Man’s unlikely approach for Parkinson’s disease? Stand up comedy

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CHICAGO — Laughter as medicine.

Joe Antonacci is making others laugh and it’s is giving him a special gift when it comes to facing Parkinson’s disease.

On a recent Tuesday night in Rosemont, the room glows, the drinks flow, and the lone mic awaits. Antonacci’s journey here, pacing the floor in the back of Zanie’s Comedy Club, started in an unlikely place, a doctor’s office after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2017.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.  “I do have symptoms. I have hand tremors, that’s how it all started. One of the major symptoms of Parkinson’s is depression, and they told me you need to get out of the house, meet new people, find new adventures, develop a new hobby.”

Dr Christopher Goetz is a Neurologist at Rush University Medical Center.

“The worst thing to do is to pull back, withdraw, turn off all kinds of intellectual activities and just sit,” he said. “That’s a very bad formula for long-term outcome.”

Antonacci could have joined a gym or a book club, like many patients do. But the 59-year-old had a different calling.

Antonacci’s physician told him to focus on three key elements known to improve long-term outcomes in patients with Parkinson’s – physical, intellectual and social engagement.

“So in thinking about his homework assignment, he came up with this idea of, ‘How about stand up?’” Goetz said. “I can tell you I don’t have many patients who come forward, but in fact, it’s the ticket item. It does all three.”

“Ironically as a stand-up comic, you’re using your brain all the time,” Antonacci said. “You’re always on, you’re always thinking.”

Antonacci shares a bit about himself in his set, but one thing he hasn’t spoken about publicly is his diagnosis. Not even his fellow comics like Vik Pandya knew.

“I believe everyone gets into comedy when they are supposed to, so I think he got in when he was supposed to,” Pandya said.

“It’s time to put my privacy and my desire for privacy aside so I have an opportunity to let other people know your life has changed, but it hasn’t ended,” Antonacci said. “The message is clear — find a way, find a path, follow it, and don’t ever give in.”

Antonacci using stand-up to ward off some other common side-effects – like voice weakness and impaired facial expression. For now, comedy seems to be the best medicine.