As a standup comedian, you can tell when your material has made the crowd uneasy as quickly as you can tell when its gone over well.
There's a certain skill to creating the perfect amount of tension in the lead-up to a punchline - much like an archer drawing an arrow and preparing to release it at the perfect moment - and if you miss, you know it.
Steve Coombs knew this was going to be a challenge from the moment he decided to work his cancer diagnosis into his standup act.
"It was always this curious thing about how I was going to marry cancer with comedy, and comedy with drama. I tried bringing it up a few times in standup sets and sometimes it went over great, sometimes it didn't go over so well, because you say the cancer word and you can just feel people tense up. You feel that energy, like, 'Oh, he's going to go there,'” Coombs explained.
But cancer was always going to find its way into his standup act, from the moment he was diagnosed. He got the diagnosis in June 2015, at a point in his life where he, having come to standup comedy relatively late, had begun to take it more seriously. Emergency medical tests confirmed a cancerous tumour on his pancreas, and Coombs underwent a seven-hour surgery to remove it, along with parts of his pancreas, intestine, a number of lymph nodes and more. It was a procedure his late sister had undergone 17 years earlier, almost to the day.
Coombs' first thought was of his family, and how he was going to break the news to his parents and to his two daughters, Sarah and Anna. He started making notes in hospital, writing observations on his phone. Personal experiences had always been a big part of his comedic material and he was going to turn this one into a goldmine.
A month after his diagnosis, Coombs learned the cancer was more rare but less aggressive than originally thought, and he was soon given a good prognosis. In 2016, however, it came back, this time in a lymph node. It was removed with another surgery, and he is being followed with regular tests and hormone injections.
Coombs was venturing back on the comedy stage when he had an idea.
"I was reading an article about one of my comedian friends in Montreal, Derek Seguin. He was planning on doing some writing and doing a show, and I thought to myself, this would make a really good Netflix show," Coombs said, picturing a series with throwback scenes to his earlier life. "Here's a guy who started comedy late, had a young family, was just about to leap forward and take the step to a more serious level and along comes cancer. And then who is he supposed to be? That's what I was faced with."
The more he thought about the idea, the more therapeutic it became. He sought advice from filmmaker Deanne Foley, who put him in touch with Andy Jones.
Jones and Coombs spent a day brainstorming ("Getting the papers with his notes on them was like getting liner notes from Elvis," Coombs said), and then Jones connected Coombs with Charlie Tomlinson, the perfect person, he thought, to direct Coombs in a one-man stage show.
The result is "Here and Now," running at the LSPU Hall in St. John's Sept. 24-26.
"I never wanted to write a show about how I beat cancer, because to me, you don't beat cancer," Coombs said. "I didn't want to tempt the karma gods. You don't want to tempt fate because that's when it will come around and tug the rug out from under you again. It was meant to be more of an anecdotal story, to share the experience and help people understand what someone like me went through with it, and maybe it could help people to hear it."
In "Here and Now," Coombs expertly pulls back his arrow. Using images, sound clips and material drawn from life, he succeeds in telling about his journey in a way that's funny, poignant, gripping and deeply personal. Morbid, it's not.
Coombs is revelling in the idea of making a connection with his audience in a way he hasn't before, and a private reading of the show he did last fall proved that to him. He's excited about the idea of breaking down stereotypes of what those living with cancer go through, and considers the show to be a sort of letter of praise to his family and those who have supported him along the way.
He's excited to continue his therapy, to continue finding himself onstage, and still has hopes for a TV project. He would like to tour the stage show across the island and to other parts of the country first.
"Whether this has made me a stronger standup comic, I don't know," he said. "But I think it's made me a stronger person."
Tickets for "Here and Now" are available at the LSPU Hall, online at rca.nf.ca and by calling 753-4531.