Two masks. One is happy, one looks sad.

Is it Okay to Make Jokes About Your IBD?

If you’d told me when I was 15 that I’d one day write a comedy show about Crohn’s disease I would have thought you were crazy.

Looking back at my diagnosis, all I see is a blur of needles, tubes, terror and pain, followed by the death of my social life. Let’s face it, IBD is not exactly a bunch of chuckles.

So how did I end up creating a comedy show about it in my 30s, and why do I think it’s okay to find humor in something so depressing and serious?

Well, let’s talk about comedy

If you think that comedy is the opposite of serious, then you don’t really get comedy.

Yes, there are comedies that make no attempt whatsoever to engage with the serious side of life (Dude, where’s my car?), but I would argue that the very best comedies are the ones which engage directly with the most serious themes. Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Life is Beautiful, Dr. Strangelove, Life of Brian: these are all films which regularly end up on all-time best comedy lists. Their themes are racial discrimination, Nazis, the Holocaust, nuclear war, and the crucifixion. Not exactly a bunch of chuckles either, or so you’d think.

Comedy often comes from uncomfortable places

Similarly, if you enjoy watching stand-ups like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, or Sara Silverman, then you already know that the biggest and deepest laughs often come from the most uncomfortable places. The genius of these comedians is that they can take us to these places in a way that makes us feel exhilarated.

So you definitely can make jokes about serious things, if you have the courage and skill to make the attempt.

But is it okay to do so?

Let’s consult some ancient wisdom on that question.

For centuries, the number one authority on anything to do with language, science, ethics or morality was the Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle. He literally wrote the book on just about everything: from art, theatre, and medicine to science, philosophy, and theology. So he’s kind of a big deal.

Aristotle’s view on comedy was that it was much like a tragedy. It performed the same function, it just went about it in a different way. Whether you are wearing the tragic mask or the comic mask as a performer, your mission on stage is the same: to bring the audience to a moment of “catharsis”.

This old Greek word is so powerful and important that we have kept it in our language since Aristotle’s time without diluting or altering its meaning. It’s an incredible word. It means a purging of the emotions leading to a feeling of purification. Tragedy achieves catharsis by bringing an audience to tears. Comedy achieves it through laughter.

As the poet William Blake noted, these two emotional responses - laughter and tears - are actually very close together. So much so that, as he puts it: “excess of joy weeps, excess of sorrow laughs”.

In other words, we laugh till we cry (and sometimes snort milk out of our noses) and we cry till we laugh, although that second part often takes a little longer, hence the more modern expression: “comedy is tragedy plus time”.

We often dismiss this moment of catharsis if it happens to us during something we consider “entertainment”, like a concert or a comedy show, but if it happens to us on a therapist’s couch we call it what it is: a breakthrough. Laughter is a breakthrough.

And what does laughter break through? It breaks through fear.

Laughter is a weapon against fear

To me, one of the worst things about living with IBD is the fear. It’s the dread of what might happen when you leave the house. The anxiety that accompanies you every moment you are more than thirty seconds from a toilet. IBD is like an ankle bracelet that keeps you under house arrest. It’s like the school bully who follows you into adult life and keeps shaking you down for your lunch money. I’m sure you’ve tried standing up to it, but have you ever tried laughing at it?

Some people say you can’t be afraid when you’re laughing. It’s not quite true, you can. But whereas fear paralyzes us in the very moment we should act, laughter works as a kind of defibrillator which shocks us into consciousness. It brings us fully into the present moment, which is the only place we can change our lives. Laughter is empowering.

So make jokes about your IBD

Ridicule it. Belittle it. Spin it into comedy gold. Use the power of language to liberate yourself from fear.

Just remember to draw your comedy from your own personal experiences. That's where the power and the funny is, and that's where your authority to make jokes comes from. If it happened to you, you own it, and you can joke about it.

Who knows, you might even make a career out of it.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.