your story is, first of all, that you’ve transformed your pain into something that not just helps you but helps others as well. And also that you so boldly tackled something that was originally out of your comfort zone. I think whether it’s stand-up comedy or whether it’s something entirely different, that’s something we can all learn from. And that’s why I’d like to set that goal every year I do something that absolutely terrifies me because I think that’s one of the ways in which we grow. And when we can expand our comfort zone, we might find new things that become passions or joys or hobbies or loves. So thank you for sharing so much of your story today. And, like I said, all of those links you mentioned will be in the show notes. But any other passing thoughts that you want to leave the audience with related to comedy before we get to dive into the health world?

Sam: Yeah. If you get into stand-up comedy, it’s not just fun. It’s not just therapeutic. It’s not just a way to connect with people, it will also make you a better writer, a better speaker, and a better thinker. Comedy forces, you write out 95, 99% of anything you ever write for comedy is ultimately cut away, and you’re just in what’s left is distilled down in the most important impactful phrases, words, stories. And stand-up comedy has made me such a better thinker.

The other thing I would say is that it’s given a much bigger therapeutic window than I could have ever imagined because of all the terrible things that I’ve ever experienced happened can now be reframed as some trauma to now get over. It’s now material to transmute and share in a way to helps others. And I feel like comedy is one of, it’s one of the best whetstones to sharpen one’s mind, both of things going forward and of what’s happened in the past.

Katie: I love that. I think that’s a perfect place to wrap up for today. But like I said, all those resources will be linked in the show notes at wellnessmama.com if you’re listening on the go. And Dr. Sam, it’s so fun to get to have a conversation with you in general, but also about something that’s not a normal topic for this podcast that hopefully opens some eyes to new areas of exploration. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing so vulnerably and for being here today.

Sam: Thank you, Katie.

Katie: And thanks to all of you for listening. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness in Law podcast series.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.