And welcome to pozcast, the show that puts the positive in podcasting. Our program is created by and for people living with HIV. And we're here to explore HIV research in ways that matter. We're accurate, but not clinical. We want to hear and tell stories about what new research means for us, for our health, our love lives, and our relationships. We're based in Toronto, but global in outlook and we're produced at the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions of St. Michael's Hospital, by Universities Without Walls. We're pozcast, and we're bringing HIV research to life. Today, you'll hear the views and ideas of our pozcast guests, and while we respect their expertise, they do not reflect the views of St. Michael's Hospital, or Universities Without Walls. I'm your host James Watson, a person living with HIV and a community based research coordinator. I'll be your guide for today's journey into HIV research. As a person living with HIV, I'm often mocking HIV and engaged in gallows humor with my friends. I think it's healthy for a person living with a stigmatized condition to own their narrative and turn it on its head and throw it back into the world in a way that suits them. There's power in humor. And in this episode, we're going to explore that power, and in particular, the power of stand up comedy to fight stigma, and its potential as a therapeutic tool. My guests today are James Tison, a queer HIV positive gender non binary stand up comic and actor out of New York City and David Granirer, a counselor, author stand up comic, and founder of Stand up for Mental Health, a program for teaching stand up comedy to people with mental health issues. Let's chat first with James Tison. James studied theater at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts at the Atlantic acting school. And after graduating in 2009, they dabbled in stand up comedy and improv. But it wasn't until 2018 that James dove into the stand up scene head on, and has been killing it ever since. They can be seen in clubs all over New York's comedy scene, and pretty much every Brooklyn gay bar with a stage and a microphone. James is also a vocal advocate for comedy spaces that support women, and LGBTQ plus comics. So let's start with a laugh.
[stand up comedy event recording begins] But no, I'm undetectable it means you can't detect the virus in my system. I can't give it to anybody, even. I can ejaculate inside each and every one of you and you wouldn't catch anything more than a good time. Yup [cheering and applause] and herpes. Scientists still chasing after herpes. [stand up comedy event recording ends]
James Tison. So welcome to pozcast.
Hello. Hello. So I want to know a little bit about your personal journey. So you're queer, you're HIV positive, you're gender non binary.
A real triple threat.
[laughter] A real triple threat. Yes. you explore all of these very personal aspects of yourself on stag and through stand up no less. I mean, you know, that's, I mean, how did you get to a place where you could be so vulnerable in an environment that's so, well, can be so brutal, and unforgiving?
Going through sobriety actually kind of helped with that. Also, I've been—I'm 32 and I've been performing in New York for 14 years now, so it just gets to a point where I don't know I don't have a good filter. I never had a good filter. So between going through the rigmarole of like, group therapy and stuff that comes along with getting sober from alcohol. I feel like I'm constantly at like a, an overshare state of mind. And that just happens to kind of work sometimes for stand up.
Right. And is there one aspect of yourself that's easier or more challenging to talk about on stage and another?
Um, depends on the crowd, to be honest. I'm in New York, I would say that I'm mostly pretty lucky that there is not really any thing that I feel like, you know, if it's like a crowd full of tourists or like, Midwestern like, you know, people have embarked into a comedy show and they have no idea what they're getting into. And their idea of comedy is Jim Gaffigan, who I love, but I am not, you know, and then I come out with my gender non binary and HIV jokes, they're very alarmed. So now, it just depends on the audience less so on how I feel about anything.
Right. Fair enough. What's the experience like for you, after a performance, like the next day? Is performing this material that's so close to the bone therapeutic for you?
It was at some point, and I think it's still is. There comes a point in performing your material where it's, it's your thing, it's like your dog and pony show, and you love your dogs and ponies, but, you know, they don't have the magic and allure that they do for whatever the crowd is. So like, for at this—I'm at a point now where, especially with the HIV material, which I've been doing now, for a little over, I think about a year and a half. I'm still tremendously grateful when it goes well, because every time there's still, when I first introduce it, this moment of like dead silence, the room dies. And so I'm still very grateful whenever that turns back around. But there's less—I'm less scared of it now, which has actually made it funnier. I think when it first came out, it was, as I have been told by older stand up comics, that it was more storytelling. And now that there's less at stake with, for me in in it, I have more of a track record of like, Oh, no, I know, this is funny. I know, we're going to get there. Um I'm less like nervous about the audience's nervousness.
I don't know. It's all it's just much more like, well, it's the job. I don't want to say I'm detached because it still affects people it's just, I'm more in control of it.
Right. I mean, so I mean, as a comic to me I've been looking at your material and I've never seen you live but just just through video, you know, you have this in sort of intoxicating blend of like gentle charm and, and poignant rage. Right. So, to me... [laughter]
I'm going to put that on my tombstone. An intoxicating charm of what was it gentle rage?
Yeah, that sounds right. [laughter]
But you know, it sort of creates this is this mix of tension and joy at the same time. And I—I'm just wondering if you could talk a bit about how you see yourself as a performer and your style of comedy for those who haven't seen it.
I think it's very much it's, it's less intentionally crafted to be that way on my part, and more, that's just who I am on a daily basis. So much of stand up for me is I just, my whole family processes things with humor, it's like the primary coping mechanism. And then life itself is also just kind of difficult. So it's, it's not even that I've like, intentionally be cut, like, made my set that way that just really what I'm like on a daily basis, which is oscillating between trying to like, come to terms with people being difficult or life being hard or getting a disease or whatever it is, and processing it through humor, while also just having kind of a constant low simmer rage. It's just who I am.
[laughter] Right. Okay. So, I mean, do you think that comedy, maybe it's not intentional, but do you think that comedy can be an effective way to combat stigma?
100%, yeah, especially something like HIV stigma, where there's truly no—I mean, if anybody has a reaction that is steeped in stigma or judgment, it's really just ignorance at this point that they don't know. You know, where the medication is at or what life with HIV is like, it's especially something like that, where it's really just a matter of like, Oh, no, here's the information. This is what it's like now, and I can give it to you in a funny way.
Right. Right. Disarms them I guess. Have you been approached by someone in the audience after a show or even during a show and and either thanked you or who's enraged by you?
It's a mix. It's people. A lot of like, Oh, that's the you know, I love what you're doing. I love that you're taking that on. It's actually the handful of people who have approached me with thoughts about it that weren't offended, but were like, tense about it have actually just been older gay men who you know, for them—I'm 32, like I said, so I was born in '87, I really wasn't an adult during the worst years of the AIDS crisis. And I try to be sensitive to people who were alive and affected and lost friends, and so forth and so on. Really, and it wasn't even that they were offended. There was one gentleman who approached me and said, You know, I've, I've, I think, for 20 years, they had been positive. And they had just tested as detectable again, for the first time in I think, 10 years or something. And they were personally very, like, upset about it and felt that I -- they weren't even like, you're doing it wrong, but they were like, be aware that this happened to me. And so the idea that like, Oh, it's all fine, is maybe not. And I try to see what i'm saying, in my set with like, as long as I have access to health care and like, things stay, you know, ideal. Like, I try not to be like, it's not a problem anymore. But that's really the only time someone has approached me.
So it seems to me and I could be wrong, so correct me if I'm wrong, but you've sort of carved out a space or a place for yourself as a defender of the marginalized in many ways. And so as you continue on that path, and and do you think that you have a social responsibility now to challenge and educate audiences? Or are you just doing comedy?
Oh, both. I mean, I don't have power in this industry yet. So that's a big I mean, right now, especially as I build my career, I feel like I have to stay focused on on comedy, it's it again, it just depends on the audience. Like, when I do my shows at Club Cumming, I will do, like the first half of it is like, stand up. It's comedy. It's, and then I'll usually take it to like gay church by the end, and it's much free cheer. And my mother just the other day was like, James, make sure you're not just soapboxing. And so I mean, it's definitely I'm still learning. I was actually just saying, I just saw a comic named Shalewa Sharpe the other day, I was on a show with her. She's been doing this for 10 years. And her joke per minute ratio is insane. She's so effing funny. And I was just saying to her, like, oh, gosh, like how, how do you get that? Like, I have so many opinions that I keep, I keep falling into this and and this like, educating thing and so it's it's a constant balancing act for me.
In your opinion would—do you think only those belonging to a stigmatized community or marginalized community can be allowed to make jokes at it at its expense?
I think there's truth in what you're saying. I think that's not quite the whole story. It's the at their expense thing. That's the caveat and what you just said, it's whether it's punching up or punching down. And I think it's pretty clear when someone's telling a joke about a community where they don't know anyone from that community.
They don't they don't have any sense of, I mean, Dave Chappelle and his trans jokes, it just seems clear to me that Dave Chappelle doesn't know any trans people, or when white people get on stage and start talking about black people. And it's clear that like you, have you ever met a person of color in your entire life? And if you can't, I don't think you have to be of that community but I think you're probably not going to write a nuanced interesting take on any material that you don't have a personal connection to. I think, any whatever the subject is, if you only know it through, like click batey headlines for articles you didn't read, you're not going to write a good joke about that. And you're probably gonna unnecessarily hurt feelings. And then if your reaction when people are like, hey, that is kind of damaging that line of thinking to that community. If your reaction then is like, it's a joke, and blah blah blah then I don't I don't, I don't know what we're doing.
So you have like a unique lived experience with HIV disclosure. In many ways. You know, you are an expert in gorilla disclosure, you're disclosing your status repeatedly under very stressful circumstances, for quite some time now. So if there was one piece of advice you would give to someone who's considering disclosing their HIV status, who hasn't, what would that be?
Know if you need something from the person, you're telling and what it is you need from them. So if you, which is why I waited with my mother to tell my mother, because I did not want to put my mother in a position of being Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. I didn't want her to have to feel like it's six o'clock, where's the shot? Would you need the shot? Where's your medicine? Like I didn't want that I wanted—whereas with I told my sister much earlier when I was I needed emotional support. And God I love my mother, I couldn't take care of my mother on this issue when I needed to be taken care of.
So, know what you need from people emotionally, physically, financially, health insurance wise, before you tell them and be very careful with it. In stand up, I need them to laugh, so I know that and I've got a whole plan on how to make that happen.
Thank you, James Tison.
[stand up comedy event recording] So we're having a good time. I want you to hold on to that feeling as I go into the bulk of my set. Remember that, right? And I'll just tell you a spoiler alert that before I go into it, I'm fine. I'm healthy. I have nice skin—things, I'm good. I'm good. Having said that, two years ago, I tested positive for HIV. Oh, killed the room. Yeah, um, that's nerve wracking to talk about because I don't know y'all. On the one hand, you might be totally up to date with the science. You know, it's not a death sentence. On the other hand, you might be stuck in 1985. You know, and definitely someone in this room is looking at me freaking out right now. Right? being like, Oh, fuck you guys. Fuck. It's one of the straight dudes. He's like, you can No, that's not, that's not funny. That's no, go back. Go back to the trans person...That was jokes. I'm trying to be an ally, but this is too much. You know, there's like two bathrooms here. He's touching the mic. Like, am I about to get HIV from this fucking gay guy? You know? And I'm sorry, but Yeah, probably. I'm sorry. Chances are good you all already got it. So I hope you like the Rent soundtrack and being told how brave you are because [audience laughter] that's your life now. [end of stand up comedy event recording]
When I first heard James's act, you know, it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was so good to hear someone living with HIV make fun, publicly. And what a brilliant way to slap down stigma. James has created this, this magical moment where a group of strangers has come together and are laughing and clapping and cheering them on. I mean, this might be a person's first introduction to someone living with HIV and here they are being schooled right and loving every minute of it. It makes my heart sing. So let's shift gears a bit. I reached out to my next guest because he runs this inspiring and innovative program called Stand up for Mental Health and while not directly related to HIV, I think it's a model easily adapted for people living with HIV. David Granirer himself has depression, and is featured in the voice award winning documentary Cracking Up. David has received numerous awards for his work including a Champion of Mental Health Award, and a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada. He was also recognized as one of the 150 Canadian difference makers in mental health. David is a much sought after keynote speaker and worked with mental health organizations in Canada, the US and Australia to train and perform with Stand up for Mental Health groups in dozens of cities. So let's start again with a laugh.
[stand up comedy event recording begins] I have a mental illness myself and there's a lot of, lot of public stigma out there. We recently had a mental health clinic put in in in our area, I live near the CNE, we had a great big mental health clinic. But there was a group of residents they were outraged they did not want this clinic. They were they were these people are going these crazy people are going to come into our neighborhood and do what art therapy? [audience laughter] You know, I can just see them attacking pedestrians with glue sticks and macaroni [audience laughter]. Stay in your house, there's been an outbreak of collage. [stand up comedy event recording ends]
Okay, David. So welcome to pozcast.
I'm so excited to have you on the show your program—for your program Stand Up for Mental Health really resonates with me., and as I'm sure it will, with a lot of my listeners. As a person living with HIV, the battle against stigma is real. I mean, you can't outrun it, it's often best to confront it. And using stand up comedy, as a stigma busting and even therapeutic tool like is a really brilliant concept to me. And I'm wondering if you could just give us, the audience, a quick overview of how Stand Up for Mental Health works.
I've run this program in over 50 cities in Canada, the US and Australia in partnership with organizations like mental health organizations in those cities. And the way it works is that we have a series of classes, where people learn how to take incidents from their own lives, and turn them into stand up comedy. So people come in and talk about, I mean, that's the great thing is that people talk about some really painful things. And they turn them into stand up comedy. Now, I'm a therapist, and I totally believe in therapy. But the difference is that in therapy, you tell people, you tell your therapist, you know your story, and the therapist listens and you know, nods and responds. In stand up comedy, you take your story, and you do something creative with it, you tell it but you turn it into comedy. And then you tell a theater full of 300 people who are laughing and applauding and telling you how great you are. So it's a wonderful way of dispelling that internalized stigma that you feel 'cause you go wow, you know, I just told these people about I don't know—the time, I thought I was Jesus and maxed out my credit card, and they think I'm hilarious. And plus, the ability to make people laugh is a huge confidence builder. I remember—Actually let me back up even more. So what gave me the idea for Stand Up for Mental Health is that for the past 20 years, I've taught a stand up comedy course at Langara College in Vancouver, just a community college. A night course has nothing to do with mental illness, I'm sorry, nothing to do with mental health. But occasionally, I would see people come through and have a life changing experience. There was one woman had a fear of flying and the day after our show, she had to get up, get on a plane, and she said, My fear was gone. I felt like once I'd done stand up, I could do anything. And I thought wow, wouldn't it be awesome to give this to people who wanted to do comedy, but who also wanted to have a life changing experience.
And in previous interviews, you've said that—and I love this, you said that you can't change the past but by taking a taking on challenging life situations through humour, you can rewrite your own story. And I love this idea of rewriting your own stories in comedy. Could you speak more about this and is this—can this be therapeutic?
Okay, so what I say is that, yes, you can't change the past, obviously. But you can tell your story through comedy, you can take control of your story by telling it your way and putting your own ending on it. So in other words, you get the last laugh. And obviously, it still doesn't change the past. But there's something really therapeutic about taking those situations where you were abused or treated badly. And being able to go haha, you know, I get—because usually in those situations, there are things people wish they'd said or done...So here you are, you get to say or act out those things in front of an audience that is laughing and cheering. So and once again, so in therapy, you know, part of the idea is that in therapy, you try to take control of your story. Well, this is one step further.
That's great. How does disclosure play in the process I wonder? Like do students come into the group ready to publicly disclose their challenges with mental health or just a program try to ready people for that disclosure?
Well, everyone that takes the program is kind of self selected. So They know what it's about. And they're ready to go. I mean, obviously, there are certain things that they don't want to disclose. And that's fine. I don't force anyone to disclose anything. But like I say, they're ready for this. So it's it's a program that people need to know what they're getting and want to be a part of. So it would never work in the context of a treatment center where they said, okay, you know, this week, or we're doing art therapy next week, we're doing stand up comedy, because stand up comedy isn't for everyone. And I think it would be incredibly damaging to be forced to do this kind of thing if you didn't want to.
Why do you think stand up comedy—this is all a bit new to me. I mean, it's really refreshing and enlightening to me to see stand up comedy worked this way. But why do you think it works so well as a way to fight stigma?
I think it works so well as a way to fight stigma, because people come to our shows, and often the stereotypes that you hear or that people have about people with mental health issues, or mental illnesses, or whatever the hell we're calling it these days. You know, we think of people who who are dangerous or whacked out or useless to society, or weak, or whatever. And here they are, they come and see people on stage, and friendly and likeable and courageous. All the things that we don't associate with someone with a mental health condition. Remember, oh, one show, I heard two people talking after the show. And one of them said, Man, that guy with schizophrenia was hilarious. And how often do you hear hilarious and schizophrenia in the same sentence?
Yeah, yeah, very true. So I'm gonna go out of the left field here. So so the comedian in the comedian, Hannah Gatsby's award winning Netflix special. Yeah. Yeah. And she has ADHD and autism. She says, I built a career out of self deprecation. I don't want to do that anymore. Because you do understand what self deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins. It's not humility, it's humiliation. And it's kind of a tough question, but what are your thoughts on people with mental health issues, making self deprecating jokes about themselves?
I think it's really important. And I actually disagree, I think there's a difference between being self deprecating and humiliating yourself. Those are two completely different things. I think the fact that you're able to laugh at yourself in a healthy way, is incredibly powerful. And gives you once again, it gives you control over your story. And it's a great way of owning your part in things.
Right, right. Okay, so does this course, align or compliment, like a student's clinical care? Like...
Sure. I mean, you know, what, you know I tell people Stand up for Mental Health, I think it's really therapeutic, but it's not a substitute for therapy, or meds, or art therapy, or whatever people are doing.
I mean, often come at least the comics, I know, and I know, some comics could require a lot of support and self care. They can be highly strung people and often a troubled life makes for better material than a happy and stable one. So does does the program offer some support to, to the students in some way, like if they have a bad show or something like that?
Um, first of all, the class is like a support group. So, you know, what I tell people is that, so you know, in terms of self esteem, one of the things you need is you need good social support. And what we do is we give people an immediate support group of people who have been through what they've been through, and who are going through the class with the same goal. So it's a really great bonding experience. And of course, we always, you know, check in before every class and people can say this is going you know, this was going on in my week. So, there's, there's a lot of built in support. And in terms of having a bad show. We stack the deck in their favor. So we try the jokes out in class, so we know the jokes are gonna work. Also, if people have a hard time memorizing, they can go on stage with like little index cards that they can read from plus the audience's that come to our shows, they're all mental health audiences. So they get it. They're there for the comics, they want them to succeed. And I think that makes a big difference because people know what they're getting, I think it would be -- not work nearly as well if we just say, went into a comedy club, and we do some shows at comedy clubs, but we promote them on our own. They're not part of the comedy club calendar.
So if you just went into a comedy club, and just did this, and people didn't know what they were coming for, I think that could be a problem.
Right. Right. Yeah, I've seen some of you know, I've watched a lot of your videos and the camaraderie and support within the group is really lovely. So in HIV, we put a really high value on engaging what we call peers, other people living with HIV, in research and health care and support, and you're a person who's living with depression and out about it. So in many ways you are a peer and relatable to the students in the program. Do you think that you need to be a peer to implement a program like what you're doing successfully?
Well, it sure helps. Because what I tell the class on the first day, as I say, so I'm one of you, you know, I have depression. I've been in psych wards, I've had tons of therapy, I'm on meds. And I think it really helps people to understand that I'm coming from where they're coming from. I think it would be a much harder sell personally, to go in there as someone who didn't have that experience.
Right. And are you, like do you—Is it just you? Like are you doing all of this on your own?
Once again, so I run the classes, but you know, in Vancouver, we have a board of directors. And so you know, there's that help for me. And plus, in other cities, I'm working with an organization who has resources and logistical support. So basically, for example, the group I did in Austin, they recruited the comics, they provided a Skype classroom, they got a venue for the show, they promoted the show. So my responsibility is to teach the class so I don't do all that other stuff.
I see. Okay. So what have some of your students experienced by taking the class? I mean, can you give me an example of what your students might experience from taking your class?
Well, I think the experience—so I think they come in on the first day, nervous, they're apprehensive, they don't know if they can do it. And as they go through the course, they start to develop a sense of confidence. And once they've done their first show, it's a real shift, because they go, wow, you know, something, I can do this.
Right, right. That's great. So there have been any surprises along the way, things about the program that you decided to change or adapt or, or anything that surprised you in particular?
Not really. I mean, I keep getting better at teaching the program. But I don't know—I mean, there hasn't been anything major that I've had to change over the years other than just to continue doing it.
Right. So how do you think this program—this is my own selfish interest, of course—how do you think this program could be, the program model could be adapted to serve other stigmatized conditions?
So you're talking about HIV?
Yeah. So okay. So, you know, I think it's a similar model. So you have someone who is—so I mean, in terms of Stand Up for Mental Health, I'm also the perfect person to run it, because I'm a counselor, I'm an instructor, I'm a stand up comic, and I have depression. And I think in terms of running it for the HIV community, first of all, you would need someone to run it who had HIV, who was a peer.
Is a what, sorry? Yes.
Who is a peer essentially. So you'd need, you'd absolutely need to have that. And then you'd need to basically have someone who was a comedian and someone who could facilitate groups, and it would be the same sort of model. People would be talking about, so this has been my experience with HIV, this is what I've gone through and turning it into comedy.
All right, well, thank you. So what so what's next for Stand Up for Mental Health? Are you just gonna keep on truckin?
Keep on truckin. Currently, I'm running a group in Kamloops, a group in New York State. I'm about to start a group in Victoria and Norwich, Connecticut. And also I do a lot of shows and presentations on my own at conferences and events. So the goal is always to expand all of that.
Right. Well, I wish you all the best. It's an inspiring program. And I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
[stand up comedy event recording] I mean when it comes to crime it way safer around people hear voices and think they're the supreme ruler of the universe. I mean put it this way, when you're managing 50 million galaxies, you're way too busy to steal my car. [audience laughter]. You know, they're like, dude, we travel at lightspeed. Why would we want your minivan? [audience laughter] [stand up comedy event recording ends]
A big pozcast thank you to my guests, James Tison and David Granirer. Although both comedians have different approaches to stand up, the effect is equally as exciting and powerful. And of course, hilarious. Thank you both for the inspiration and for shining a light on such serious issues with joy and laughter. [background music continues]
Production services are provided by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network.