Is HIV a Laughing Matter?

A Report from the First Comedy Contest for HIV Positive People in New York

It's a Wednesday evening at Stand-Up New York, a comedy club on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and the occasion is the first-ever comedy contest for people with HIV and AIDS.

When Stand-Up New York's Bob Anzelowitz first thought of the contest, he wasn't entirely sure it was an idea whose time had come. Sure, the club already crowned "The Funniest Rabbi," "The Funniest Gay or Lesbian," and "The Funniest Dentist," but this was different. Would people with HIV be offended?

Anzelowitz took the idea to his friend Sean Strub, founder and executive editor of POZ magazine. Strub was enthusiastic, and POZ signed on as a sponsor, providing publicity and the services of staff member Dominic Hamilton-Little (the lovely "Fey Ways") as emcee. The evening was organized as a benefit for Momentum AIDS Project.

The contestants are all new at this, and their enthusiasm is mixed with nervousness as they wait their turns at the mike. But each is here because he has found in humor a way to deal with the stresses of his disease, and a way to reach out to others.

Orlando Torres is a 33-year-old construction contractor who was diagnosed seven years ago. "Being able to laugh at myself," he says, "helps keep my mind off the more dismal side of the virus. It can be very scary. If you keep a happy frame of mind, just kind of go with it, you don't kind of worry so much."

For "D.J. Positive One," entering the contest was the next step in fighting the epidemic, an involvement that predates his own diagnosis. At age 42, he is a recovering addict who began working as a substance abuse counselor over seven years ago. As he saw many of his old friends die, and as he counseled other people about the need to get tested, he began to think about the risky behavior in his own past. He tested positive two years ago.

D.J. Positive One uses his humor in his work. He acts as the deejay at Body Positive's heterosexual socials and does presentations at other agencies, even using pretend "talk shows" in waiting rooms to talk about condom use. To him, comedy is "another venue that we can go into. Everybody can't be a peer counselor."

Orlando Roman, 36, has been HIV-positive for eleven years, and this is the first time he has tried stand-up comedy about AIDS. "A gay male with AIDS is probably the last person someone would expect to be a comedian, but I think we probably could be the funniest people on earth. Because we can face death." And it's a chance to put his own face on the epidemic: "On TV, it's all women and straight white males."

He points to the many people with AIDS who have turned to acupuncture and other alternative therapies. "I think laughter is a piece of it, an enlightenment. There were times when it wasn't, but after eleven years, it tends to grow on you."

Not surprisingly, condoms figure prominently in the evening's entertainment. Orlando Torres, impersonating Rodney Dangerfield doing an "It isn't easy being safe" routine, peppers the audience with condoms and dental dams. D.J. Positive One displays the contents of the "biohazard kit" he received when he was diagnosed. It contains every kind of condom imaginable -- male, female, panty-style, "kiss-of-mint" -- and yes, the big plastic bag is labeled "biohazard."

For Robert Cullen, the contest also offered the opportunity to face a non-HIV fear. People had always told him he was funny, that he ought to put it on the stage. So a couple of years ago he did, at an Narcotics Anonymous picnic at Orchard Beach. He bombed.

Cullen was nervous about being rejected again, but allowed himself to be persuaded. He brought with him two cheering sections, one from NA and one from his support group. And this time he didn't bomb. When the evening ended, he had been named The Funniest HIV-Positive Person in New York.

He knows firsthand the loneliness and the fear that HIV can bring. In 1992, he was hospitalized with PCP and herpes, then "caught" a stroke. ("I don't recall grabbing onto it, but they said I caught it.") Three of his hospital roommates died, leaving him alone in the four-person room, convinced that he was next.

To Cullen, the important thing is making people happy. Much of his act was not even HIV-related, consisting of one-liners about his childhood ("When I was a baby, I was so ugly I had to trick-or-treat by phone.") and his years on the streets. When he's able to make people feel good, he says, it makes him feel good.

The small club was filled to capacity with a mix of contestants' cheering sections, supporters from POZ and Momentum, and some comedy club regulars. The audience was not only receptive, but supportive of both their own friends and the other performers.

D.J. Positive One has been to comedy clubs where jokes were made about HIV, but in a negative way. Tonight was different, he says, because people weren't presented as stereotypes, and because the audience was made up mostly of people infected or affected by the virus.

As POZ's Strub put it, "I felt so much love from the audience. They were so supportive, it was as moving to me as the comedy. It was a really safe space with a mixed group of people -- gay white boys, people of color, women."

What about the concern that people might be offended? Strub reminds us that there has been a tradition of humor in HIV from the beginning of the epidemic, and "Everything you do is going to offend someone. Some of the humor was on the edge, but that makes for a gripping comedy event."

Among the contestants, the verdict was unanimous. They had a wonderful time, and they're all eager to do it again. "Funniest" Cullen, at 50, had never won anything before. To D.J. Positive One, "This whole thing was an experience. I've always wanted to do it. You never know how much time you have, so you might as well!"

But most of all, to everyone involved, the common thread is the healing power of laughter. As Cullen points out, "I wasn't laughing when I was living in abandoned buildings. I believe it's a gift."

Emcee Hamilton-Little thinks it's about time we started laughing out loud in the face of the epidemic. "I started laughing about HIV, I think, the minute I found out that I was positive. Because you have to laugh about it. There is nothing in life that is all grief or all anger or all sadness, or even all joy! And to suggest that this can only be approached in fear, reverence, hesitation, awe, and anger I think is incredibly childish. And sad. Laughter sustains us more than anything else. I think it's more important than prayer. It is prayer, I think, for me."

"If we didn't laugh, I think we might just all go mad."

The first Funniest HIV-Positive Person in New York Contest raised approximately $500 for the Momentum AIDS Project. Stand-Up New York (236 West 78th Street, 212-595-0850) is open daily from 6:30 p.m.

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