Health Fitness

The butt of jokes: I’m a comedian who is paid to get dozens of rectal exams

This First Person column is written by Devon Flynn, who lives in Prince George, B.C. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I’m hunched over an examination table, wearing a hospital gown and nothing else. Behind me is a young man who has donned a pair of fresh latex gloves. My head is percolating with jokes, but I decide against making the man laugh. 

Timing is crucial to telling jokes, and this doesn’t seem like the right time.  

That night, however, is. I can now say what I was tempted to blurt out earlier. After refining the set-up and punchline, I deliver the jokes with maximum effect to the audience in the crowded pub. In their laughs, I sense their disbelief. There’s no way the guy on stage actually got three prostate exams that morning, right? 

They think it’s a bit that I’ve hammed up for laughs, but it’s all true. Humour has long been a way for people to cope with the uncomfortable, and I draw from an exceptional source.

By day, I’m paid to facilitate prostate and digital rectal exams. By night, I perform standup comedy, and not just because I want to avoid sitting down. 

My two jobs couldn’t be more different, but they make a dynamic combination. Some consider standup comedy one of the most vulnerable things you can do. Others find dropping your drawers during a checkup with your doctor to be worse. I manage to do both, but maybe I should explain how I got to be in the bizarre balancing act first.

People like me are called standardized patients and our job is to help medical students practise their communication skills and bedside manners as part of their education. In my first role at the University of Northern British Columbia’s northern medical program, I was tasked with portraying a 40-year-old male in moderate health, but who also happened to have erectile dysfunction.

Flynn is a male clinical teaching associate at the University of British Columbia’s medical program in Prince George, B.C. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

I expected an easier role for my first day on the job, but alas, a looming student loan has a way of making you say yes when money is offered. 

More surprising than the condition I had to pretend to have was what my supervisor asked me shortly after: “In the future, would you also be interested in more invasive procedures?”

It took me a moment to realize what she was asking. 

It turned out it was exactly what I was thinking. 

She was referring to me becoming a male clinical teaching associate (MCTA). Whereas a standardized patient acts, this role was more akin to being a teacher, albeit with the same goals and focusing on men’s health specifically. 

No acting here, though. Medical students actually perform prostate and digital rectal exams on me. They’re cautious and sensitive, in more ways than one, as they do the exam. 

But they also express how incredibly appreciative they are for the tips and tricks I’ve shared with them on how to make a notoriously uncomfortable exam more effective, efficient and respectful. I can imagine how it’s a great improvement from the former latex models they used to practise on after my supervisor showed them to me.

It’s not a role taken lightly. As an MCTA, I was trained and taught proper procedural techniques and terminology for the exam. We avoid medical jargon but also try not to sound like high school students giggling in biology class.

Our discussions with our students need to be clear, addressing any questions or concerns they might have while also encouraging them to practise from cultural and trauma-informed lenses. It is a teaching environment, even (or especially) during the hands-on component. 

I try not to be too serious, though, and encourage a bit of levity between myself and the students. 

A smiling man in a leather jacket holds a microphone.
Flynn often used his day job as fodder for his comedy routines (Submitted by Devon Flynn)

As a comedian, however, it’s difficult to ignore the bombardment of new jokes my brain comes up with throughout the exam. I remain professional and put a pin in the intrusive thoughts, especially for jokes that may not be as funny to the nervous students as I think they are. It is a hospital, not a comedy club. 

I want nerves to be calm and hands to be steady. Making people uncomfortable is the last thing I want to do, both as an MCTA and a comedian.

On stage, however, I let the restrained thoughts fly, sharing my hospital experience with a fresh audience. The same jokes previously practised in my head now come out as clever punchlines, ridiculous scenarios and hilarious juxtapositions. 

I am not the first comedian to joke about prostate exams, but I’ve yet to meet one who does them as a job. It’s a careful balance between finding relatable humour and maintaining the integrity of my role as an advocate for men’s health. I want to alleviate the concerns and stigmas around the taboo topic — not confirm them and scare people away from an important exam that can save lives.

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As I finish my set for the night, I add a line for the men listening to me to get themselves examined.

“But it’s OK, guys. I don’t work on commission,” I tell the audience. I hope that I’ve entertained, but also inspired and encouraged those who might have had previous reservations about seeing their doctor. 

Prostate exams have been known to be intimidating for some, but not for me. 

I’ve had plenty. And I have the jokes — and the clean bill of health — to prove it. 

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