Having the balls to laugh at cancer

Michael Shafar is giving 110% at Sydney Comedy Festival. Photo: Monica Pronk.

In 2017, Michael Shafar was diagnosed with testicular cancer which then spread to his abdomen and chest. It required large doses of chemo and several bouts of surgery, but he eventually beat the cancer into remission, although he did have his right testicle removed. In 2020 it returned – the cancer, not the testicle. Rita Bratovich spoke with the irrepressable comedian about laughing in the face of death. 

The Grim Reaper has a pretty poor sense of humour but, thankfully, he’s also inept with a scythe, having taken a swipe at Michael Shafar twice and come away with a mere souvenir. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a harrowing experience for the comedian. 

“It was really scary, I mean I thought that I’d been cured and that’s what my doctors believed as well. So yeah, it was very scary. I thought there was a good chance it was gonna kill me this time,” says Shafar about getting cancer for a second time. 

Although he can’t get an all clear for another two years, Shafar says his cancer is in remission now and besides, it’s given him plenty of grist for the comedy mill.

“Obviously cancer has been a big part of my life and experience over the last couple of years, so it’d be crazy if I wasn’t talking about it on stage.”

And he’s feeling pretty energised – so energised, in fact, that he has committed to giving an extra 10% on stage. 

“With 100%, they get my jokes, but with 110% they get my gratitude as well,” says Shafar.

“I’m trying to just give it my all on stage … I thought I would call [my show 110%] because I’m just so excited to be back on stage after so much time off.”

Michael Shafar performing at the Top End Comedy Spectacular, Darwin on Saturday, 16 January, 2021. Video: Michael Shafar/YouTube.

Shafar was in a Melbourne hospital receiving chemo in 2020 while everyone else was in lockdown and that mitigated his sense of FOMO with regard to stage time. Dealing with visiting restrictions and social distancing presented more of a challenge, although apparently, not for Shafar’s mother.

“I was at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and I think they were pretty flexible with their visiting arrangements when they realised that my Jewish mother wasn’t going to be obeying them anyway.”

Using humour to deal with heavy issues is a pretty common tactic among comedians, and Shafar is no different. Speaking candidly about his testicular cancer has been therapeutic, not only for himself but for people in the audience going through similar experiences. 

“It just keeps me sane. I’ve always believed that everything is funny or at least can be funny, and I think being able to laugh at really tough things and really scary things helps to make it more manageable and beatable. For me it’s just part of my survival mechanism, my coping mechanism. But I think it’s also helpful for other people in the crowd, just to see me talking about cancer and my testicle, and I think it’s important to de-stigmatise the diagnosis. There’s still a lot of shame that a lot of men experience around the genitals. I think it’s important that they see someone like me who’s pretty open and transparent about it.”

Michael Shafar walking on air after beating cancer twice. Photo: Monica Pronk.

Comedians need to test the boundaries when joking about sensitive issues, but Shafar feels he has the balance right. That opinion is validated by the feedback he often gets after shows, especially from men who have had to deal with testicular cancer and the awkwardness that goes with it.

Shafar has also become active in awareness and fundraising campaigns and is an ambassador for the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Movember and ANZUP

“I’m very grateful for all the stuff that they’ve done over decades so that I can live today,” says Shafar. 

Apart from testicular cancer, Shafar’s show at this year’s Sydney Comedy Festival will also address Covid, Trump, racism, anti-Semitism, Gal Gadot singing ‘Imagine’, skinny jeans, the untapped power of bagels and a nasty gangster.

While the cancer theme dominates his material for now, as with everything else in his bit, it has a use-by date. 

“Yeah, I think there’s always a lifespan on comedy in the sense that things are only topical and relevant for a short amount of time, because comedy only exists inside a context … so I think there is a timespan on all jokes, particularly my cancer material. I hope I’ll get to a point where it’s not relevant anymore!”

To that end, he is already preparing material for his next show. 

“I’m excited to see what I come up with because I always find I’m getting better and improving every year.”

Michael Shafar 110% plays the Enmore Theatre, 118–132 Enmore Road, Newtown, at 6.50pm Thursday, 29 April and Friday, 30 April, 2021. Tickets ($25 plus booking fee) and further info available at www.sydneycomedyfest.com.au/event/michael-shafar-110/.