Too Soon

For months after having a gun pointed at my head during a robbery, all I could do was laugh — then I did stand-up for the first time. If the stereotype is all comedians are depressed and broken inside, then stand-up comedy is our therapy.

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In December of 2012, just days before Christmas, I was working as the evening shift supervisor at a Rogers store. We were the only store still open in the strip mall. Ten minutes before closing, two masked men walked into the store and pointed a gun directly at me. 

I was confused. At first, I thought it was a prank, then one of the robbers planted the barrel of the gun against my forehead. (If this was a prank, it was a good one because I was panicking.) They dragged me to the back room where all the cell phones were locked up. (In 2012 cell phones were worth more on the underground market than actual cash.) 

They threw me against the phone safe with a duffle bag. Even before they threatened to kill me, I knew I was going to do whatever they asked. I started filling up the duffle bag, but I was struggling. Fear hit me, and my adrenaline was kicking in. I remember thinking it was a lot harder to pack a duffle bag with cell phone boxes of different sizes than it would have been to stuff cash into it. 

As I was frantically trying to fill the bag, I could hear the assholes arguing in the next room about what they were going to do with me. 

Now I was having some dark thoughts: Was I going to die? Would I ever see my family again? Was I a bad person? 

I finished filling up the duffle bag, and they shoved me back onto the ground. One of them demanded I give them my wallet and phone. The other one protested and said I cooperated so they wouldn’t do that. 

Then silence. 

It was the longest moment of my life. I’ve heard that your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. In that moment, I heard complete silence — a terrifying silence. 

It was finally broken when one of them told me to countdown from 100 before I got up. I heard them turn around and listened as their footsteps became fainter as they exited the store. The door closed behind them, I continued to stay face down on the floor. Then everything was clear — in focus. I was numb, but aware of everything happening. I was calm, but I was also trying not to scream. 

Later the police told me that the robbery was under five minutes long. 

I kept thinking about how the whole incident felt like an eternity. I couldn’t stop replaying it in my head. It kept playing over and over like a Tarantino movie. If there were a cell phone robbery scene in Pulp Fiction, I would have been in it. I started thinking there was something I could have done. I should have disarmed them and kicked their asses. I could have been a hero, but instead I almost crapped my pants while they pointed a gun at me. 

Someone from the Rogers head office contacted me the next day and offered me free counselling with a therapist, but I was angry and numb at the time. I never took them up on that offer. I didn’t think therapy would work for me. I didn’t want to talk about how much of a victim I was and how stupid and helpless I was feeling. I was afraid that would make it real, and I would always be broken inside. 

I was studying film acting at the time and I remember learning about the line between comedy and tragedy being very thin. Maybe when you tap into those kinds of emotions, they draw from the same well. I wondered if maybe I could put myself back in the emotional state of the robbery if I ever needed to cry for a scene. I also noticed that most comedic performers could put out surprising dramatic performances. Robin Williams, one of my all-time comedy heroes, proved this with his Oscar winning performance in Good Will Hunting. I re-watched that movie after the robbery and thought about how vulnerable he must have been to get that kind of edge.

Like many others, I make jokes when I’m in uncomfortable or in tense situations. Joking is a social defence mechanism, but I began using it to process the dark thoughts I was having after the robbery. There were a million things I wanted to say about what had happened to me. 

I survived having a gun pointed at my head — I was invincible. It seemed like the perfect time to try stand-up comedy, something I had always wanted to do. I started remembering the funny observations I had during the robbery. While I was still going over and over the scene in my head, if felt more like a skit for Saturday Night Live than a scary loop I couldn’t escape. Turning it into comedy gave me a sense of control.

Charles Fernandes performing a stand-up set at The Rose and Bee in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2013
Performing my first stand-up set at The Rose and Bee in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2013

“I recently survived my first armed robbery.” 

(I can tell the audience is confused, but I have their attention.)

“I was working the late shift at a Rogers store and these two assholes come in and point a gun right at my head.” 

(The audience is still attentive, but also looks confused about where this is going.)

“Don’t worry, I didn’t die.” 

(They start to chuckle a bit. I’m feeling more confident.) 

“There is no real way to prepare for a robbery. Sure, they have these online training sessions that everyone ignores, but nothing really prepares you for when there is a gun in your face. Especially movies. I’m a big movie guy and in all the movies it’s always, ‘Put the money in the bag!’ But these guys didn’t want any cash, all they wanted were cell phones.” 

(The audience is glued to me, and I stare at the blinding stage lights so I won’t freak out.) 

“Trying to stuff these phones in a duffle bag was the worst game of Jenga I’ve ever played. Who likes Jenga? Do you like it with a gun to your head? Fuck no.” 

(The audience starts to laugh, and I was on a good flow.) 

“These two assholes start getting into an argument about what they are going to do with me and I’m over here stuffing this duffle bag like I stole all the building blocks from a bunch of kids on a playground.” 

(Everyone is laughing now.) 

That comedy set was the first time I talked about that awful night out loud. I was finally able to talk about some of the trauma I was dealing with. I got applause and it wasn’t just from the few friends that were there. Most importantly, I felt like a weight was lifted off me. The numbness, pain, loneliness, and fear weren’t on my mind. I felt like I made a breakthrough. 

I finally started feeling like myself again. When I talked about that experience on stage, it was my opportunity to change that memory and not let it define me. I was in control of the narrative and that gave me power over the trauma. Making comedy created some order of out the chaos. The process went something like this:

1. I’ll tell you what happened and how it affected me
2. We’ll laugh about it, and
3. I’ll get to move past it. 

If the stereotype is all comedians are sad and broken inside, then is stand-up comedy our therapy? 

Local comedian Sarah Jane Martin has been using stand-up comedy as a form of therapy for over ten years. She’s even talked about it in her sets before and has made a routine around it. 

“I have this joke where I recently started seeing a therapist and people would say she’s so brave. I’m like, Yeah, you know, we’ve got a really good rapport, and we just really understand each other… just to clarify, I’m not like paying a therapist about my problems. That’s fucking pathetic. No, we’re having intercourse,” laughed Sarah. “No, I don’t go to therapy. I show up to comedy shows and I trauma dump on all of you, and then you pay me.”

Sarah Jane Martin performs stand-up comedy during a show at X-Cues in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2023.
Sarah Jane Martin headlines a comedy show at X-Cues in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2023 (Charles Fernandes)

Sarah got her start into comedy when she was dealing with the grief of her father dying from cancer. She says she gets all her humour from him, and that stand-up comedy helps her continue to live a life without him — while keeping his memory alive.

“I still remember some of the first jokes that I made when I was like seven, eight years old that landed, and my dad would burst into laughter,” she said beaming. “It really helps me not to only process the trauma of losing my dad, but also just helps foster this sense of connectedness with my dad.” 

I’m a big nerd and I love all that superhero crap. I like to think everyone has a superpower that they keep hidden from the world. Some are more secretive than others, but I started thinking that being able to see the funny or silver lining in the bleakest of situations is a comedian’s superpower. 

“Ruminating on trauma is like staring directly into the sun… It’ll burn your retinas and give you cancer if you do it for too long. But if you can harness the power of trauma comedy, that’s like having a magic prism,” Sarah said. “Hold that prism up to the sun and it will scatter that beam of light and disperse it into a rainbow where it’s not going to burn your retinas and give you cancer, but you suddenly see all this beautiful colour to it.” 

Big-name comedians like Tig Notaro also document and process trauma through comedy. Tig’s 2015 Netflix special Tig launched what feels like a new wave of trauma-comedy. Not long before she recorded the special, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and C. diff (an infection that attacks the colon) and she made it part of her set. Her mother also suffered a tragic fall during this time and shortly after, passed away in the hospital. Dealing with this loss, Tig was then diagnosed with cancer in both of her breasts. That same day, her friend and co-producer of their comedy show, texted her and asked her if she still wanted to do a set that week. Tig explained that it might have been insane, but as soon as she was diagnosed with cancer, she saw the funny in everything. 

On August 3, 2012, a few days after the cancer news, Tig performed at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles to a packed audience. She started her set by simply saying, “Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you?” 

While people were caught off guard at first, they eventually laughed and cried with Tig during her set. This skyrocketed her to fame, notoriety, and gave her more room for her dark awkward commentary on life. It also started to change the industry and how audiences saw the act of comedians telling jokes. Today more storytelling comedians and more comedy specials focus on the harsh realities of life. Marc Maron did this in 2023 with his comedy special, From Bleak to Darktalking about losing his life partner during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Relatability is something local comedian, Jimmy Skinner, believes is the ultimate key to what makes a great comedy set. He has been preforming, hosting and producing comedy shows around Manitoba for the last six years. 

“I think it just comes down to being relatable. Like when you tell a story on stage, I think the audience can tell when it’s not real, and that’s when you kind of find yourself in trouble,” explained Jimmy. “If you can draw that fine line between making it seem real but just fucked up enough where you’re like, my God, this is completely insane, but you believe it. That’s half of it. That’s making a joke.” 

Jimmy uses an honest observational approach to his comedy. While he doesn’t directly talk about trauma in his sets or trauma dump, he understands how comedians sharing about trauma can be therapeutic. He thinks comedy is a healthy way to experience fear and overcome it. 

Jimmy Skinner performs comedy during a show at The Limelight in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2023 (Charles Fernandes)

“I think it’s the safest way to experience fear, real fear,” explained Jimmy, “you’ll bomb, but the best do. I think it’s just the healthiest way besides, like, doing height related things.”

Jeff Gobeil has been performing stand-up comedy regularly at X-Cues for just over a year and has already found a following with his approach. He says that telling his truth on stage — including having a difficult childhood, overcoming addiction and being a survivor of sexual assault — helps him overcome his past. Jeff thinks dark humour can land like gold, but it needs to be done artfully, which good comedians do by reading their audiences and establishing trust.

“You need to feel it out… you can probably do damage to a person. If I were to sincerely trauma dump in the way my brain works, like I can fuck up someone’s day — and I have done it in the past,” said Jeff. “I’m someone leaning a little too much into the gory details and there are a lot of gory details. I’ve learned being on stage to test the waters a little bit.” 

Jeff Gobeil interacts with the crowd during a set for a comedy show at X-Cues in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2023 (Charles Fernandes)

When Jeff was still figuring out his comedy style, he had a panic attack just before going on stage at a show. He suffers from asthma and had forgotten his inhaler in the car. When his name was called, he went on stage mid panic attack and practised what he did in his therapy sessions: breathing and being honest about what was going on. He says the panic suddenly stopped, and he continued his set as he had planned. It ended up being one of his best sets to date. 

He ended up telling his therapist about what happened, and she was positive about his experience. 

“I told her about being on stage… and she said ‘you were on stage, you’re a creative person with an outlet and you were authentic to yourself. And in that moment your body knew it and just let it go.’ And I was like, damn, I wonder if I can recreate that moment without the panic attack,” laughed Jeff. 

Jeff hopes his comedy will continue to be beneficial for others. He also wants to use his stage time to connect with other survivors. 

“One person, by me sharing, has told me they have since gone to police with their own story and that’s ultimately what I want,” said Jeff. 

Jeff’s experience of channelling his traumatic experiences through the prism of comedy has allowed him to connect with his audience. It’s a way of making something new out of his pain.

“I think if people just allow themselves to recognize the humour in trauma, then they’re going to be a lot better equipped to deal with it when it happens to them… you can either plug your ears, close your eyes and like count the seconds until your life is over, or you can accept trauma as inevitable and use humour as one of the tools in your belt to deal with it,” Sarah said. 

David Granirer, a counsellor and stand-up comedian, created a therapy program for using comedy to treat mental health conditions called, Stand Up for Mental Health. He has been using this workshop to teach people how to use comedy to treat PTSD and other mental illnesses or deal with other emotional traumas since 2014. He uses improv and comedy exercises to help people approach their trauma with a different perspective, getting them to see the humour and make fun of it. Participants take their situations and create stand-up sets or comedy scenes that they can perform, sometimes at treatment centres and other mental health facilities. Living with bipolar disorder himself, Granirer knows that performances by patients for patients can be powerful.

One important concept in improv is saying “yes” to everything to create opportunities, whether it’s a suggestion for location, object, or mood, whatever you get, you have to say yes.  This concept helps patients overcome trauma by saying yes to it and saying yes to the opportunity that comes from it.

Yes, someone stuck a gun in my face, and I could have died. Yes, I survived it and I’m still here. Yes, it was stupid, and I want to make fun of it. Yes, I feel better, and I know I will be better. 

If the audience can identify with other people living with trauma or mental illness, the thinking goes, then it could inspire them to try this therapeutic approach for themselves. Granirer’s program is growing with more participants attending sessions and more cities across North America offering these workshops every year.

I always loved comedy, but before my first stand-up experience, I never thought it would be something that would help me to deal with a traumatic experience, but processing the robbery and talking about it on stage changed the way I think about comedy and trauma.

Having a gun pointed at me was horrible and still affects me today — it probably always will, but I didn’t want to be a victim, I wanted to take control of it. The best way I knew how to do that was to make fun of it and look at the hilarity of it all. This wasn’t an Ocean’s Eleven heist, and they were not masterminds. They were just a couple of assholes with a gun.

The blinding sun is the robbery, and all the colours from the prism are the hilarious reasons I survived. 

You want to know what happened? You want to know how I survived the robbery or how I’m feeling? Come see my comedy show, five dollars at the door and cheap drinks all night. 

Headshot of Charles Fernandes

Charles Fernandes

When Charles (he/him) isn’t creating content for his YouTube channel, he can be found playing video games and ranting on The Reel Debaters Podcast. He watches too many movies and loves being the go-to “movie guy."
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