HARTFORD, Conn. – While prepping a patient for surgery on a recent morning at St. Francis Hospital, heart surgeon Joe Dell’Orfano tells a story about a catheter salesman. Along the way, he does a Woody Allen impression, which is pretty good, but it seems like his staff has heard it before.
Apparently, the only person who hasn’t heard the material is on the table, unconscious and awaiting a cardiac ablation. The electrophysiology lab is a tough room for a comedian. Dell’Orfano would know: He’s been doing stand-up for 20 years.
“I started doing comedy when I was an intern,” he says. “I saw an improv show, and I was floored by that.”
His onstage persona is a doctor, which caused some concern among the folks at St. Francis’ public relations department, who wondered how this would reflect on the hospital. The head of PR checked out his act. “They wanted to make sure that my stuff was appropriate,” he says.
But Dell’Orfano has trained with Gene Perret, one of Bob Hope’s writers, who told him to always work “TV-clean.” Dell’Orfano followed the advice, and it has paid off. The hospital executives signed off on the routine.
The connection between humor and medicine has been well explored, and being able to tell a joke seems the kind of useful skill you don’t learn in medical school. As onstage, timing is crucial.
“There are some patients who will joke with you, and you use that as a cue to use that type of humor,” says Dell’Orfano, 43, who lives in Middlefield. “You have to be able to judge the appropriateness of the situation.”
And jokes are a good way for Dell’Orfano and his peers to let off steam during what can sometimes be a grim job.
“There’s what I call the gallows humor or the dark humor that goes on behind closed doors,” he says.
Future patients of Dell’Orfano’s needn’t worry that their doctor is going to show up bleary-eyed and smelling like gin and smoke from a late-night gig. He schedules his performances months apart and generally performs at restaurants. He’ll play clubs, if necessary, but only if they’re in the area. His performances are always linked to raising money for various causes.
“I don’t have the time or the need to go out to clubs in New York,” he says.
He most recently performed at a fundraiser in a Southington banquet hall. Of the four comedians on the bill, all but one have ties to the Hartford-area medical community. Dell’Orfano thinks he did well, but not as well as he should have. Days later, he was still trying to figure out what went astray.
“I think you need new material, because then you’d be more into it,” suggests Tina Verona, who’s in charge of communications at St. Francis and has seen several of Dell’Orfano’s performances.
He considers this briefly. No, that’s not it.
“I’ve done those crowds before,” he says. “My biorhythm was off.”
He shrugs and heads upstairs for the surgery.
Although the prep work for the operation is hands-on, the bulk is done inside the control room, where he maneuvers the catheters by remote. Technology is another one of Dell’Orfano’s interests, and he likes showing off how the giant magnets on both sides of the patient push and pull the catheters to their destination.
Inside the control room, he plays musical selections from his iPod. The first is his daughter singing “The Sound of Music.” When his own purposely melodramatic voice joins in about halfway through, co-workers groan.
Dell’Orfano doesn’t harbor dreams of making it big in comedy. That would take far more time than he has. A friend of his in Chicago has been doing stand-up for 20 years and just recently got his first big break, five minutes on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”
Off stage, Dell’Orfano seems a naturally funny guy and knocks out jokes at a steady clip. But being funny with your co-workers is different than standing in front of a roomful of strangers. Even a relatively short routine takes years to hone.
“No stand-up comic does anything off the cuff,” he says. “In the echelon of comedians, I’m like an intern. I have the material to be the opening guy.”
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