The last year has been incredibly challenging for so many of us. Some of us may have had our lives irreversibly changed by losing loved ones, whilst others have struggled with the impact of isolation on their mental health. No matter how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted us individually, it might be correct to say that we’ve been undergoing something resembling collective grief over the last year.
With constant negativity in the news – and uncertainty about the future – it’s a time when many of us probably don’t feel like laughing. Yet humour, as former Junior Doctor-come-TV-comedy writer, Adam Kay, teaches us, is one of the most incredible antidotes to grief and depression. Kay himself knows more than most of us about the intersection between tragedy and humour. As a Junior Doctor for seven years, he witnessed his fair share of both – from the blisteringly funny to the unspeakably tragic, Kay has seen it all.
I first came to Adam Kay’s debut in early 2020, after seeing him at an event, part of the Chortle Comedy Book Festival, where he was promoting his upcoming book, Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas. Kay’s quick-wit, natural gift for storytelling, and sometimes scathing criticism of his former profession were enlightening and surprising. This Is Going To Hurt takes the reader along with Kay, then a Junior Doctor working in obstetricians and gynaecology, as he confronts the good, the bad, and the ugly of being a Junior Doctor. Humour drips off every page – from black humour, to inappropriate humour, to laugh-out-loud humour: it’s all there. A hilarious punchline often accompanies even the grimmest of anecdotes. If you’ve read the memoir, you’ll know that Kay’s time as a Junior Doctor was nothing like an episode of ER or Grey’s Anatomy – it was emotionally and physically exhausting and deprived him of friendships, relationships and hobbies. Yet through it all, his diaries and sense of humour helped sustain him.
Humour, it seems, can help us remain resilient through the toughest of times. Although, as Kay reveals early on in his memoir, he left the profession after witnessing a horrific tragedy, humour has remained a hallmark of his life. Now a comedy writer for television, with credits including Mrs Brown’s Boys and Mitchell and Webb, his love for comedy and performance – albeit in a different form – have continued to shine.
Adam Kay followed up his best-seller, This Is Going To Hurt, with a suitably festive offering. This time, we follow him through the (six!) Christmases in which he worked as a Junior Doctor. We learn of the personal problems that accompany working over the festive season – complaints from friends and family and his long-suffering partner, only known as ‘H’. Personal grievances aside, Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas seeks to shine a light on the sacrifices that all NHS and emergency service workers make over the festive season to ensure it remains a safe and happy time for us all.
Kay’s follow-up is not without its humour either. In one particularly memorable anecdote, he recalls donning a novelty Christmas tie during a shift. Just as he is breaking the news to a family that their mother and grandmother is unlikely to make it, he accidentally sets off the tie’s musical feature, which, naturally, plays ‘Jingle Bells.’ After multiple attempts to stop the musical bonanza, Kay excuses himself. When he returns, he expects to see the family stony-faced and disapproving. Instead, he finds them struggling to contain their laughter.
This is just one of many examples in Adam Kay’s memoirs where we see humour and devastation converge. That’s not to say that he makes every event into a joke. There’s one incident in particular that he did not include in This Is Going To Hurt, as he couldn’t bring himself to recount what had happened. Perhaps the best way to understand his writing style is to say that he doesn’t see situations as black-and-white. In this way, he has a keen understanding of human behaviour, perhaps from having spent years witnessing his own patients’ motivations and emotions.
Although Kay eventually left the medical profession, a subject that he has talked about at length in interviews, there’s no doubt that during his time as a Junior Doctor, he went above and beyond for his patients, making them, and us, smile along the way:
“So I told them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re underappreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.” ― Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
Jessica is a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Richmond-Upon-Thames. With a degree in English Literature from University College London, she has experience as a private tutor for 14-18 years olds and adult learners. She has also worked in Widening Participation as a Mentor, Student Ambassador, and Student Leader. As someone who achieved A-Levels through distance-learning, Jessica has first-hand experience of the unique challenges and rewards that distance-learning offers. She regularly contributes content to educational websites including eNotes and Tutorful.