Don Haines in his comedy routine dodges praise for coping with and beating acute myeloid leukemia.
He’s often heard things like, “Good for you, fighting cancer.” His bit draws mainly from his daily life raising three kids and he’s even begun to work his ordeal with the disease into his comedy routines.
“Well I think the doctors really, like, deserve a lot of it,” he said. “It’s harder to raise these stupid teenagers than it is to fight the cancer.”
Cancer is what spurred him to do comedy, said Haines, also known by his stage name, “Poor Don.”
“I love stand-up comedy. I always have. I love telling stories,” Haines said. “So after I got sick and came home and everything else, I thought, ‘Well, why not?’”
He started performing at open comedy nights last year. He reconnected there with a past co-worker and local comedian, Daren Bulow, who came up with the idea for Casper Comedians Care to perform fundraiser shows for local nonprofits.
The group’s first show is for the American Cancer Society, which helped Haines and his family while he received treatment in Denver. American Cancer Society Comedy Night on Aug. 17 features a show with Haines and Bulow at the Black Gold Grille. Their second is Sept. 7 at Gruner Brothers Brewing to benefit the Casper Mountain Biathlon Club, and they hope to continue to perform monthly.
“We’re trying to give someone an opportunity to go out and laugh for an evening and donate to a good cause,” Haines said. “And it’s a win-win.”
Following a dream
While other kids were listening to Metallica in sixth and seventh grade, Haines would put on his old Bill Cosby, Steven Wright and George Carlin records.
During jobs in environmental chemistry, computers and working a veterinarian pharmacy lab, he’d always been known as the funny guy at work, “which my managers don’t particularly like but my co-workers do,” he said.
Haines was diagnosed in 2017 just after his 41st birthday. He’d taken the next day off and woke up not feeling well, thinking he’d just had too much to drink.
“Must have had a lot of fun,” he thought when he felt worse the next day. Two and half days later, he was life-flighted to Denver. He was diagnosed with not just cancer, but bird flu and strep throat, which caused his throat and neck to swell.
He spent five months in the Denver area undergoing two rounds of chemotherapy, five bone marrow biopsies a stem cell transplant from his brother. Strep throat struck again after his first round of chemotherapy, and he contracted an infection. Then mucositis swelled his mouth and throat shut so he couldn’t eat. Between chemo, a feeding tube and his medications, he at one point had 15 bags of fluid being pumped into him from what he called his “Christmas tree,
Key dates in Haines’ recovery fell on the spring’s most festive holidays. He was discharged from the hospital on St. Patrick’s Day. The transplant was April 19, which he joked was also the anniversary of his divorce — “So rebirth twice I guess right there,” he said. He was released from the hospital again on Cinco de Mayo.
“So I don’t know if God’s telling me to slow down,” Haines said, “or to live my life in version 2.0.”
Cancer has struck close to Bulow too. His father died of colon cancer. He’s had skin cancer removed, though luckily it was caught early and didn’t require further treatment, he said. His sister recently was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society funds go toward cancer research and helping with travel and lodging costs for treatment away from home and family visits.
“Hopefully being able to raise a couple hundred or even $1,000 — that to me that means there are four families that can go to Denver or Salt Lake, drive there, visit their patient, family member, stay the night and come home,” Haines said. “And even if it’s just one night, that makes a lot of difference.”
At about half his shows, someone in the audience has also been a cancer survivor, he said.
“This cancer society show for me is finally being able to feel like I can give back, even if it is a laugh,” Haines said, “and give something back to the people who helped me out so much.”
Life of a comedian
Haines used to be quick to frustration and seething anger, with tension in his body all the time, he said.
“I personally I think cancer saved my life,” he said. “I was easily on my way to being one of those guys that was a heart attack by 50.”
Cancer put life in perspective. Even his kids and girlfriend have expressed, “We kind of like you better since you got sick,” he said.
It’s harder for him now to understand videos of base-jumpers and other thrill seekers “tempting fate,” as they say. Because cancer can sneak up at any time, he said.
“It’s like, bud, I had a taste of the grave, and I don’t like it,” he said.
Both comedians agree comedy provides plenty of thrill. Bulow has rappelled and raced mountain bikes, but nothing compares to the rush of performing comedy, he said. He’ll pause before the punchline.
“And then I can make them laugh again at the punchline, that’s as much of an adrenaline rush as anything I’ve ever done,” he said. “And it’s just as fearful as skydiving, because when you tell a joke and it falls flat, and you’ve got 40 more minutes to go; you’ve got to recover from that. It’s kind of like free-falling thinking your chute isn’t opening and you’ve got to win back all those people in the crowd that you just told that joke to that they didn’t like.”
Bulow started performing comedy intermittently about 10 years ago after he wrote it on his New Year’s resolutions list on a whim. His wife about two years ago gave him a year to either stop talking about being a comedian or be a comedian and perform regularly, he said. He landed a gig in May 2018 in his Iowa hometown of 1,000 for the anniversary of their community center. With three months to prepare, he booked several shows around town.
“And I was like, so I’m the 50-year-old guy that moved away that’s the idiot,” he said, “if I don’t do good.”
His wife’s challenge forced him to start performing more, and he’s done paid shows in Colorado, South Dakota and Montana, he said.
Casper’s musical talent is often showcased, but comedy shows are few and far between. Still, Casper is ready for comedy, Bulow said. Recent comedy shows Haines has attended brought “enormous” turnout and response, he said.
Open mic comedy nights were held for a while at the Ramada in Casper and offered a place to perform and meet others interested in the art, Bulow said.
Bulow and Haines performed a St. Patrick’s Day show this year at Staggers pub with another comedian who’s since moved. Bulow saw how good they were and how the audience responded, he said.
“They literally roared at all of our stuff,” he said, “And I knew we had something special. And that’s when I said, ‘Well we don’t have any place to play. So we started with Casper Comedians Care with the idea that we could put on a show, we can benefit the community, and on top of benefiting the community we get to do our comedy.”
Working with others has inspired him and motivated him to pursue more shows, he said.
“Comedy is lonely anyway because you’re the only person up there,” Bulow said. “And to do what we do, I tell people, when you hit one bad note, if you’re a musician people will look and then they’ll go on to the rest. When a joke falls flat, it’s unlike anything that you’ve ever seen. It just gets quiet. And there isn’t any harmony in the back. It’s you and everybody’s looking at you.”
Haines knows the feeling from some of his earlier trials too.
“I found out that you can’t make fun of Garth Brooks in this state,” he said.
With comedy, timing is everything, Bulow said.
Shows take many hours of practice and countless more go into the writing, he said. His stand-up often features stories of his outdoors passions or crafting, a hobby he picked up from his wife that they do together, he said.
“So what they say about comedy is you have to be yourself. So this is me,” Bulow said. “My comedy is about hunting, fishing, dogs and crafting.”
Haines’ comedy spins humorous stories from his life too, usually provided by scenarios with his kids along with a few observations.
“I figure if I just put myself out there and let them know all the crazy goofy stuff that’s happened to me, then maybe they’ll understand that they’re not the only one with brain-dead teenagers or whose kids say or do stupid stuff,” he said. “It’s everywhere all the time, and just rather than being upset about it or being frustrated about it, just trying to turn that around and look at it and laugh at it for what it is.”
While Bulow tells stories of the outdoors, Haines talks about his “chagrin of the outdoors.”
“Why would you work 40-60 hours a week for indoor plumbing, air conditioning, internet, Netflix and a wonderful mortgage at your house just so you could go spend the weekends under two poles and a tarp and sleeping in the dirt?” he said in a sample from his routine. “So you can smell like fish? Oh boy, sign me up.”
Humor was crucial to Haines while dealing with cancer, whether it was cracking jokes or laughing at the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000” that was released while he in the hospital, he said.
“Joking with my mom or my aunt or my brother, whoever was in the room with me, joking with the nurses and staying positive — rather than just getting corkscrewed down into some hole of depression of pity or something like that,” he said, “I mean definitely, my sense of humor definitely got me through it.”