I don’t think that obesity is a laughing matter: Doctor takes the comic route to teach Canadians about obesity

Published: August 21, 2014
Obesity guru

Dr. Arya Sharma performs at an open mic comedy night at a bar in Edmonton in this undated handout photo.

EDMONTON – Dr. Arya Sharma, one of the leading experts on obesity in Canada, doesn’t make fat jokes.

But he still pokes fun at the science, stereotypes and struggles of being overweight.

The 54-year-old is the chair of obesity research at the University of Alberta, the scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network – and a budding comedian.

Two years ago, Sharma began touring the country with what he describes as a half-comedy-routine, half-motivational-speech called Stop Being a Yo-Yo. The show, which continues in the fall, bills itself as “a light-hearted look at the ups and downs of weight loss.”

Last week, after trying out at some open mic comedy nights in Edmonton bars, the funny physician joined the city’s Fringe festival in a one-man show titled Weighty Confessions of an Obesity Guru.

His seven shows have sold out, and he says there has been demand for more.

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So far, he says, a large part of his audience seems to consist of people who are bringing friends and family members with weight problems.

“If this was just a pure talk on obesity, it would be very hard to get those people to come out. But the whole thing is a show and we promise them humour.”

Sharma says there’s a fine line between being funny and informative, without being insulting.

“In the end, I don’t think that obesity is a laughing matter. It is a very serious health problem that we need to know more about,” he says.

“But I think comedy can actually be a good way to get people to think and talk about a topic that you’re uncomfortable with.”

Sharma says he was the class clown as a kid but had no experience on stage.

Edmonton’s Fringe can be a bit daunting. It’s known as the second-largest fringe festival in the world, behind the one in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Being a researcher, Sharma hit the books to prepare for his show, reading up on how to tell the best jokes. He also sought advice from some stand-up comics.

Some of his colleagues have told him he’s courageous, he says.

Others just think he’s crazy.

During his 45-minute performance, he gets about 20 good laughs and another 20 chuckles, he says. The other lines that get only silence mean he still has work to do.

For instance, when chatting with the audience about cheese, he wonders aloud why manufacturers can’t make it more healthy without changing its great taste and texture.

“Why don’t you guys just make the holes bigger?”

(Ba dum tsh.)

While on the Fringe stage, Sharma also sports a moppy black wig to remind the audience that it’s not a serious show and to keep him from falling back into professor mode.

Then again, he is a professor.

Sharma says his next show may actually take him back to the classroom. He’s thinking of creating a course in comedy and science communication.

About this, he’s serious.

“It would be: How do you take your scientific fact that’s totally boring and is going to put people to sleep and turn that into a punchline that people will actually remember?”

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