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Laughing at Lows
Comedian Jim Turner Finds the Humor in his Diabetes

Jim Turner in costume for a show.Jim Turner -- actor, writer, and stand-up comedian -- was dreaming. In his dream he felt responsible for fixing everything in the world. He finally gave in to exhaustion, but then found that if he thought of a place, he could go there. This revelation felt powerful, and when he woke up, it was still very real. The problem was, he was having a low blood sugar episode and, to his wife Lynn, seemed downright crazy.

She tried to give him juice, but Jim took it and poured it all over his face, yelling “Lynn! You think it and you go there and you be there”! He was still reveling, jumping on the bed and shouting to his increasingly worried wife. Finally, the juice began to work to calm Jim down. They laugh about the incident today, but it was unsettling at the time. As an actor, Jim wondered if he could somehow tap into that strange and knowing person he became during a low.

It was all part of Jim learning about his diabetes, and he’s had nearly 40 years to do that. He says now that his strategy is to “manage it and manage it and manage it.” He tests his blood glucose upwards of ten times a day, and injects insulin frequently. He knows his A1c is 5.8, his target blood sugar when he begins an exercise workout is 150, and if he’s loafing around he shoots for 100. If he’s going to be onstage he likes his sugar levels to “stay high, because I don’t want to go low on stage.” He likens his daily ride to surfing -- only the waves are his blood sugars, swelling and dipping as he tries to keep his balance. “I get on the board in the morning and then off I go, constantly adjusting and regulating and testing” he explains.

His strenuous management regimen comes from years of uncertainty. He says that throughout the 1970s he could only guess at his glucose level and for years he only got a reading if went to the doctor, and then only for that day. “In 1970, the diabetes management tools were a rock and a nail. That’s pretty much what we had,” Jim laughs.

Tight control has paid off – even after nearly 40 years Jim has no significant complications. His vision, kidney function, and cardiovascular health are all excellent. Jim gives credit to his constant glucose monitoring and to simple good luck, but notes that he is probably at greater risk of hypoglycemic episodes because of rigorous management. “I try to keep my blood sugar around 100, so there isn’t really a lot of cushion if I miss a meal or wait too long to eat after I give myself insulin,” he says.

Jim says he’s going to stick to his system because it works. For that reason, he has little interest in an insulin pump, continuous glucose monitoring, or any of the other recent technological innovations. He says he tried an insulin pen but that there were too many times after an injection when he pulled the pen out and a bunch of insulin dripped out. He would worry “well, now how much insulin did I just inject?” he recalls, and so he prefers the time-honored syringe.

Jim is also very active and exercises almost obsessively. In fact, in the late 1970’s he bicycled through Europe, often clocking more than 100 miles a day. This was before the advent of home blood glucose meters, “so I rode through Europe having absolutely no idea what my blood sugar was” he says. It didn’t end well—he landed in a foreign hospital, misdiagnosed with cholera.

Another challenge has been parenting. Jim worries about the effect his diabetes has had on his teenage son and recalls a time when an ordinary battle between parent and teenager took an unexpected turn as his blood sugar dropped. He began acting like more of a child than his son and “ended up going outside and kicking my car, leaving a big dent that’s still there” Jim says ruefully. It’s painful for him to recall times when his son has had to worry that he is alright, or force him to drink some juice. A few times his son has seen Jim lose control. Although the episodes are rare, Jim describes them as “the single biggest heartbreak of this disease.”

But through it all, Jim has kept his sense of humor and built an impressive acting career on both the large and small screens. His latest movie, an Eddie Murphy film called Starship Dave, opens this spring, and he is perhaps best known as ex-football-star-turned-agent Kirby Carlisle on the long-running HBO comedy, ARLI$$. But recently, Turner decided to combine his two fields of expertise. He wrote “Diabetes: My Struggles with Jim Turner,” a one-man comedy show which he performs live in Los Angeles. He will perform a special engagement at the National Federation of the Blind’s annual Convention in Dallas, Texas, on July 1.

At first blush, a chronic disease might not seem promising material for a comedy act, and Jim admits that there’s nothing inherently funny about it. “But management reveals some interesting—and sometimes hilarious—things about your personality” Jim says. Especially during blood sugar swings Jim has noticed that extremes bring out the crazy parts of people -- like the episode when he ran screaming through the house about his dream revelation. “With diabetes, the potential for drama is there every day” says Jim. His comedy act captures and transforms what he sees as crazy diabetes drama into hilarity, and helps others to laugh and cope.


About the Author
Gail Brashers-Krug, JD, is Director of Special Projects for the Diabetes Action Network. A mother of five and a recovering trial lawyer, Gail works with the diabetes industry, diabetes advocacy groups, and government agencies to advocate on behalf of diabetics with complications.