Fabian Unteregger

"Better than anesthesia"

Laughter stimulates the circulatory system and relaxes the muscles, says Fabian Unteregger. And he’s someone who would know: The comedian studied medicine at UZH. 

Interview: Adrian Ritter; translated by Gena Olson

Fabian, you’ve been doing comedy on stage, on TV and on the radio for years. You just recently finished studying medicine. Comedian and doctor – aren’t these two different worlds?

Not necessarily. As a doctor, you often experience absurd situations that shock you or put a wry grin on your face. Once a patient came to my office and didn’t want to sit down. It soon became clear why. He had a painful abscess on his butt cheek that we needed to drain pus from. To make matters worse, he had a target printed on his underwear, which was pretty absurd. But another connection between the two worlds is that comedy is good for the health of the audience.

Is that proven?

There are studies showing that comedy shows can have a greater effect than some medicines. Laughter stimulates the circulatory system and relaxes the muscles. There’s an interesting experiment where test subjects held one hand in ice water. The ones who were watching a comedy show on TV at the same time reported experiencing less pain. So during an operation, a good comedian can be better than anesthesia. (laughing)

So maybe insurance companies should reimburse visits to comedy shows?

Absolutely. Maybe I should introduce myself to the health insurance association. Compared to other nationalities, by the way, Swiss people could definitely use a bit more laughter in their lives. Medicine should also make more use of humor. I’ve helped calm patients down just by wearing colorful socks to an appointment.

You were already successful as a comedian before you started studying medicine at UZH. What made you decide to become a doctor?

I’ve always been interested in medicine. I wanted to understand how human beings work. And a career as a doctor is very fulfilling. However, I currently don’t have enough time for clinical work. But alongside my comedy career, I am working on a research project about the physiology of the human voice box. I publish and give lectures at home and abroad. But comedy is not something I want to do without. For me, making people laugh is a privilege.

Was studying medicine useful to you as a comedian?

Yes, I learned so much about people. Neurology in particular is exciting for comedians. Where is humor situated in the brain? Why are some people unable to process humor? There are lots of unanswered questions. For example, I’d like to know why it’s not possible to laugh to death. If that were possible, there would be two rooms at Exit: In one there would be a cup of sodium pentobarbital, in the other there would be lethally hilarious comedians. But that would bring up legal complications, as the comedians could be charged with premeditation.

Tell us one of your favorite jokes.

Patient: Doctor, I have a bowel movement every morning at 7 a.m.

Doctor: Yes, that’s a good thing.

Patient: But I don’t wake up until 7:30!

Fabian Unteregger

Fabian Unteregger studied food engineering and is also a doctor and the co-founder of Swiss Healthcare Startups, an organization that promotes innovation in the healthcare sector. He is currently touring Switzerland with his comedy show “Doktorspiele” [Playing Doctor].