Anybody who has been to a comedy show knows that sitting in the front makes you an easy target.
But that didn’t bother Corie-Jay Belinsky. The 52-year-old cancer survivor was in the front row at Hope and Cope’s Cancer Wellness Centre on Thursday afternoon when comedian Vladimir Caamano asked her a seemingly innocent question: “What’s your name?”
Caamano was explaining how his brother, a “suave” salsa instructor, was teaching him how to date and used Belinsky as an example.
Belinsky answered “CJ,” short for Corie-Jay. Caamano profusely complimented her: “That’s a beautiful name, that’s a gorgeous name. … That’s your name? My god.”
He quickly followed that up with a dry: “That’s the first move.”
The crowd erupted in laughter — and it wouldn’t be the last time.
For an afternoon, comedians Caamano, Godfrey, Ryan Hamilton, Gina Yashere and Jimmy Carr erased fears of pain, relapse and uncertainty in a crowd of around 85 past and present cancer patients, and replaced those fears with laughter, cheerful chatter and sore cheeks.
“When you see these people belly-laughing and people crying, and you know for those two hours they weren’t thinking about (chemotherapy), they weren’t thinking about their pain … to me that’s the best gift I can give anybody,” said Jodi Lieberman, co-founder of Comedy Gives Back, a social benefit company based in the United States.
Comedy Gives Back has been producing this show for the past four years in collaboration with Just for Laughs, but it all started with Australian comedian Adam Hills in 2011. He became acquainted with a Hope and Cope staff member during one of his solo shows in Montreal and decided to organize a show for the patients.
Lieberman said she and her partners Zoe Friedman and Amber J. Lawson told Hills they would continue this tradition even if he wasn’t performing at JFL, and added this is her “favourite day of the festival.”
“(You) realize the power of laughter in the healing process,” she said.
There’s a reason why it’s a cliché that laughter is the best medicine. Belinsky said she felt like a five-year-old at Christmas. Her love for comedy was amplified after undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer in 2016.
“I’ve been through the worst,” she said. “My cancer is one that likes to come back. You need to live with that. (S0) if you have a chance to laugh, you got to take it.”
The experience of watching a comedy show at Hope and Cope’s Cancer Wellness Centre is much different than watching one at Club Soda. The setting is much more intimate — not to mention that the show takes place during the daytime. More importantly, Belinsky noted that the comedians know their audience is “special.”
“They know there’s a theme,” she said, referring to the fact that everyone in the room has struggled with cancer.
While some comedians talked about family members battling cancer, Carr was the only one to overtly poke fun at cancer itself, beginning his set by declaring: “We better get on, we don’t have much time.”
He paused and added: “Well, I do.” Laughter filled the room once more, along with a degree of uneasiness. Carr warned them that the joke was nothing compared to the rest of his set.
Belinsky said she enjoyed Carr’s cancer jokes, adding that the subject can be funny and tiptoeing around it would be weird.
The laughter in the room forged a bond between past and present patients, whether they knew each other well or not. Carr summed it up best: “My favourite quote about laughter is that it’s the shortest distance between two people, that it connects people.”