Jesse Case on Cancer, Podcasting and Music For A Life Well-Lived

Comedy Features
Jesse Case on Cancer, Podcasting and Music For A Life Well-Lived

Often, when I listen to Jesse Case’s podcast, I forget that he has stage four colon cancer (or, as Case likes to call it, “ass cancer of the ass”). It’s not that he doesn’t talk about it. He does. A lot. As the show’s title, Jesse vs. Cancer, might suggest, cancer is the uninvited guest on Case’s otherwise one-man podcast. He gives updates on his treatment, talks candidly about getting used to having things shoved up his ass, and frequently reports on the degree of loopiness he’s currently experiencing from chemo. “Most of the time I don’t remember recording because I’ll be on so many drugs,” Case told me, adding that even when he’s not on drugs, the effects of chemotherapy make him constantly feel “like [he’s] had like 4 IPAs” for the last six months.

Still, Jesse vs. Cancer is just as much about life as it is about cancer. It is a comedy podcast, and Case riffs on things like why the current Republican candidates are super villains. He gives album recommendations based on his eclectic and vast music sensibilities. He speaks baldly about what it’s like to move back in with your parents, and even more frankly about what it’s like to be in your late 20s, driven, and facing your mortality head on. “(The show) is either going to be a guy beating cancer or a guy coming to grips with dying, and I think either way, that’s important to document,” said Case.

Case’s frank meditations on the fact that he may not survive gives an important insight into why well-intentioned optimism from friends and families could be a heart breaking frustration for a sick person. To deny that the worst might happen is a luxury sick people themselves don’t have. Case is a friend of mine—we met several years ago doing stand-up in Los Angeles—and he caught me doing this to him when we spoke. I asked him how he will live his life differently when he gets better.

“First of all, you realize there’s a significant chance I won’t get better. That’s a probably thing,” he stopped me. He went on to tell me that for the most part, his days won’t change if he recovers. “I’m still going to wake up late, and drink way too much coffee, and then go for a walk and go do shows at night and do my writing. Those are things that I like doing. Mentally, I’m going to be way more in the moment and enjoying it a lot more.

“Some people flip. Something like this happens, and then they start doing what they really want to do with their life, but I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life. I just wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should have been.”

Before Case found out he was sick he was, by his own account, going through a rough time, thanks in part to a break up and a bout with depression. Still, Case is a widely respected comedian in the alternative comedy scene, where he is known for his heady rants and nihilistic optimism. He has, for many years, made a living as a touring road comic. “My life’s been awesome,” said Case. “I was able to tour and tell dick jokes, and you meet hyper-creative people…so the idea of being miserable with all that is absurd to me. Because I’ve been so miserable before. If anything, cancer makes you realize what a dick you are.”

When he was ripped, suddenly, from the life he’d built for himself in the L.A. comedy scene, starting a podcast seemed like the best way to continue creating, regardless of how sick he was. “I was too nauseous to look at screens a lot, and then also you get neuropathy in your fingers, so I couldn’t write. I was literally like, ‘Okay. I still want to put things out.’ I just got rid of my life in LA overnight, and it was insane. So it was a way for me to connect in a weird way.”

The genesis of the show came, also, in Case’s desire to document the surreal experience that was his diagnosis.

“Any time someone writes a screenplay or a book about (something traumatic), it’s always in hindsight,” he said. “I had to tell people ‘I’ve got cancer’ …I felt like I was lying. It wasn’t real to me yet. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, I’m in shock.’ I want to capture all of this while it’s happening because I know enough about shock and trauma to know that your brain tends to black it all out later. If I make it through this thing, I don’t want to do some hindsight unrealistic thing. I want all the ugliness…I assume this is a universal experience, so I really want to capture that as it’s happening.”

The immediacy and honesty of the show are what make it so compelling, and, for all of Case’s pursuit of ugliness, what often shines through is Case’s view that the human experience, while confounding and absurd, is pretty fucking awesome.

“The cool thing about cancer,” Case told me, “is it’s just how you were supposed be living anyway.”

In the spirit of Case’s love for music, I asked him to select 5 albums that had helped him live his life thus far.

1. Guilty Pleasure Album

Case: An unexpected and embarrassing pleasure, one I wouldn’t want people to hear me rocking off to—I listen to a shit load of exotica. It’s this genre that’s basically late ‘50s early ‘60s fuck boy music. You can imagine the characters in Mad Men listening to it as they’re in their cocktail. There’s this album called Ritual of the Savage by Les Baxter that came out in the ‘50s. It’s all orchestrated like Tiki music. It’s completely messed up. There’s total cultural appropriation. Tiki culture isn’t even a real thing. It’s based on white people’s ideas of what Polynesia is like. People would make albums that were theme albums and they’d be like “I bet this is tribal music.” It’s just douchey ‘50s music. I’m into it. I listen to it when I drive around because it changes— I’m sure you’ve noticed—just driving around L.A. It’s a completely different city based on what you’re listening to. If you want to listen to Wu Tang, it’s a different city than if you listen to Garth Brooks. I love both of those Los Angeles’s.

2. Vacation or Road Trip Album

Case: I don’t do many vacations, but I have done, and hopefully will continue to do, the road quite a bit. My go-to is Kid A by Radiohead. Especially in the plains states, because it’s just open space. I would just go windows down, put on that album, and blast it, you know, heading to Bismarck for some bullshit one nighter. If I’m going to be in the car for more than an hour—that’s the first album I’ll put on. It makes me calm. It’s not a party record. It’s music where I’m just alone and reflective, and thinking about my material or my set that night. I get a little anxious, so I’ll listen to Radiohead. There are times when you shouldn’t listen to Radiohead. If you’re already depressed, don’t listen to it. But if you’re feeling alright, to me it’s calming.

3. Album That Got You Through A Break Up

Case: I went through this break up in Seattle that was my first grown up break up. I was just this open wound. I would walk around the city for hours, and Seattle is already a cluster fuck break up town. It’s just raining and everyone’s bummed out, and everyone is caffeinated. You can’t pound coffees during a break up because you already can’t sleep. I started listening to this album by Sparklehorse called It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s basically like acoustic guitar and those vocals where it sounds like someone is singing into a telephone to you. It’s very intimate and personal. It was a new thing. If you go through a break up, anything that reminds you of that person is out the window. I only want to date someone if they’re into polka now. I don’t want the opportunity to be sad later. I couldn’t listen to Bob Dylan for like 3.5 years because of a lady. It’s not worth it. So Sparklehorse was like a new thing.

I was doing a lot of whippets at the time. For some reason this guy had left a duffel bag full of whippets at my apartment, and when it occurred to me he was never coming back for them, I just did whippets for like a month straight. I was walking around the city with a big balloon. I had these giant dorky headphones. I would walk around listening to this shit on whippets—so it might have been the whippets that got me through it.

4. Album You Listened To During a Transformational Period

Case: This is the most transformational period in my whole life. It’s a lot crazier than puberty. It’s been an insane shift in outlook for me. An album I’ve been listening to a lot is Hippies by Harlem. They’re this three piece band out of Austin. It’s one of the most fun records. The first song is about being set on fire. It’s just upbeat. None of the songs are sad. I pop that on all the time. I’ll listen to that during chemo.

5. Album That Reminds You Of Your Childhood

Case: When I was a kid, we would always listen to “Deja Vu” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. My parents were total hippies, and we had just this cassette deck in the middle of the kitchen. The kitchen was the center of all the activity in the house. My whole family are just these southern overeaters. Dinner was never dinner. It was just the first meal of the night. So we were always in the kitchen, and that album might have been our only cassette tape for years. The whole thing was grained into my memory.

6. Bonus question: Who is your favorite Beatle?

Case: George, but John is the one I relate to the most. George is the one I would most like to hang with. I like John Lennon in the same way that I like Bill Hicks. My favorite Bill Hicks stuff wasn’t his “All you need is love, I’m a prophet bullshit. It was his jokes about Waffle House. My favorite Lennon stories are not him staying in bed for a week. He was kind of a douche and really flawed, but also had these ideals. I really relate to that – knowing what the right thing is, but being too much of a fuck up to do it.

Tess Barker co-hosts the Lady to Lady podcast on the Maximum Fun network.

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