Credit: Catherine Maher

On November 17, 2014, comedian Dave Maher woke up and checked his Facebook account, where he saw that his friends and family had been mourning him as if he were already dead. That’s because on October 22 he went into a diabetic coma—for three and a half weeks his condition had shown no signs of improvement, and friends and family assumed he was lost. But after being moved to a hospital in his hometown of Cincinnati he was revived, just days before his parents had to decide whether or not to take him off life support. Now, the 31-year-old stand-up tells his story on stage at the Annoyance in the Dave Maher Coma Show.

“For a while I wanted to call it Dave Maher: Unplugged, because I was almost taken off life support,” Maher says. “It’s of course recognizing that this giant thing that happened to me is not just material for my comedy—it’s something I have to deal with. But having the requirement to make people laugh has made my exploration more pointed.”

Maher came to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago, where he started doing improv with the college’s team; three years ago, he made the transition into stand-up comedy. While thriving creatively, he was simultaneously treating his body poorly—drinking too much, smoking weed, and ignoring his diabetic dietary needs—which eventually led to his nearly monthlong coma, another month in the hospital, then a month living with his parents in Cincinnati. He returned to Chicago with a new perspective, and the Coma Show was born.

Inspired by stand-up Mike Birbiglia’s storytelling approach to comedy, Maher gradually fine-tuned the show’s narrative style. “The show basically is medical and psychological, with a social-tech aspect, like Facebook eulogies,” Maher says. “A huge chunk is in the hospital, like weird wounds and first showers, and then coming back and making meaning from that.”

Maher has discovered a medical-focused audience of nurses and doctors who rarely see their coma patients a year later. They’ve told him that it’s comforting to see how someone in his state is doing. The Coma Show has also been helpful for Maher’s family, specifically his parents, who are grateful that he’s become healthy and transformed a negative life experience into creative expression, and his sister, who is pursuing family medicine after dealing with so many medical professionals.

The last performance of the Coma Show in Chicago is December 18, but it’s not the end of Maher’s story: he wants to perform the show in other cities as well, especially where friends who eulogized him now reside. His ultimate goal? To take the show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and possibly turn it into a film.

“I’ve been given this weird, shitty gift,” Maher says. “Why not use it for something?”  v