How does ‘magical sprite’ comedian Alex Hooper fight cancer? One punchline at a time
The only thing comedy and cancer have in common is that they both begin with the letter “C.” There is nothing funny about the latter, and if you are a practitioner of the former, you’d do well not to poke fun at the dreaded disease. Unless, of course, you happen to have it.
Enter L.A.-based stand-up comic and “America’s Got Talent” vet Alex Hooper, whose August diagnosis of Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma has served as a jumping-off point for all manner of jokes about his unenviable situation. Hooper—a beloved fixture in the city’s comedy scene, known for his outrageous antics, gravity-defying poof of bright red hair and unflinching ability to roast anyone in a matter of seconds — has continued to perform locally, even while in the midst of chemo.
With preternatural positivity and boundless amounts of love for his fellow comedians, his family and his audience, Hooper has managed to turn cancer into a punchline and inspire his fans to appreciate life in the process.
During a recent show at Club Tee Gee in Atwater Village (not long after his third round of treatment), Hooper began his set by informing the audience of his battle with cancer, noting, “I’m going to spend the next few minutes making that hilarious because that’s how I deal with things I’m scared of — I make fun of them until they go away. So just know if you don’t laugh at this material, you are actively killing me.”
The subdued quiet that engulfed the audience after Hooper’s initial revelation evaporated in a roar of laughter. Now in the audience’s good graces, he continued with a joke about how he received his diagnosis right after marrying his girlfriend of 15 years.
“So to every single dude in a backwards hat that looked at me and said, ‘Don’t do it, bro,’ I now understand,” he quips.
Hooper, 37, was born in Baltimore, went to college in Pittsburgh and in 2008 moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. Six months after arriving, a friend offered him a slot at what is now the Spotlight Comedy Club in Studio City. Until that moment, Hooper hadn’t even considered trying stand-up comedy.
When he walked offstage after the six-minute set he remembers thinking, “That’s what I’ve been looking for my entire life — that feeling of vulnerability and immediacy.”
Those two feelings also accompany a cancer diagnosis, notes Hooper during an interview at Pan Pacific Park where the active, health-conscious performer often practices his balance on a slackline. Hooper is now channeling those same feelings in service of healing through his chosen art form.
“I never feel more alive than when I’m onstage,” says Hooper. “When I tell a really dark joke about chemotherapy and the entire room erupts in laughter, and we can all sit here and have this moment, I can literally feel cancer cells disintegrating inside of me.”
Fellow comedians have taken note of Hooper’s penchant for filling his body with positivity in order to exclude the negativity of disease. And, to those who know him best, it’s not surprising.
“He has taken lemons, and he’s turned it into lemonade. He’s turned it into lemon meringue pie. He’s turned it into lemon bars. He’s turned it into lemon popsicles,” says Shawn Pelofsky, who runs a monthly show at the Improv called Social Media Meltdowns, at which Hooper is a regular performer. “I’ve never seen a warrior like Alex.”
Hooper is a somewhat paradoxical figure in comedy because he’s, in his own words, “a magical sprite spreading sprinkles of joy” everywhere he goes; while at the same time being known best for eviscerating Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and the Spice Girls’ Mel B. during a 2018 appearance on “America’s Got Talent.”
Wearing sparkly skin-tight blue pants, a fluffy matching tail and a long-sleeved maroon leotard with a fur-lined collar — Hooper roasted the famous judges, telling the English singer that the only thing scary about her was her solo career, and the dour British record exec that America was founded to get away from Brits like him.
The live audience appeared horrified during the three-minute segment, and Hooper says that at the time he was sure he had bombed in the most tragic way. It took 2½ months for the episode to air, a time period that Hooper remembers as “absolute hell … where every single minute I’m going, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, what have I done? What have I done?’”
But then it aired, and it was edited in a way that Hooper felt celebrated his roast. Hooper’s profile as a comedian soared after his national television debut. He worked in ticket sales at Universal Studios at the time (a job he’d held since arriving in L.A.), and tourists began recognizing him.
“People would get so excited. They’d want to take pictures. They be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, you don’t know that we get paid nothing to do that show?’” Hooper jokes, adding that the response would inevitably be. “But you’re on TV!”
To which he’d reply, “Not right now, I’m not. I’m selling you a ticket.”
Hooper ended up being such a hit on the variety competition that he made two more appearances, at a Season 15 audition just as the pandemic struck in 2020, and later that year as a quarterfinalist.
Hooper’s gift for roasting, like his ability to find a silver lining in his cancer diagnosis, probably comes from his bottomless capacity for love, say his friends.
Brian Moses, who with Jeff Ross co-created Comedy Central series “Roast Battle,” calls Hooper “the nicest guy in the city,” and says that his ability to become a “destroyer” in early “Roast Battle” shows caught even Hooper off guard.
“Before he was like this happy-go-lucky guy talking about his Pugs and his lady,” says Moses, but roasting made Hooper gain focus as a performer, and he found his natural voice.
Moses says the mantra of professional roasters is that you only roast the ones you love.
“That’s mainly it — being able to give a backhanded compliment to somebody you really appreciate or admire or love,” says Moses. “And I think Alex really took that head on, and was like ‘I love everybody. I’m gonna talk about everybody’.”
That love came back to Hooper full force when he announced his diagnosis to the world via a late-August YouTube video that has now been viewed almost 5,000 times. After posting the video, Hooper says he experienced what his wife, Lauren Tassi, called a “vulnerability hangover.”
“It’s when you expose yourself completely. And suddenly you wish you hadn’t, because you realize how naked you are,” says Hooper, remembering putting his phone down immediately after posting and not being able to pick it up again for three hours while he fretted.
But when he finally did, he had hundreds of texts. Over the course of the next few days, that number grew to over 1,000. A subsequent GoFundMe initiative started by his sister-in-law to help with medical expenses has already netted $33,000 out of a $50,000 goal.
That response floored and humbled Hooper, who is not used to — or comfortable with — stopping to rest, or accepting help from others. Both things he must now allow himself to do.
Hooper’s prognosis is good. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is known for being treatable, especially because it tends to strike when people are in their 20s and 30s — relatively young and healthy, with bodies primed for the fight.
Hooper’s wife recently reminded him that one day he won’t have cancer anymore, and he will have to think about his next chapter. Hooper was already one step ahead of her.
“I want to be walking out of the chemo ward, directly into a special,” he jokes, before stopping to reflect. He and his wife want to start a family, and he has so much to look forward to.
“If I want to be the best person I can be, not just for myself, but also for my loved ones, I have to learn how to chill,” he says. “Yes, I can be ambitious. Yes, I can write scripts right now. And I can set myself up and I can film videos. But the important thing is to just relax and allow my body to go through what it needs to.”
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