Behind the stage curtain, Glenn Lurie could see the bar stool waiting for him. It was just a few feet away, but for the 57-year-old comedian every step of the 10 he needed to get there would be slow and uncertain.
He made it to his seat, his hands and feet a bit more steady than usual, and spoke softly into the mic: “Here’s the transparency part of the program — I’m living with Parkinson’s.”
With that, the audience, 100 people or so who paid to see a Tuesday night amateur comedy show, fell silent.
So Lurie moved quickly to one of his favorite jokes, about support groups for people with Parkinson’s disease: “When we have our meetings once a month, we start off with a secret handshake.”
He paused long enough for the joke to sink in. Then, hearing laughter bubble up from the crowd, Lurie kept going.
“Our favorite furniture is Shaker,” he said. More laughter.
“And we like our martinis stirred, not shaken.”
By then, everyone was laughing.
Lurie received the diagnosis nearly six years ago. But it’s only been in the past four months that he’s found a way to take the bad news of Parkinson’s and turn it into something he — and a room full of strangers — can laugh at.
Before moving to Charlotte, Lurie lived near San Francisco. Back then, in his early 50s, he was enjoying decent health other than, as he puts it, “battling the bulge.”
But everything changed in September 2013.
Two friends in California, in the span of one week, both asked Lurie whether he’d had a stroke. They’d noticed his walk or gait looked different, like he was dragging his feet. And his friends thought it was odd Lurie’s right arm seemed habitually bent and immobile.
At his first visit to the neurologist, Lurie walked a short distance down a hallway for observation. The diagnosis, he remembers, was quick and obvious to the doctor. Suddenly, symptoms Lurie had been trying to ignore now made sense.
“I would wake up in the morning and when I would yawn, my body would shake. I would have tremors and I would get cramps in my calves. More than likely, I had Parkinson’s for a year before it was diagnosed.”
‘Arriving on a delay’
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by too little dopamine in the brain. The chemical is widely associated with happiness and psychological health, but it also plays an essential role in some of the body’s most basic physical functions.
Without enough dopamine, Lurie said, “the brain is sending messages to my limbs but it’s arriving on a delay.” Medicine helps slow the severity of progressing symptoms but there’s no known cure.
“As the illness goes on and on, the effectiveness of the medication wanes and you gotta keep taking more and more and eventually the drugs don’t help,” Lurie said, holding out a handful of 15 pills he takes daily. About half are for Parkinson’s.
The most common Parkinson’s symptoms include shaking or tremors in the body, and difficulty with speech, dexterity and balance. Lurie describes the change as becoming almost “statuesque.” Over time, doctors say Parkinson’s usually worsens and can lead to the inability to walk, to drive or to control other movements of the hands and feet.
“It affects everybody differently. I don’t know what the future holds,” Lurie said. “I might have to have a walker. I might go into a wheelchair.”
He moved to Charlotte two years ago to be closer to family so he’d have help. Every six months, he checks in with his doctor and he’s regularly making lifestyle changes as the illness progresses.
“You start to take stock of yourself,” Lurie said. “You don’t know how long you have to be capable of walking or cutting food with a fork and knife. Eventually, I won’t be able to drive. It gets harder and harder.”
And for all those things he wants to do before his body won’t let him, Lurie has a “bucket list.”
For a person living with Parkinson’s, stand-up comedy will challenge all their senses.
Lurie’s handwriting is nearly unreadable, he said, because his finger movement isn’t as precise as it once was. He types his jokes out before a show and prints his bio for the emcee to announce the evening’s entertainers. But even then, the going is slow and difficult. Lurie used to type more than 50 words a minute. Now, it’s closer to 20.
Remembering jokes is hard, too.
“I can go into a mental pause like a brain fade,” he said. “All comedians have it, even if they don’t have Parkinson’s. But it’s a little more out in the open that I’m working through something.”
On some nights, Lurie labors over every word. His brain knows what to say but the message being carried to his lips is often sluggish and choppy. And when words arrive, his voice is soft — a common side effect of Parkinson’s, caused by weakening of the vocal chord muscles.
Smiling at his own jokes, even, is no guarantee. Doctors call this “facial masking,” part of the minimal muscle control associated with Parkinson’s. Or, as Lurie describes it, his “poker face.”
Overcoming the inherent obstacles to perform with Parkinson’s, Lurie said, leave little energy for stage fright.
“I have so much to worry about — making sure I get to the seat and sit down on it, and don’t trip when I’m walking on the stage.
“Being nervous doesn’t really factor into the equation.”
‘He’d found something’
Lurie’s comedy not only increases Parkinson’s awareness for the audience but also likely boosts his own health, said Ann Marie Obrikat, executive director of the Parkinson Association of the Carolinas.
“As you lose more and more of the dopamine, [Parkinson’s] does influence mood and health,” Obrikat said.
She remembers a time, after Lurie moved to Charlotte, when he began volunteering with the Parkinson’s Association but then he was absent for a stretch. Obrikat was worried — until several months later, she said, when Lurie called her and said he’d started doing stand-up.
“I could just tell a difference in his voice — he’d found something that worked for him.”
He started with open-mic nights in Charlotte. Then, in February, Lurie entered a comedy “showdown” and was chosen by fellow comics to open on March 2 for Paul Hooper, a Charlotte native who has performed stand-up around the world.
“He is very likable. The crowd seems to love him even if the joke doesn’t go well,” said Paul Baeza, a fellow comedian in Charlotte who produces local shows.
Baeza and Lurie recently went head-to-head in a “March Mania” competition at the Comedy Zone. Baeza advanced to the next round and Lurie lost out. But with every performance, Baeza said, Lurie seems to get a little better.
And for Lurie, every time he takes the stage he feels just a little better. When he can’t do it anymore, he said, he’ll write jokes for others to perform.
“The prognosis for Parkinson’s is, it just gets worse,” he said. “When you’re at the bottom, it’s the best time to try something new. There’s things that you want to accomplish before the body won’t let you.”