Comedy Cure

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If there were a Hall of Fame for those who have used humor as medicine, the first honoree would no doubt be the late Norman Cousins, who chuckled his way through "Candid Camera" episodes in 1964 after he was found to have a debilitating connective tissue disease.

Comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989 and had used humor to cope, would be another natural choice.

And now for a lesser-known nominee who drew inspiration from Radner: Jim O'Doherty, co-producer and writer for television's Emmy-winning "3rd Rock from the Sun," a loopy sitcom about aliens coming to Earth.

For more than 10 years, O'Doherty has volunteered his time to lead humor workshops for the Wellness Community, a cancer support organization, drawing on material from his former lives as a stand-up comic and a television audience warm-up guy. His audience is sometimes bald, sometimes feeble, sometimes angry, often depressed. But he can always draw out a laugh--and make participants forget, at least for a few hours, their horrible pathology reports and yesterday's nausea.

On Friday, at a gala at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, O'Doherty will receive the annual Angel Award from the Wellness Community-Foothills in Pasadena, one of five centers in Southern California and 17 nationwide that provide free educational workshops and other services to cancer patients and their families and friends.

O'Doherty, 36, is honored. But definitely not in a gushy way. During a recent interview on the set of "3rd Rock," he blurted out the opening line of his acceptance speech--it's totally immodest and funny--then begged it back so as not to steal his thunder before he delivers it.

And he wants people to know he isn't capitalizing on cancer, that he hasn't made a dime from the workshops.

"They don't even validate my parking," he says.

Not a problem for him these days, but budgets were tight during O'Doherty's childhood. Growing up in Levittown, on Long Island, he was one of six kids, raised by his mother, Nancy, after Dad bowed out during her last pregnancy. Early on, Jim took to heart his mother's mantra: "You can embrace a sense of humor. It doesn't cost anything." He excelled in the impromptu after-dinner showcases in which each child was encouraged to perform.

He also fantasized about taking bagpipe lessons, getting an Irish wolfhound and making it big in Hollywood.

Making cancer patients laugh was never part of the plan until a phone call from his mother 11 years ago. His brother Ward, 18 and the youngest, had collapsed on a golf course after a seizure. Physicians at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York told them it was due to a glioblastoma--an aggressive, malignant brain tumor.

"I called it the Cadillac of cancers," O'Doherty says irreverently.

The clan descended on the hospital. "We could laugh or we could cry," O'Doherty says. But there weren't really two choices. Not with that mantra about humor ringing in their ears.

So after Ward was wheeled to the recovery room after surgery, Jim headed to a nearby store, intent on finding something cheery. What he found was a button--"Ask me about my lobotomy"--that he pinned to his brother's head bandage.

Family members streaming in to the hospital for visits all reacted the same: "They'd start off saying, 'You insensitive bas- . . .' then break up laughing," O'Doherty remembers.

Getting Ward to laugh was more difficult.

"He was so depressed he wouldn't even get out of bed and shave," O'Doherty says. "I'd drag him to the shower." Later, he took Ward to chemotherapy, cracked jokes nonstop and soon saw some progress.

After several weeks, O'Doherty returned to the Van Nuys apartment he shared with his wife, Angela, to salvage his stand-up comedy career. He read a newspaper article about Gilda Radner's association with the Wellness Community. O'Doherty figured: "If I couldn't be there for my brother in New York, I could volunteer. I dreamed up the idea of a humor workshop." When he presented it to Harold Benjamin, the founder of the Wellness Community had one question: Would he do it for free?

"Eight people showed up at the first one," O'Doherty says. "I ran them through improvisational exercises."

He asked two or three participants to play a boss firing a secretary or to pretend they were trapped in an elevator with a stranger.

"If you do improv, you have to think very fast," O'Doherty says. "If you think that fast, you forget about your cancer--at least for a while.

"Then all the Wellness Communities started calling," O'Doherty says. "They started flying me all over the country. Next, I'm keynoting health conferences. Oncologists and neurologists are sitting there, listening to me, taking notes. And I'm thinking, 'Wow, somebody is getting ripped off.' "

He now leads about 10 workshops a year, despite long hours on the television show and doubling the size of his family with the births of daughters Grace, now 3, and Katey, 8 months. He also squeezes in bagpipe lessons and tends to Irish wolfhound Casey and companion Maggie, a Great Dane.

What's kept him volunteering for the workshops?

"Guys would come in with fanny packs of morphine and shut them off. One told me, 'This is the only place I can get off the medication.' " That's when it struck him: "Maybe there is something to this."

O'Doherty, who can switch from serious to silly in a nanosecond, pretends to elaborate: "You know we have these, these dolphins in our brains, and when we laugh, they increase."

Uh, did he mean enDORphins?

"Endorphins, endorphins, that's it," he says, pleased that his gag went over.

His brother is the only real proof he needs that humor can heal.

"Is my brother OK now?" O'Doherty asks. "Well, not really. He's a huge pain in the . . . ."

Ward, who beat the odds and now works as a producer at an L.A. syndication company, returns the compliments.

"My brother is one of the most screwed up individuals you'll ever meet," he warns. "He's bipolar you know." Pause for effect. "One minute he's Clarence [the angel] from 'It's a Wonderful Life.' The next he is the ghost of Jackie Gleason.

"Is it accurate to say my surviving is attributed to my brother being funny? I think it was part of it. It was a group effort. I had a wonderful army of family around me who would not let me die. The choice was not life or death. It was life."

At the gala Friday, O'Doherty will probably praise his mom, who died four years ago, as a guiding light in his life. And Ward figures he'll be introduced but doesn't expect to get a word in edgewise.

"I'll have to stand up and tip my cap in that Babe Ruth kind of way," he says in a been-there, done-that, little-brother tone.

But if he's asked to say a few words?

"What I am most proud of is what Jimmy's accomplished by using my illness as a catalyst to go help other people. He took something that came out of a catastrophic moment and made it something positive."

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