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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019
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'When I told people I had cancer, because I'm a comedian I had to say I wasn't joking'

We spoke to the comedian about his new show.

Image: RTÉ

LIFE. DRUGS. CANCER. For his first stand-up special and Irish tour, comedian Edwin Sammon has decided to discard the light topics and only focus on the hard stuff.

The Offaly native, who plays Fr Gabriel in RTÉ’s Bridget and Eamon, was a co- presenter on the station’s sketch show Republic Of Telly. News broke today that Republic of Telly won’t be returning to RTÉ after eight years on air, and it’s clear that Sammon enjoyed his time on the show.

“It’s a shame it’s gone but you know, every show has its lifespan and every show has its time, so I’m just happy I got to be included in the menagerie of funny people in front of and behind the cameras,” he said this evening.

He was also keen to emphasise the role that shows like Republic of Telly have in inspiring budding comics and comedy writers. “I just hope that RTÉ replace it with something that really supports the up-and-coming talent that we have and give it a platform to be seen by wider audience,” said Sammon.

Going solo

With his new stand-up show, it’s a chance for him to explore totally different topics to Republic of Telly. Over the space of an hour, he gets to tell the story of his treatment for bowel and liver cancer in his own way.

“I had to talk about or joke about what you know, which is what comedians do,” he told TheJournal.ie. But the tour is also a chance for him to explore how humour gave him a boost in between cancer treatment. He’d come up to Dublin whenever he felt physically able – and even did some shows.

“It was a great thing to look forward to,” he said of that time. “I’d have this window of normalcy.”

But being a comedian meant that telling people about his diagnosis was a bit tricky.

“When I had to tell my friends, because I am a comedian I had to preface it with ‘this isn’t a joke’ because some people would think it was a joke,” laughed Sammon. “But I would never joke about it at someone’s expense.”

Indeed, he said that his show won’t seek to put forward that there’s a universal experience of cancer.

According to the Irish Cancer Society, every three minutes in Ireland someone gets a cancer diagnosis – and 40,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in the country every year. So the likelihood of most – if not all – of his audience members being affected in some way by the disease isn’t lost on him.

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“I’m talking about my own experience with it,” said Sammon. “So many people are touched by the disease unfortunately, everyone has an experience of it. Everyone does. It runs in my family – my mum had it when she was 21; she had bowel cancer, she survived it, so that’s why we were on the lookout for it.”

Getting regular check-ups helped Sammon get an early diagnosis. “I would consider myself to be lucky that it was found and it didn’t spread and I didn’t have to have any extreme treatments,” he said. “I had chemo, but it was a mild version of chemo – or diet chemo as I jokingly call it.”

Being honest

But crafting jokes about what can be a personal – and painful experience – for people might also draw some criticism.

“I think if you’re honest and if you’re honest about what you’re talking about and it comes from your experience, I don’t think anyone can really say anything ill against you,” said Sammon.

I’ve had people ask me is it an inappropriate thing to talk about – I don’t think it is. There are certain things that personally I don’t joke about, topics that I wouldn’t find funny, but with the cancer show, it’s the first show I’ve done as a stand-up comedian and I’ve been doing this for 10 years so it’s the first time there was a topic that I could do a whole hour-plus about and it all held together.

While he was going through treatment, Sammon relied on moments of humour. “Just before the surgeon operated on me I kind of wanted to make a joke and I was constantly making jokes or trying to make jokes,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than someone making a joke at an inappropriate time, but because the focus is on you and it’s your illness you can kind of joke about it.

“And for sure it’s absolutely a coping mechanism and it’s a way to in some ways put it to the back of your mind, or not give it the seriousness that it deserves. I mean there were moments where the weight of it would press on me and I would feel scared obviously for sure.”

“I’m not saying I’m gonna save the world, but I think if you are talking about things and you are honest about them it can be a relief for people,” he added.

“I’ve had people come up and say ‘you know, it’s great to hear someone talk openly about it, it makes it less of a taboo’.”

Republic of Telly - Season 14 Sammon with his Republic of Telly co-stars, Joanne McNally and Kevin McGahern. Source: RTE

‘We don’t really like to talk about death’

While recuperating, Sammon also thought about people’s reactions to cancer. “Because we don’t really like to talk about death and when someone dies it’s never a celebration of their life, it’s always quiet,” he explained. “And people don’t know what to do say and people didn’t know what to say to me when I told them I have cancer – you feel bad unburdening that on people.”

The title of the show  - Edwin Sammon vs Cancer – is tongue-in-cheek, said the comedian. Many people framed his journey as a “battle” with cancer, but that’s not how he saw it.

“For me it’s less of a battle, personally speaking, than an endurance test – it’s a kind of ‘can you endure this thing: you’re going to have to have surgery and chemo’, so it’s a physical endurance and a mental endurance.”

In the show, Sammon said he talks about certain topics some comedians wouldn’t talk about – like how he used marijuana to help him get through his treatment.

“One of the things that happens when you have cancer is people try to slip you the secret, the secret cure. People will come and say to you ‘…aloe vera…’ and walk away.”

“But a lot of people have opinions on it as well which is a weird thing because a lot of people would say to me throughout the ‘journey’ I went on,” he said. “People would say stuff like bad vibes give you cancer or [a brand of sweets] gives you cancer – which is not very helpful when you have cancer.”

The show also touches on how Sammon’s thoughts on religion have changed. “I’m open to the possibility of anything being real, but I’d be sceptical,” he said. “I talk about my religious belief but I think at the end of the day there are a lot of people praying for me and masses being said for me and it’s a positive thing so you don’t want to knock it. But it makes you less cynical, I’ve become less cynical and more sceptical.”

Housewives’ favourite

Having started as a stand-up a decade ago, Sammon’s career got a boost thanks to his work on Republic of Telly, where he is now a familiar face.

The Republic of Telly gig came about after producers of the show saw his stand-up. They asked him to play a priest at the ‘most Irish funeral ever’, which led to his current role.

It’s a bittersweet thing, for Sammon, to look back at the footage of that first role, as he had cancer at the time.

Now that he has settled into the show, he has a particular group of fans: “I get a lot of recognition from middle-aged women,” he said. “I’m the housewives’ favourite - I think George Clooney was the housewives’ favourite at one stage in his career…”

As for the future, he’s writing a series with his younger brother Jonathan  -”a visual artist and a very funny guy” – a nice follow-on from their childhood of creating radio shows.

“We’ve always been doing silly things like making up radio shows and taping voices onto cassette tapes - Google that young people,” laughed Sammon (this reporter did the same when she was younger).

Then there’s a radio play, and the small matter of teaching himself to edit so that he can get more clips onto his YouTube channel.

It looks like a big year ahead for the bearded Sammon, who is also due to hit the milestone 40th birthday this year. (“I think I had my midlife crisis when I was 25.”)

And beyond the work, there are plans for a trip to “somewhere far-flung and foreign”.

“When I was sick it was one of those things I was constantly looking up – ‘oh, Borneo feels nice’. Again, another coping mechanism. Maybe the Galapagos Islands.”

But he couldn’t resist a bit of the black humour as we said goodbye, concluding: “Not dying is my main aim.”

Edwin Sammon Vs Cancer takes place on 3 February at Black Box Belfast, 9/10 February Whelan’s, Dublin; 18 February City Limits, Cork, and 31 March Draíocht Studio, Blanchardstown. 

Read: The man behind the excellent Martin’s Life is writing a full TV series>

Read: ‘Improv can tell us a lot about ourselves, it’s very liberating’>

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