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updated: 3/13/2014 12:06 PM

Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge prescribes a funny regimen

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  • Video: Comics at Kids Hospital

  • Teddy Christiansen, 7, shares smiles and laughs with his mom, Jenny, as they watch the Funny Bones Improv show at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.

       Teddy Christiansen, 7, shares smiles and laughs with his mom, Jenny, as they watch the Funny Bones Improv show at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A basketball player at Wheeling High School, Jared Glass, 16, cracks a smile as Debbie Schreiner of Mount Prospect performs with Funny Bones Improv at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.

       A basketball player at Wheeling High School, Jared Glass, 16, cracks a smile as Debbie Schreiner of Mount Prospect performs with Funny Bones Improv at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Luke Wickman, 9, of Crystal Lake, gives a thumbs-up to his new friend Teddy Christiansen, 7, of Union, during the Funny Bones Improv show at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.

       Luke Wickman, 9, of Crystal Lake, gives a thumbs-up to his new friend Teddy Christiansen, 7, of Union, during the Funny Bones Improv show at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Feeling well enough to become part of the show, Luke Wickman, 9, and his mom, Carolina, work with Funny Bones Improv actors Stuart Allard of Downers Grove and Debbie Schreiner of Mount Prospect.

       Feeling well enough to become part of the show, Luke Wickman, 9, and his mom, Carolina, work with Funny Bones Improv actors Stuart Allard of Downers Grove and Debbie Schreiner of Mount Prospect.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Luke Wickman, 9, of Crystal Lake and his mom, Carolina, share a laugh and lots of smiles as Funny Bones Improv actors Jon Michael Armstrong of Libertyville, Stuart Allard of Downers Grove and Debbie Schreiner of Mount Prospect entertain the kids at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.

       Luke Wickman, 9, of Crystal Lake and his mom, Carolina, share a laugh and lots of smiles as Funny Bones Improv actors Jon Michael Armstrong of Libertyville, Stuart Allard of Downers Grove and Debbie Schreiner of Mount Prospect entertain the kids at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Comic performers talk about a "tough crowd," but the audience for this Funny Bones Improv performance at Advocate Children's Hospital-Park Ridge couldn't be any tougher. These kids are fighters.

"From someone with the flu to children with cancer," says Laney Bremner, one of the hospital's 14 certified child life specialists, as she surveys the crowd in the second-floor family lounge of the children's wing. Most of the children are tethered to intravenous bags and electrical monitors. Some are in wheelchairs. Frazzled and concerned parents, grandparents and caregivers settle in beside the kids, eager for some laughs.

"It's my favorite show of the month," says Jon-Michael Armstrong, 31, of Libertyville, who has been doing improv comedy for eight years and performing with Funny Bones for 18 months. Armstrong, his fiancee ("I proposed to her during a show") Debbi Schreiner, 32, of Mount Prospect, and 29-year-old Stuart Allard of Downers Grove know the constraints of trying to make sick children laugh in a hospital.

"It's a family-friendly show," says Armstrong, explaining how members of the nonprofit improv group cater to kids while still managing to slip in a few references for the adults. "We can't joke about death or illness. We can't be overly violent.

"But they are perfectly fine with potty humor. If it's big, physical and wacky, they love it."

The hospital lounge boasts an audience far more diverse than most comedy venues. "What is nice about comedy is comedy is universal," Bremner says, explaining how children who don't understand the English dialogue still laugh at the funny faces, weird noises and pratfalls that offer break from the usual hospital routine.

Having spent much of his life in hospitals fighting a rare genetic disorder, 7-year-old Teddy Christiansen isn't asked about the 2009 bone-marrow transplant that saved his life or even the feeding tube infection that brings him to the hospital now.

The Funny Bones folks just want Teddy, who lives with his family in Union, to give them a movie to combine with "Frozen" for a 60-second mashup.

"Star Wars," says Teddy, here with his mother, Jenny, and grandparents Tom and Jan Christiansen from Des Plaines.

"Cold outside, it is," Allard's Yoda says after Schreiner's queen freezes the planet.

Wearing blue pajamas and sitting in a red wagon, the little girl who recaps the plot of "Frozen" for the cast suddenly vomits, again and again, forcing the attention from the stage as a caregiver calms her and rolls her out of the room. "It's a good thing we're in a hospital. They're going to take care of her," Armstrong assures the crowd, before launching back into the bit.

"It's all about being flexible and being quick on your feet," Armstrong explains after the show.

"The most important rule of improv is: 'Support your fellow players.' My mindset is that the audience is an essential part of the show."

No one embraces that philosophy more than Luke Wickman, a witty 9-year-old with an IQ well above the 104-degree fever that brought him to the hospital for tests and antibiotics.

Here with his mom, Carolina Wickman, the Crystal Lake third-grader frequently contributes to the show.

During a skit about "The Smartest Cow in the World," Allard moos and pantomimes his responses to kids' questions while Schreiner translates the answers into English. Luke earns his own laughs by asking, "Does the world's smartest cow go to the mooversity?"

"We can't top that," Armstrong says, bringing that skit to a close.

The goal for the one-hour show is "all about bringing some laughter and some smiles" to an otherwise tedious hospital experience, the comic notes.

"You can only watch so much TV and do so much on your tablet and read so many books," Jenny Christiansen says.

But the monthly improv shows do more than provide comic relief.

"Comedy can be a pain relief for kids," says Bremner, who cites medical studies showing how laughter can cause positive physical changes while relieving stress.

That idea is thousands of years old, and even the Bible advises, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones."

Funny Bones Improv gives the kids chances to yell out suggestions, play a part or spin the "Magical Wheel of Games" for the cast to perform. That's important.

"In the hospital they don't have a lot of control," Bremner says. "This gives them control."

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