The doctor is in and he's got an all-star lineup! A Q&A with Dr. Bill Miller about “Comedians Helping Comedians”

If laughter is the best medicine, I want to see a top expert! Problem is, it can take months to get an appointment with the best doctor. But this time you don’t have to wait. Zanies can get you in to see Dr. Bill Miller and his team of premier comedic talents next Wednesday, November 13 at 8:00 p.m.

Dr. Bill Miller spent many years as an emergency room doctor and is now an anesthesiologist. He has been a comedian for just as many years which makes him one of the world’s authorities on treating both the body and the spirit.

His commitment to healing people inspired him to create the John Fox Memorial Comedians Fund. John Fox was a much loved Chicago comedian who died of colon cancer in 2012. Audiences might be surprised to learn that comedy is rarely a high paying profession. As Dr. Bill said to me, “A middle [featured] act is probably making $30,000 for the year and an opening act is about $10,000 to $15,000. Think about it. You know what it takes to live.” Although John Fox was a nationally touring headliner, he was unable to afford health insurance or the screenings that could have saved his life. His friend Dr. Miller decided to do everything he could to make sure this tragedy did not repeat.

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Dr. Bill Miller

On November 13, this M.D. will M.C. “Comedians Helping Comedians” at Zanies in Chicago. Proceeds go to the John Fox Memorial Comedians Fund to help Chicago comedians who are facing hard times. With that assistance, comedians can continue to bring the healing power of laughter to this city and beyond.

Dr. Bill put out the word to Chicago’s comedy community and, as he told me, just about any comedian who’s in town that night wants to be there. On the roster with Dr. Bill: Larry Reeb, Correy Boyd-Bell, Vince Maranto, Patti Vasquez, Derek Graff, Paul Farahvar, Kelsie Huff, Katie Meiners, Jeannie Doogan, Steven Haas, Brian Hicks, Felonious Munk and more surprise guests. If you are unable to make it to this all-star evening, you can still donate to the John Fox Memorial Comedians Fund here.

Dr. Bill kindly spoke with me by phone about becoming a doctor and comedian, his valiant family history, how he balances two demanding careers and why we should all support Chicago’s one-of-a-kind comedy community.

The Beginning

Teme: When did you know that you wanted to be a comedian?

Dr. Bill Miller: I grew up in Los Angeles. When I was little a kid I loved to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. I was always the guy wisecracking in class to get the laugh. My ears would hear my mouth say stuff and the class would laugh. I knew back then I wanted to be a comedian.

Teme: How did you decide to become a doctor?

Dr. Bill Miller: A lot of subtle parental nudging. When I was in high school I said, "I don't know if I want to be a lawyer or go into showbiz." My dad said, "Lawyers are a dime a dozen. You should be a doctor." You always try to get approval from your parents. When someone asked me a few months later, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know … be a doctor.”

When I got to college it was very competitive. People were telling me, "You'll never get into medical school." That was all I needed to hear. If you tell me I can't do something, I'm going to do it even though it may not be what I really want to do. I'm going to do it to prove that I can.

I got into medical school and the summer before I had to go to Northwestern, I went to The Comedy Store every night. Watched all these comedians. I would hang out in front of The Comedy Store. I got to talk to a few of them and I said, "I always wanted to do this!" And they said, "Well, you should!” My first Christmas vacation back from medical school, I went to The Comedy Store on newcomer night. I went on for five minutes. I got laughs and that was it.

When I returned to medical school in Chicago, I found out about a bunch of showcase clubs. I saw Tom Dreesen, O'Brien & Severa, Marsha Warfield, Brad Sanders. I started doing the comedy clubs in Chicago and every time I went home for summer vacation, I would work The Comedy Store and, eventually, The Improv.

After medical school, I did my internship at L.A. County Hospital. I started moonlighting in the emergency room, so I could try to pursue this [comedy] career. I worked my way up to headlining all the clubs.

I got married and had a child and that was the end of going on the road. I didn't want to be an absentee dad. At that point, I limited my performances to medical conventions and hospital parties. While it was okay, it wasn't really satisfying my creative needs.

I got burned out with emergency medicine. A friend of mine called me and said, "Bill, you should do anesthesiology. You get one patient at a time. There's an opening at the University of Illinois." The University of Illinois gave me an interview and offered me a spot. That's how I moved back to Chicago. That was in '90-'91. I continued doing emergency medicine during [anesthesiology] training and even a little bit after. Now I'm pretty much an anesthesiologist, although I talk about emergency medicine because I did that for a big part of my career and there's a lot more to discuss. In anesthesia, there’s not much to be said. You put someone to sleep and make a comment while they're sleeping.

Teme: Do anesthesiologists really do that? I've always wondered!

Dr. Bill Miller: No! The only comments I've ever heard is if some has a crazy tattoo, “Hey, check this out”, but you've got to attend to the business at hand and take care of the patient.

The Holocaust casts a shadow at 42,000 feet

Teme: You told Patti Vasquez a story on her radio show. It was about how being the child of Holocaust survivors influenced your plane trip to medical school. I’m also the child of a Holocaust survivor and your story reminded me of my family. Could I ask you for that story and also, do you think that children of Holocaust survivors tend to gravitate towards comedy?

Dr. Bill Miller: Jews historically have gravitated toward humor. It's the only way to diffuse a lot of the stuff that's been done to us for thousands of years. It's surprising and remarkable that any of the Holocaust survivors can function, provide for and raise a family after going through what they went through. Every issue that they have, it's more than understandable.

My father was liberated from Buchenwald. When I was fifteen, he told me, "If you ever see them separate the Jews from the non-Jews, buy a gun, kill five of them and save the last bullet for yourself." And I said, "What?!" He told me again, "If you see them separate the Jews from the non-Jews, then buy a gun, you kill five of them, save the last bullet for yourself. You'll be better off than having to go through what I went through." He would tell me this over and over and over.

Then I was flying to Northwestern and back then I wasn't a good flier and I was nervous. I'm sitting there and I hear them say on the intercom, "Will passengers Cohen, Rosenberg and Schwartz, please identify yourselves." It was like I saw my dad's head in a cloud, "Bill, if you see them separate the Jews from the non-Jews ..."

And then they asked again. “Passengers Cohen, Rosenberg and Schwartz, please identify yourselves.” I almost jumped up and said, “My name is Miller. It's not a Jewish name, but I'm a Jew too. Put me with them.” But then one raised his hand and a flight attendant went over and said, "Here's your kosher meal." And I went, "Ohh, okay." But if they were looking to separate us, I was thinking I'm going to jump up, I'm going to kill them, all kinds of weird stuff.

My mother was hidden in a false attic by two Polish sisters. Around 1980, my mother was trying to find the woman who saved them. She was reading Reader's Digest and it seemed to be telling the story. She called Reader's Digest, but they couldn’t give her any of the names. So she called the Wiesenthal Center, which was in L.A. The Wiesenthal Center made some inquiries and it turns out, yes, it was a story about the same Polish sisters. So they reunited them. They flew this woman and her husband to Los Angeles and recorded their first meeting since 1945. Then a reporter got involved and the story was told. They made a Lifetime movie about it called Hidden in Silence. It was not about my mother. She was a small part because it was her, my uncle and my grandmother. They saved thirteen Jews in all. These two women were remarkable in what they did.

The doctor and the comedian are in … but not necessarily at the same time.

Teme: Does being a doctor contribute to being a comedian and vice versa? Your patients must appreciate your sense of humor.

Dr. Bill Miller: It definitely helps my bedside manner now. When I was in medical school I didn't want to call attention to myself. Now that I've been a physician for a while I know what I'm doing. If I can get someone to laugh, then I'm okay. It lightens the whole situation.

I'll tell you a story. I was doing a pre-op visit on some guy from one of the northern suburbs. This guy looked like he was right out of The Sopranos. His brother was sitting right there, who also looked like he was out of The Sopranos. I'm trying to get a pre-op assessment of his exercise tolerance. So I say to the guy, "Do you work out?" He goes, "Yeah, I work out all the time. I'm in the Olympics." He was trying to brush me off. So I said, "Really, what's your event, the sit-down?" And his brother cracked up, "I like this guy." I'm thinking, thank God, because if he didn't like me I'd be in trouble.

Teme: That's a great story. A patient who is seeing an anesthesiologist is probably about to have surgery, so it’s nice to be able to laugh.

Dr. Bill Miller: Right, it's a stressful situation, so if you can diffuse it … You got to pick your shots. A knee arthroscopy is totally different than a big cancer surgery.

 

Emergency

Teme: What is the best or craziest thing that's happened during your time as a doctor?

Dr. Bill Miller: I've seen some bad stuff for patients, unfortunately. I've also seen some tremendous saves. One guy had a cardiac arrest right in front of me. We got him resuscitated and brought him back. Two weeks later, I was doing another ER shift and the same guy came in. I said, "Hey, how are you doing? Do you remember me?" He goes, "No." And the nurse who was in the room said, "You see, Dr. Miller, you save a guy’s life and he doesn't even have the courtesy to remember you!" Then the guy said, "Oh, you were on duty?" I said, "Yeah, I'm glad to see you're doing good!"

The craziest thing was a guy fell off a roof and a picket fence went through his side. The fireman brought him in and he had this picket sticking through his chest. That was pretty crazy.

Teme: Wow, what do you do in a situation like that?

Dr. Bill Miller: You do the ABCs [airway, breathing, circulation]. Then you take care of everything else. If initially you pull the thing out, that's the wrong thing to do. As a physician, you learn an orderly algorithm of steps to take in any given situation. Comedy's totally different. In comedy, you can go anywhere you want to go.

Comedy: the craziest show

Teme: What's the best, worst or craziest thing that's happened during your comedy career?

Dr. Bill Miller: I've had a lot of great shows where you just blow the place apart, but you generally remember the worst shows. I was doing a comedy tour in the ‘80s, mostly at colleges. The guy who put the tour together would try to sell us anywhere so we had something to do. We went into this one bar, "Hi, we're the comedians." You know how they have the glasses hanging above the bar in little slots? The guy took an apple crate, turned it over in the corner [for a stage], took a clip-on light, clipped it where the glasses go, handed us some microphones that looked like a “Mr. Microphone,” and he goes, "Hey everybody, we're having comedy."

Teme: That sounds like a great experience.

Dr. Bill Miller: There were three of us. “You go first!” “No, you go first!” “No, you go first!” It’s a great experience now. It wasn’t when we were doing it.

Balancing two demanding careers

Teme: How do you balance comedy and medicine? Are you writing material in your head during the day? How do you find time?

Dr. Bill Miller: Zanies has been really good to me. I try to get a few days, or a week a month. I also work some other places like corporate stuff. In terms of writing, I keep a paper and pencil and an iPhone so I can record ideas. As the day goes by, ideas pop in my head or if I see something funny then I'll write it down. I don't go looking in my daily life for where the joke is. When I'm a doctor, I'm being a doctor. But if something strikes me as funny, I'm going to write it down.

If you could write any prescription …

Teme: If you could give people a prescription for anything, what would it be?

Dr. Bill Miller: Laughter. Laugh at yourself. Hug somebody. Tell someone you love them. That’s pretty much it.

Teme: If you could cure anything, what would it be?

Dr. Bill Miller: It's between cancer and depression. I'd cure cancer if I could cure anything. Cancer leads to a lot of depression.

Which is more rewarding, comedy or medicine?

Teme: Which profession has been more rewarding?

Dr. Bill Miller: I get rewards from both. The rewards are different. There's nothing like being on stage and having the audience love you and laugh. There's a certain elation. Also, if you're taking care of someone who's nervous, you get them through it, then they look at you and go, "Thanks, doc, I really appreciate it," that's also good. When you're telling jokes, there are three hundred of them as opposed to the one patient. In medicine, you can maybe have an effect on an outcome. If someone is having a bad day and they're in trouble, a gunshot or whatever, and you can help someone or save them, that's pretty good.

Teme: I’ve been thinking how great it is to have a doctor on stage. As a patient you really depend on your doctor, but doctors can feel kind of remote. But when you see a doctor on stage …

Dr. Bill Miller: … they're real.

Teme: Yes! More real and accessible. There's something great about a comedian who's a doctor.

Dr. Bill Miller: If somebody needs a Heimlich maneuver in a club, I know how to do it. Early in my career I did some television in L.A. and I was also working in emergency rooms. People would walk in and I went, "Hi, I'm Dr. Miller, what brings you to the emergency room?" One time a guy looked at me and he goes, "Awww, no. Hell no!" Then he just left, honest to God, just walked out and left.

Teme: He thought he was getting a TV doctor!

Dr. Bill Miller: Yes. Just got up and walked out.

Teme: As a comedian and a doctor, two professions that do a lot of human observing, what truths have you learned about people?

Dr. Bill Miller: I'm amazed at the depth of people's will, their resilience, and their capacity to still laugh no matter how bad stuff gets.

The John Fox Memorial Comedians Fund

Teme: How did you become involved with the John Fox Memorial Comedians Fund?

Dr. Bill Miller: John Fox was a road warrior comedian and a friend of mine. He went from gig to gig and he never had any insurance. He ended up having colon cancer. He never had a screening test. If he'd had a screening test, they would have got the polyp when they were supposed to, and he would've been okay.

I visited him when he was dying and I had the idea of starting the John Fox Memorial Comedians Cancer Screening Fund. It was for working comedians who didn't have health insurance. We would pay for their cancer screening test, including a pap smear and mammogram for women, and colonoscopies for men and women.

In the 1990s and the 2000s, comedians’ pay went down. A lot of clubs don't even pay to fly you in. You had to get there with your own money. These comedians were just trying to make a living and pay rent and food, so there was not a whole lot of money for health insurance.

When Obama was elected, he enacted the Affordable Care Act. People didn't need the fund [in the same way] so we made it into a general health and welfare fund for comedians.

Comedians can make a request on an individual basis. I'll give you an example. Comedian A is a working comedian. He has to take his car to Milwaukee or Green Bay for a gig to make $300 for the week. The problem is he has a flat tire. He can't afford a new tire. Or someone may say, “I need antibiotics. The doctor gave me a prescription, but I can't afford it.” Or maybe someone has a kid who’s sick and they can’t afford to go to urgent care. That's where the fund comes in. There are a lot of comedians just living paycheck to paycheck. We evaluate each request on a case-by-case basis. So I had the idea of doing a benefit called "Comedians Helping Comedians."

Historically, comedians have been helping everybody else; farmers, AIDS patients, Bangladesh, famine. It's about time that the comedians, especially Chicago comedians, start helping themselves and each other.

On November 13, we’ll have twelve to fifteen people on the show. Whoever is in town is coming by to do a few minutes. All proceeds go to the fund.

Teme: I don't know if audiences realize that comedians make it look easy, but it takes a lot of work and sacrifice to keep a comedy career going. What was John Fox like as a person?

Dr. Bill Miller: He was a Chicago comic and a road warrior. He was a partier. He was the prototypical comic of the day. Drinking, partying, womanizing. You ask anyone back in the day. “John Fox? Animal." He was a good guy. I liked him a lot. I don't think anyone didn't like him. The owner of The Icehouse in California, Bob Fisher, said, "If my life depended on someone getting laughs, I'd want John on stage."

 

Teme: Why is it important for Chicago to support the comedy community?

Dr. Bill Miller: There are ten million people in the area that need to laugh. Chicago should be a nurturing place and a cultivating place for comedians. A lot of great comedians have come out of Chicago and that needs to continue. We need a place where young comedians can develop and all of a sudden pop and go nationwide. The more people who support live comedy, the better off we're all going to be.

Teme: Absolutely anything else we should let people know?

Dr. Bill Miller: On November 13, come honor John Fox and Chicago comedians, and support us. Next time I'm at Zanies, come and say hello.

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Comedians Helping Comedians is at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells St., Chicago, on Wednesday, November 13 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets and more details here.

You can also donate to the John Fox Memorial Comedians Fund here.

Follow Dr. Bill Miller on Facebook and at drbillcomedy.com.

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