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Comedy and HIV: A (Funny) Conversation

August 19, 2015

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Charles Sanchez, the creator and star of <i>Merce</i>.

Charles Sanchez, the creator and star of Merce.

Did you hear the one about the musical comedy with HIV?

When actor and writer Charles Sanchez began writing his web series, Merce, he joined the ranks of a fairly small club: Those of us living with HIV/AIDS who have mined our lives for comedy.

Merce is funny, endearing and has the low-budget appeal of an early John Waters romp. Through several of my early videos for TheBody.com and my blog, My Fabulous Disease, I've also learned that navigating humor and HIV can sometimes be a tricky business. Finding that balance is a worthwhile journey; for many people like Charles and me, humor is a tonic for what ails us.

Charles and I sat down for a free-wheeling conversation about AIDS jokes, Dr. Ruth, butt padding and the joys of skipping.

Congrats on your web series, Charles. I think Merce is adorable, and I hate how patronizing that sounds. It has such loopy joy.

Thanks, pal! I'm really proud of it. And you can patronize me anytime. I never mind a pat on the head.

And let's face it: There's not a lot of comedy produced about living with HIV. And yet Merce has jokes, slapstick and fantasy musical numbers. I like the way you think.

I believe in jokes. Better than Xanax.

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Laughter is the best medicine?

Well, that's hard to say. Penicillin's pretty great. And I sure do like those HIV meds I'm takin'. They're swell. But as far as my favorite mood altering substance, laughter is pretty terrific.

Michael Callen, the original AIDS poster boy, once said something along the lines of "the love of a good man and chocolate brownies" were his secret to health. Even in the 1980s, there was humor as a coping tool. And I definitely relate to the chocolate part.

I did a show with Michael once!

No way. Did he have a strong sense of humor?

He did! He exuded charm. I remember he was VERY skinny, it was 1989 or so, but he was hilarious.

Humor, at least gallows humor, has been around since the earliest days of the epidemic. One of the first AIDS newsletters was Diseased Pariah News. Talking about taking stigma and making bitter lemonade, right?

I love that! One of my first acting jobs out of school was in an HIV/AIDS education show for kids, and we had one scene where this guy dressed up like Dr. Ruth (on his knees!) and showed how to put a condom on a banana.

God bless that woman. David Drake's The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me has a lot of humor, and that was 1994. But nearly every Hollywood depiction shows us as woeful victims. Maybe it became easier when new medications came along in 1996 and we weren't all doomed.

I guess. But there's always room for humor, even in the direst circumstances. I made jokes when I was in the hospital. Those nurses thought my diarrhea jokes were hilarious. I was a hit!

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So you play small rooms, too. You're the consummate entertainer.

I can always find my audience. And the most flattering light.

People still freak out sometimes about the title of my blog, My Fabulous Disease. Being cheeky is a tightrope sometimes.

I understand that. I had someone say to me that they thought it was terrible that I was "making fun" of HIV. I don't think I'm doing that, by the way. But so what? I'm not going to apologize for having a sense of humor about any aspect of my life.

I'm right there with you. A lot of my earliest video blogs for TheBody.com were meant to be funny. I once did a ridiculous scene showing off my padded butt shorts for people with wasting. If people were offended, they didn't say so.

I love that video! We got to see you bent over a lot! One of the great things God did: He made butts both sexy and hilarious.

Like butts matter to you.

How dare you!

I remember the first AIDS joke I ever heard, back when the only thing we knew was that this strange new disease was affecting gay men and people from Haiti. It went, "The worst thing about getting AIDS is convincing your parents that you're Haitian." At the time I thought it was hilarious, I even repeated it. I guess I still admire it as a well-constructed joke. Does that make me a terrible person?

No! I think it's funny.

It was funny, before things got bad. And then it wasn't. And now maybe it is funny again. I guess it's true that comedy is actually tragedy plus time.

That's what I've heard. I don't always master the time part.

I suppose any joke that begins "two guys with HIV walk into a bar ..." probably won't end very well.

I'll work on it and get back to you. I'm imagining a joke about Kaletra and lack of toilet paper....

Oh my. My doctor told me, when I started Kaletra, to always carry extra underwear and a zip lock bag with me. I should have just worn the zip lock bag.

I referred to it as having poops-a-daisy!

Leave it to you to make having the runs adorable.

I do what I can!

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My Fabulous Disease


Mark S. King has been an active AIDS activist, writer and community organization leader since the early 1980s in Los Angeles. He has been an outspoken advocate for prevention education and for issues important to those living with HIV.

Diagnosed in 1985, Mark has held positions with the Los Angeles Shanti Foundation, AID Atlanta and AIDS Survival Project, and is an award-winning writer. He continues his volunteer work as an AIDS educator and speaker for conferences and events.

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