How Comedy Helped Me Cope With CF

Growing up with cystic fibrosis was often lonely, but discovering how to make myself and others laugh helped me navigate those years and gave me a purpose in life.

| 8 min read
Kirsten Michelle Cills headshot
Kirsten Michelle Cills
Kirsten Michelle Cills speaking into a microphone

I’ve never quite been sure how to define comedy, but I know that when you feel it, you know it. It starts in the pit of your stomach and works its way out like the Chestbuster in Alien. It cannot be contained. What makes you laugh won’t allow itself to be ignored, and once you discover that formula within yourself, there’s no going back.

My obsession with comedy began when I was very young. As a child with cystic fibrosis, living the majority of my year in Saint Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, I was faced with the challenge of being in constant quarantine before quarantine became a common term in today’s lexicon. Bacteria are what CF feeds on, and the only way to keep myself safe was to be alone, to see visitors only when absolutely necessary, and to see my parents only a few times a week.

Seeing your family only intermittently is completely typical once you leave home to go to college, and start your own life. However, when you’re a young child, not being with your parents has a very different effect on your mental health. It forced me to grow up at an impressive speed. It forced my brain to move into adult-mode before I could even understand what adult-mode was.

I found myself faced with the difficult decision that most children never face: live in loneliness, or become my own company.

Comedian Bo Burnham put it best in his 2021 Netflix special, Inside. He sings about the pandemic, the lack of human connection, the innate sadness that you begin to feel in your bones. “When you’re a kid who is stuck in your room, you’ll do any old thing to get out of it. Try making faces, try telling jokes, making little sounds,” sings Burnham. While he sings from the perspective of 2020, I realize that most people’s 2020 experience has, in fact, been my entire life.

Because I was a sick kid my sleep schedule was backward. I often slept during the day, my body needing rest and my mind needing to kill the time. I woke for dinner as though it was my breakfast: My “day” was about to begin when others’ were winding down.

I also lost touch with people my own age. After not been able to go to school for a while, I couldn’t remember the last time I spoke to someone my own age. It made me slowly forgot how to be a kid -- if I’d ever learned in the first place. The world and our education system had decided what a child’s schedule should be, and unfortunately, I didn’t qualify. 

As I’d later learn, too, each television network had decided what a child’s schedule should be, and fortunately for me  I didn’t qualify.

Late night television was the home of comedy. For most of my childhood, I didn’t consume content meant for children. Instead of Blue’s Clues and Rugrats, I watched reruns of Cheers and Three’s Company. When I finally was able to be surrounded by others my age, I quickly realized that we had very little to talk about. I vividly remember multiple occasions sitting inside during recess to discuss with my third grade teacher, Mr. Valaro, what my top 10 favorite episodes of Roseanne were. Mr. Valaro asked, “Aren’t you too young to be watching Roseanne?” I realized as I responded, “It’s what’s on when I’m awake.” At that moment, I wondered if this would be my fate. ‘What’s the point,’ I thought, ‘of fighting something that is shaping me into who I am and who I will become?’

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon premiered in March 2009. Each episode aired nightly on NBC, at 12:37 on the dot and when it did, I can confidently say without hyperbole, that my 14-year-old soul caught fire. While admittedly some of that fire was fueled by my love for Jimmy Fallon, it was the moment I realized this was it -- comedy was now my life.

Kirsten Michelle Cills speaking into a microphone

I can confidently say, without hyperbole, that my soul lit on fire. While admittedly some of that fire was fueled by my being unabashedly in love with Jimmy Fallon, it was above all else, the moment I realized this was it — comedy was now my life. Quickly, comedy (and Jimmy Fallon) became the biggest part of my identity. The enthusiastic introductions from announcer Steve Higgins, the lively underscore from house band, The Roots. Above all else, the moment I waited for every evening: Jimmy’s entrance. He would walk through the curtain for his opening monologue, stepping precisely on his mark, which he had chosen to be a four-leaf clover.

Jimmy’s energy would stop my heart every night. While in my early teens, living on the dismal pulmonary floor of a children’s hospital, each entrance from Fallon made me feel like I, too, was in Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. It’s lame.I It’s almost embarrassing to reflect upon in my 20s, but living in that fantasy world with the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon team kept my brain from, to put it simply, short circuiting with loneliness.

A switch inside of me flipped, and I could do nothing but watch every single night in adoration. Comedy -- and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon -- became the biggest parts of my identity. This was my fate.

In 2009, my mom changed my life with one small Christmas gift that cost her $0: tickets to see Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. If my memory serves me correctly, I cried three full days after receiving this gift. You had to be 17 to see the show, and even though I was only 15, we were going to make it work. We even discussed, against my mom’s better judgement, getting me a fake ID to make me 17 years old for the day. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter how I got in. I was going to see Jimmy Fallon, the man in the framed photo next to my bed, live and in color.

That night was a blur. I began talking with fellow audience members about which segment I was hoping Jimmy would do. I was torn between wanting to see “Slow Jamming the News” or “Head Swap.” They looked at me confused, announcing that they were there only because the tickets being given out on the street were free. It dawned on me that I was the only person in the audience who actually watched the show. It was their loss, because that day was -- and still is -- the greatest day of my life. Jimmy came up to me after the show and hugged me. My soul left my body. I may still, at age 27, be riding that high.

I knew right then that I could do nothing in life other than make people laugh, because the light that Jimmy Fallon brought into my life was unstoppable.

While I spent my teenage years the same way I spent my childhood years -- sick -- Jimmy Fallon kept me company, kept me going. I needed to devote myself to being that for others one day.

Today I am a comedian and actor. I do stand-up for a living, travel to colleges and perform, and write and act in films and comedy series. Everything that my 14-year-old self needed I’m now striving to give to others. I don’t pretend to believe that comedy is “God’s work.” I’m not a saint or a hero. My jokes don’t save lives, cure diseases, build homes, or feed the hungry. Comedy does, however, light souls on fire, and I can only hope that does as much for others as it did for me.

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Kirsten is a Philadelphia-native comedian, actor, and writer. She is a graduate of the University of the Arts and has devoted her entire life to her one true passion: making people laugh.

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This site contains general information about cystic fibrosis, as well as personal insight from the CF community. Opinions and experiences shared by members of our community, including but not limited to people with CF and their families, belong solely to the blog post author and do not represent those of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, unless explicitly stated. In addition, the site is not intended as a substitute for treatment advice from a medical professional. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.