It’s Saturday evening, July 9, and the house is packed at the Empire Theater in downtown San Antonio.
Local comedian Larry Garza, one of the opening acts of the night, steps out of the green room and paces back and forth. His wife of nine years, Andee, watches him intently as he walks the hallway looking at some of the signatures on the walls, scribbles left by comedians who have taken the stage at the venue in the past. Jerry Seinfeld. Carol Channing. “Weird Al” Yankovic. Like those high-profile performers, Garza wants to make his mark, too.
This is the first time Garza will perform a stand-up comedy routine at the Empire. He’s excited and thankful for the opportunity, but also a bit nervous. Garza’s not scared the audience won’t think he’s funny. He’s worried his body literally cannot handle the performance.
“I’m not sure if I should do the joke where I jump around like a Baptist preacher,” Garza, 35, says. “I don’t know what my energy is going to be like.”
Only 12 days have passed since Garza woke up in the ICU at University Hospital after coming out of surgery to remove the middle lobe of his lung, where scans revealed a malignant tumor. It was his second major surgery in the last three weeks. During his first surgery on June 6, exactly a month after he was diagnosed with stage 4 renal cell carcinoma, doctors removed his entire right kidney, the source of the cancer, and took biopsies of his lymph nodes. The cancerous mass, which had already metastasized in one of his lungs, had also started to attack his liver, colon and spleen, so it had to be cut from those organs as well.
It’s an unexpected fight Garza is facing, but not one he is going to let break his spirit, will or wit.
“You hear ‘stage 4 cancer’ and you think, ‘I’m a goner,’” Garza said. “I said, ‘No wonder I’m losing weight! I knew it had nothing to do with those kale smoothies!’”
Having twice gone under the knife, Garza’s weak, still in pain, and emotionally drained (like a “cut up piece of meat,” as he puts it) as he readies himself for the stage. A show at the Empire was something he always wanted to scratch off his bucket list. In fact, he takes pride in knowing that the gig, which was booked before his diagnosis, wasn’t offered out of pity. Since chemotherapy seemed like the next step in his treatment, he didn’t know if this would be a last chance to perform for the foreseeable future. Most of all, he didn’t want to let anyone down, including himself.
“I know it might sound cliché, but I didn’t want it to beat me,” Garza said. “I didn’t want to go dark.”
Garza certainly isn’t the first comedian to use his or her craft to cope with a serious disease like cancer. In 2014, stand-up comedian Tig Notaro made headlines when she performed topless for part of her set at the New York Comedy Festival after being diagnosed with breast cancer and having a double mastectomy. In June of this year, stand-up comedian Quincy Jones released his HBO comedy special Quincy Jones: Burning the Light after doctors diagnosed him with terminal stage 4 mesothelioma in 2015 and gave him a year to live.
According to a 2010 University of Colorado study, which was later published by the Association of Psychological Science, “jokes help people cope with the hard times in life. An ability to laugh at rough moments can reduce the negative emotions surrounding a stressful event and also create the positive feelings associated with amusement in general.”
Garza has had to deal with some rough moments this year. But rather than allowing depression or anger to take over, he instead chose to deal with cancer the only way he knew how: by laughing his way through it.
“Being diagnosed with cancer was like the ultimate test of his humor,” said Castro, who co-founded the local sketch and improv comedy troupe Comedia A Go-Go with Garza, Regan Avalos and Joel Settles in 2002. “I think it would’ve been really difficult if he hadn’t come out of the gate just laughing about it. But he threw the first punch, so we went with it.”
For Garza, who had recently won the 2016 Funniest in South Texas competition and performed with comedian Paul Rodriguez at the Laugh Factory in Scottsdale, Arizona, it wasn’t even a question that he would take on his cancer diagnosis in his own way. He wanted Andee and his daughter Mykee, 11, son Gunnar, 6, and the rest of his family and friends to know he was going to be just fine. Joking about it was just inherent.
“That’s how every true comedian copes with the bad stuff – we joke about it,” Garza said. “You make a joke out of it so it’s not so heavy. It’s a true example of using comedy to lighten the load and let everyone know, ‘We’re OK. Nothing is going to take our sense of humor away.’”
Since he knew he wouldn’t be performing on stage anytime soon, Garza instead took to social media with some new cancer-inspired material. He started on May 7 with his first post about his health: “Just to warn you, I’m going to be posting cancer stuff as much as girls who [post about] CrossFit and sell those crazy wrap things.”
Three days later, he explained to everyone following him online that they shouldn’t be offended if they read something on his page that could be construed as insensitive. “Don’t be upset if you read someone saying something mean,” Garza wrote. “They’re joking. Laugh with me guys. And let me touch your butt. I have cancer.”
“It seemed only natural for Larry to use humor,” said Avalos. “Looking back at [our] text messages [during that time], they are some of the funniest exchanges we’ve ever had. He admitted to being scared, but not once did it ever seem he lost hope.”
For the next three months, Garza’s social media pages were like his personal open mic—jokes about his tumor headlining at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center (“This asshole is getting more corporate work than me”); a story about a man he met at the doctor’s office who was there for a colonoscopy while he was there for a bronchoscopy (“I hope they don’t mix the cameras up”); a photo reproduction from a scene of his favorite movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Garza imitating Leatherface.
Andee didn’t mind. They had been together since right after high school, so she wasn’t at all surprised by how he was handling the situation.
“We both have the same sense of humor, so we just started making constant jokes back and forth,” Andee said. “I told him, ‘When this is over, if you live or die, either way, I’m going to Disney World.’”
She wasn’t even surprised when he decided to include very specific funeral arrangements in his will. Along with turning his memorial into a Comedy Central-style roast and playing a handful of “inappropriate” songs like 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” and DJ Laz’s “Sabrosura,” Garza wanted to go all out.
So, he tapped a friend of his who does special effects and made him agree, in writing, to dress him up like Dracula in the event of his death. Garza even wanted a wooden stake next to the casket with a sign that read, “Use in case Larry wakes up.”
“Imagine you go to my funeral and you’re sad and you walk up to my coffin and I’m dressed like Dracula!” Garza said. “You’d crack up laughing!”
In addition to wanting to be buried as a classic movie villain, Garza had other pressing things on his mind. While driving home three days before his first surgery in early June, he noticed something eerie in the bed of a truck beside him: a headstone with the name “Garza” engraved on it. “Talk about a bad sign,” he posted on Twitter along with a cell phone picture of the grave marker.
The bad omen only added to the fear Garza was already feeling. He thought he was going to die and didn’t want to do that without leaving something behind that his children could watch to understand how much comedy meant to him. With help from fellow comedians, and an outpouring of support from family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, Garza was able to record a stand-up special on DVD before he checked into the hospital.
“I worked hard on that material and none of it was recorded,” Garza said. “I just couldn’t die with all that stuff. It became a legacy thing.”
As significant as the DVD special was to Garza, it wasn’t the most important thing he recorded during that time. He also started thinking about all the milestones in his children’s lives he was going to miss if he didn’t survive. “I recorded me and my daughter dancing for her wedding,” he told the Current.
“Just in case.”
Ten weeks after the scare of his life, Garza sits comfortably in his home on the far West side of San Antonio taking Tylenol 3s for the discomfort; the other pain meds, he says, are just too strong.
Evidence of his knock-down, drag-out fight with cancer is unmistakable when he lifts his shirt. There are five scars—four small ones on the right side of his body from the lung surgery (“It looks like I got shanked,” he jokes) and a large gash across his belly from the kidney surgery that Garza says reminds him of “Christmas tinsel.”
“I had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror, but everyone was telling me how badass the scar was, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I look like a Leatherface victim!’” he said. “But when I finally saw it, I thought, ‘It doesn’t look badass! It looks like Cinderella’s dress!’”
Although Garza is not technically “cancer free,” he and his doctors have decided to hold off on chemotherapy since he’s currently showing “no evidence of disease.” They continue to monitor him closely.
“I feel like I’m in the second act of my life,” Garza said. “The whole reason why I live, aside from my family, is to make people laugh. This is like a restart.”
As a cancer survivor, Garza hopes his story can help others find the best way to personally cope with their disease. He wants people to see that he’s living proof it can be defeated. As a cancer survivor, who also happens to be a stand-up comedian, however, Garza refuses to accept the label of “cancer comedian.”
He’s been working so hard his entire career to expand the scope of his material, he doesn’t want to lose sight of who he is as a performer.
“If I wasn’t a comedian before I got cancer, then maybe I’d be OK being the ‘cancer comic,’ but that would be too easy,” Garza said. “Yes, I want to talk about it because it happened to me, but I don’t want to make it who I am. I won’t let it define me.”
Waiting in the wings at the Empire, Andee kisses her husband on the top of his head as he sits patiently behind the theater curtain. One by one, his fellow comedians step up to the mic and give strong performances before Garza makes his way to center stage.
Jokes on marriage equality, terrorism, religion and the love Mexicans have for funnel cakes make the raucous crowd roar with laughter during the first eight minutes of a solid 10-minute set.
Finally, the moment Garza had worried about: a joke that features a Baptist preacher addressing his congregation about Jesus Christ’s social media habits. Garza doesn’t hold back, and his animated impersonation (somewhat reminiscent of Arsenio Hall’s Reverend Brown character from Coming to America) is a hit with the audience. Garza leaves the stage pumped like a powerlifter who just squatted 800 pounds, and just as exhausted. He leans on a rail, closes his eyes and catches his breath.
“I shouldn’t have done that last joke,” Garza said, laughing slightly. “My adrenaline freaked my body out.”
A few days later, he would describe the set as one of the best he’s ever done. And, more importantly, not his last.