This got her attention because if there’s one thing Heather Tolley-Bauer knows about herself, it is this: She’s a funny girl. Always has been.
She decided right then and there to take a stand-up comedy class. She Googled and there on her computer screen was a class opening the very next day.
“I emailed the instructor and asked if I could get in,” she said. “He wrote back and said, ‘Yes, it’s a level one class. People take it for all kinds of reasons. Come.’”
The next day, Heather headed to the old Atlanta Improv in Buckhead.
“I was going to take this six-week class, do the graduation show and move on to something else — jump out of a plane, lap dance, anything,” she said.
Well, Heather killed it.
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For 12 minutes, which is unheard of for a newbie, she talked about being a stay-at-home suburban mom in the South, which is decidedly different from being a stay-at-home mom in the Northeast. She poked fun at metro Atlanta’s OTP and ITP, and Zumba classes. She did a bless your heart joke:
“In the Midwest, when we say something that we want to get off our chest but don’t want to offend, we say I’m just kidding. In Connecticut, we say I’m just saying, and obviously in the South, we say bless your heart. I picked up on that when somebody said to me, ‘That shirt makes you look pregnant.’ Isn’t that adorable. In Connecticut, we have a saying, too — We say screw you and then we get on with our day.”
Despite Heather still being relatively new to the community, about 30 of her neighbors showed up to see her that night.
Keep doing it, they told her.
Comedian Heather Tolley-Bauer with her husband, Craig Bauer, and son, Reid, at their home in Marietta. CONTRIBUTED BY ANGELA ELLIOTT PHOTOGRAPHY
“I realized I was giving voice to real common experiences,” Heather said.
There would be no lap dancing.
She enrolled in a few more classes and for the next year started performing regularly around town.
By the end of 2015, a spot on Heather’s nose got her attention, and she was off to see a dermatologist. That spot was nothing, but there was another one that might be a problem.
The doctor did a biopsy and after reviewing Heather’s family history, suggested she get a colonoscopy. She was 45. She didn’t see the point.
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When her doctor called with the biopsy results, it wasn’t good. That spot was basal cell skin cancer.
Did you schedule your colonoscopy? the doctor asked.
She still hadn’t but four months later, she took his advice and bam. She had stage 1 colon cancer, but there was no stopping Heather Tolley-Bauer. She continued doing stand-up at the Punchline, at the Rev Coffee Roasters in Smyrna.
“The minute I found out I had colon cancer, I started to write jokes about it because that was how I dealt with it, and I didn’t know any other way to share that with people,” she said.
Not only was comedy a way to raise awareness about colon cancer, but Heather sensed an opportunity to get moms and women laughing about the small stuff, to put their health first, to understand that if they didn’t, they’d be no good to anybody else.
And so instead of fighting for her life, Heather was waging a battle for the rest of us, belting out jokes sometimes multiple times a week in front of sold-out crowds so we wouldn’t have to.
“Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer on the planet, which is shocking to me,” she told a crowd shortly after her diagnosis. “It should be number two ‘cause that’s just easier to remember. Every cancer has a color. Colon cancer’s color, you probably guessed it, it’s blue. It is. It’s blue and it’s a good thing I Googled that because originally I left the house all dressed in brown because I just assumed.”
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Seriously, Heather isn’t making assumptions about her health anymore. Between the colonoscopy and surgery to remove most of her colon in March 2016, she got a genetic test that showed she had a rare condition called Lynch syndrome, a gene mutation that put her at high risk for a slew of different cancers.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In addition to removing most of her colon, she had a hysterectomy to guard against endometrial cancers and is scheduled to undergo a procedure later this month to remove cancer cells from her bile duct.
There’s nothing funny about cancer. Indeed, not everything is funny, but not everything is a tragedy either.
“Forgetting to bring the cupcakes to the bake sale does not make you a bad mother,” Heather said. “Cooking meth in your basement makes you a bad mother. Let’s not confuse the two.”
Back in April, after nearly two years of pondering the idea, Heather created Laugh-Lines and Stretch-Marks, a monthly comedy show of mostly female comics at MadLife Stage and Studios in Woodstock.
The show is admittedly female forward, but it’s not man-bashing.
“I’m the wife of an amazing man and am trying to raise an amazing son, so there are no man haters in my lineup,” Heather said.
At the same time, she isn’t about to apologize for catering strictly to women to give them a break from Pinterest, parenting and the PTA.
Not surprisingly, Heather is the only constant in the show.
But this isn’t about her or for her.
“I would’ve moved on a long time ago, but what keeps me doing it is that I see how much it’s needed,” she said. “Comedy is not my art form. It isn’t really even my passion, but using comedy to give women a break from the things that keep them up at night is.”
Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at email@example.com.
Laugh-Lines & Stretch-Marks with Heather Tolley-Bauer
7:30 p.m. Oct. 12. $17.50-$22.50. MadLife Stage & Studios, 8722 Main St., Woodstock. Must be 18 or over. ticketfly.com/event/1756954-laugh-lines-stretch-marks-woodstock/.