By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The audience erupts with laughter, and Orvik addresses the fictional DJ dad. "Sir," he says. "I respect your daughter in every way. With all due respect, how much, hypothermically, would it cost to cover this woman in peanut butter and force her to fuck a badger to death?"
Section 8 is not known for clean comedy. The "fast-paced, in your face, rock 'n' roll comedy" described in their motto tends toward R-rated because it's what makes them laugh. In Orvik's case, this penchant for dirty humor became a lifeline as he lay in the hospital connected to tubes and growing more skeletal by the day (he says he lost 46 pounds in three weeks, and he was skinny to start with).
"You have to make light of it," he says. "If you dwell on something like this, you're screwed."
Research details the role of humor in physical and psychological healing. Articles released by the American Psychological Association and the international Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor point out that laughter stimulates blood flow, reduces stress-related hormones, increases antibodies and displaces negative emotions like anger, resentment and sadness.
Samuel Roll, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Mexico who has lectured nationwide on the therapeutic power of humor, says that while most research has focused on the people laughing at jokes rather than making them, a comedian laughing with people while he's performing derives the same benefits. Being a humorist also reaps its own rewards, he adds, especially during a health crisis. "Telling jokes is empowering because you can drive people to laughter," Roll says. "And when you're going through anything physical, you're tuned into your own body. Performing lets you get out of yourself in a very important way."
Making jokes is a natural way to relieve anxiety about one's insecurities, Roll says, and most jokes are designed—consciously or not—to do just that. Josh Martin, Orvik's best friend, the godfather of his sons and a Section 8 cofounder, is squeamish around blood and didn't want to see where his friend had been sliced open from gut to gizzard. So naturally, whenever Martin came to visit, Orvik lifted his shirt, showed him the wound and said, "Check out the hole in my stomach!"
One day while Orvik was waiting for a doctor during a friend's visit, he staged a photograph he calls, "Before Boner Reduction Surgery." The image shows him lying on a gurney surrounded by boxes of latex gloves and medical instruments. Strategically placed beneath the sheet is a 3-and-a-half-foot monolith rising toward the ceiling (an IV pole).
"When the doctor came in I told him that I had been bitten on my penis by a rattlesnake and he had to suck the poison out," Orvik says. "He thought that was funny. The nurse was mortified. I looked at her and said, 'Save me.' I was very bored and looped on morphine."
Amid his multiple surgeries, laughing and making light of life became crucial. This grew especially clear during the three days that he shared a hospital room with a Texarkana physician who was losing his vision. The man would talk about the worst-case scenarios for both of them, which to Orvik was less than helpful. "He would talk about the fatality rate of peritonitis [between 10 and 40 percent, especially if not treated within 48 hours], and after a while I had to tell him, 'Hey, look man, I don't want to talk about that,'" Orvik recalls. "Unless you're gonna tell me I'm gonna shit unicorns and sell 'em on eBay, I don't want to hear about it."
Orvik's favorite roommate was a middle-aged man from Oak Cliff who also was suffering from peritonitis. Instead of talking about their health problems, they chatted about sports, watched TNT—"We'd plan our whole day around some Ice Cube movie!" Orvik says. "I mean, I was like, 'Do you realize we gotta be seriously fucked up? We're analyzing Ice Cube's acting ability!'"—and flirted with the nurses, who, if they weren't genuinely entertained, humored the men.
"They'd come by and let me do what I do, make them laugh," Orvik says. "It helped."
He took to calling his roommate Bedpan because the man frequently needed one. Intermittently throughout the day and night, the guy would push the intercom button and say, simply, "Bedpan." The nurses often failed to understand his deep, gravelly voice, and he would have to repeat himself numerous times.
"We had a unified front," Orvik says. "He'd push the button, and then I'd push mine and say, "Bedpan needs a bedpan. You know he's gonna shit his pants, right?'"
The closest the two ever came to heartfelt exchanges was when Orvik shared a jumbo bag of Jolly Ranchers, a gift from Martin. Bedpan—who was also discharged and who Orvik still runs into at the hospital occasionally—looked at him with such gratitude, he says, it was as if he'd "given him a house." They clearly bonded through their banter. "I'll never forget Bedpan," Orvik says. "Ever."
From the time he was a kid growing up the youngest of three children in the tiny Air Force town of Knob Noster, Missouri, Orvik's irreverent, oddball humor defined him. His father died of cancer when he was 5, and his mother, Denise, a chipper, no-nonsense Australian, says Orvik used his ability to make people laugh to lighten the mood and distract himself from the fact that while his friends had fathers, he did not. At 6, she says, he began charging a dollar at family events to imitate television characters such as The Little Rascals. Orvik first noticed his knack for improvisation in the third grade, when he played the narrator in a class play. "I didn't memorize the lines," he says. "I just knew I could make my way out of the scene and make it funnier." When his sister decided to take acting classes two years later, he went along and surprised the teacher by riffing on various topics without a script.