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Episode Transcript

The last two-plus years haven’t really been funny for health care providers, but there have been a few bright spots.

Will FLANARY: I have patients call my clinic asking to make an appointment with Dr. Glaucomflecken.

Maybe you’ve heard of Dr. Glaucomflecken. If you’re on Twitter, or Tik Tok, you probably have. He’s got half a million followers on one, and more than a million followers on the other.

FLANARY: In general, as an ophthalmologist, my patients are mostly in their 70s and 80s, which is not exactly —

Bapu JENA: Uh, so, they’re mostly Snapchat users, then, you’re saying?

FLANARY: Yeah, exactly — no, exactly. The TikTok generation. I do surprise some people sometimes I’ll walk in, and they’ll be, “Oh, my God. I recognize you. Are you, are you on TikTok?” I’m like, “Well, yeah, I am. You, you may have seen me there.”

Dr. Glaucomflecken’s real name is Will Flanary. He’s an ophthalmologist in Portland, Oregon and, on the side, a comedian. Although sometimes it feels like the other way around. He posts amusing tweets and videos about some not-so-amusing parts of medicine.

[TikTok plays]

Speaker 1: Good afternoon, sir. How may I assist you today?

Speaker 2: Hi, you guys were refusing to pay the bills from my emergency hospitalization because my doctor was out-of-network.

Speaker 1: Yes, sir. That’s correct.

Speaker 2: But the hospital I was taken to by ambulance was in-network.

Speaker 1: Oh, yes, sir. That’s correct.

Speaker 2: But the doctors that work inside the hospital were out-of-network?

Speaker 1: Well, some of them are in-network, but not yours.

[TikTok ends]

Will takes aim at his profession, and the personalities that populate it. He mines the absurdities of medicine for material, and sometimes, his own real-life experiences.

FLANARY: I’m just, like, really good at finding my own testicular cancer. It’s, like, a — it’s, like, a thing. I could actually probably, like, make a second career out of this.

A 2018 study looked at recorded videos of clinical interactions and found that health care providers used humor nearly 60 percent of the time. Will has gained a lot of followers and some notoriety making his videos during the pandemic, even though the content is sort of “inside baseball.”

FLANARY: I would get comments from people saying, “I have no idea what’s going on in this video, but for some reason it’s making me laugh.”

Humor is like that. We know it tickles us, but we don’t always know why. There’s a lot of research showing that humor and laughter have beneficial effects on our health. Studies have suggested humor can prevent heart disease from recurring, improve mental health, reduce agitation in nursing home residents, and improve quality of life for people undergoing cancer treatment. But most of this research is associational, not causal. We don’t know for sure if the humor is the reason for the beneficial effect, or if it might be something else.

We also don’t know much about how physicians themselves use humor to communicate with patients and whether it helps. Will’s comedy seems to help people, but he’s talking to a much larger audience.

So, is this a good idea? Laughter might be the best medicine, but should your doctor be funny?

From the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is Freakonomics, M.D. I’m Bapu Jena. I’m an economist and I’m also a medical doctor. Each episode, I typically dissect an interesting question at the sweet spot between health and economics.

Today’s episode is a little different. We’ll talk with the ophthalmologist best known as Dr. Glaucomflecken about being funny.

FLANARY: A patient has their second cataract surgery done, and they come back, and I’ll be like, “Okay, well, when do you want to do your third eye?”

And not being funny.

FLANARY: We think we can handle every situation that comes our way, no matter what. But sometimes you can’t.

We’ll also try to figure out if and when and how Dr. Will Flanary, or any of us in medicine, should use humor.

Stephanie KELLY: If you think about the physician-patient context, it is not a physician’s job to be a comedian.

FLANARY: I was bored as hell. I was — it was during lockdown. Our clinic shut down. It was like, what am I going to — what am I going to do with all this time? I don’t even know what to do.

The early days of the Covid-19 pandemic are a blur for many of us. If you were lucky, it meant tons of time at home. For some people—specifically, for some doctors whose offices were closed and who weren’t involved in direct Covid care—it also meant not a lot to do. Will Flanary has been dabbling in comedy since he was 17, first performing standup in Houston, near where he grew up. He kept this going into medical school, but as life got busy with work and with family, he didn’t have as much time to do comedy. Then, amid a great public health crisis, he decided to try a new approach: making fun of everyone in medicine.

FLANARY: I was initially on Twitter for a while, and I was writing satire articles for this website called GomerBlog that’s like The Onion for medical audiences. And so, I really got a lot of experience coming up with material directed at other specialties. That was really what helped me to, to kind of get into that line of comedy. Once I started doing videos, I had been making fun of other specialties for at least a couple of years at that point. And so, I kind of knew what people complained about, like, what annoyed anesthesiologists about surgeons and what cardiologists didn’t like. And, you know, so, I — I knew all these, like, pressure points for different specialties and so, it was pretty easy, honestly, to start coming up with the characters to deliver that material in a video format.

JENA: What are the characters that you have so far?

FLANARY: Oh, man. I’ve got, I’ve got a lot. I mean, this —

JENA: It’s like a whole hospital.

FLANARY: Okay. Well, um, we’ll start with the ophthalmologist, which is, is just me, uh, and, um, my loyal scribe, Jonathan.

FLANARY: I would say that the next most important and prominent characters would be the emergency physician who, uh, wears a bike helmet, a bike jersey, and Oakley sunglasses. There’s the psychiatrist, also the therapist that I have in my therapy videos, and he just has the, the glasses on the end of the nose. He just has this kind of fatherly tone of voice that he speaks with.

[TikTok plays]

THERAPIST: Surgery, do you know why you’re here today?

SURGEON: Yeah, I was told to come here to receive my world’s greatest surgeon award but instead I’m receiving therapy.

THERAPIST: HR-mandated therapy.

SURGEON: That’s ridiculous, I didn’t do anything wrong.

THERAPIST: Here’s a list of things that you’ve done in the last two weeks alone: forced the anesthesiologist to scratch your nose because, and i quote, “the patient’s life depends on it.”

SURGEON: You can’t operate with an itchy nose!

THERAPIST: And you attempted to demote a fourth-year med student back to first year because he didn’t know the name of the keyboard player for Pink Floyd.

SURGEON: That was a joke!

THERAPIST: You called the student’s parents to inform them.

[TikTok ends]

FLANARY: And then probably the other big one is, um, the neurologist with the gold-rimmed aviator glasses. I kind of do my hair funny

JENA: And he’s the smartest?

FLANARY: He thinks he’s the smartest. The infectious disease doctor is the smartest person in the hospital. All right?

There’s also a radiologist wearing wraparound sunglasses meant for cataract patients; a pediatrician with a unicorn headband; and my personal favorite, “Ortho Bro,” whose name tells you what you need to know. These characters are highly specific stereotypes. They draw on idiosyncrasies that most laypeople may have never heard about. Let me give you an example. There’s a trope among doctors about anesthesiologists getting bored while surgeons are performing procedures, because their job involves a lot of waiting around. So, Will’s anesthesiologist character carries a book of Sudoku puzzles everywhere he goes.

JENA: So, I’m a doctor. I obviously find everything that you do to be quite funny because I could relate to it. I expect that they resonate with a lot of other people who work in health care. But my guess is that a lot of people who follow you aren’t in health care. And I’m curious what it is about your comedy that you think that they appreciate. Because, like, I — I don’t know that I would find investment banking jokes very funny.

FLANARY: I would get comments from people saying, “I have no idea what’s going on in this video, but for some reason it’s making me laugh.” Like, I — those are, like, the — my favorite comments, because I think what it is is it’s the personalities of the characters. Like, even if you don’t know, like, the medicine, like, you know that personality. Like, you know a neurologist. You know, this, like nerdy kind of condescending kind of personality. Those exist everywhere. I’m just adding medicine jargon and terminology to it. And so, I think the character resonates. The personality resonates with people.

One particular character who has resonated is loyal scribe Jonathan.

[TikTok plays]

MED STUDENT: Knock knock! Hi, I’m the new med student.

OPHTHALMOLOGIST: Oh, welcome! I’m the ophthalmologist and this here is my loyal scribe Jonathan

MED STUDENT: What does a scribe do?

OPHTHALMOLOGIST: He helps me out in clinic, he does all my documentation, and when my legs get tired he carries me around clinic on his back.

MED STUDENT: Do you ever have to see patients at the hospital?

OPHTHALMOLOGIST: Oh, Jonathan! Please!

JONATHAN: Oh, we don’t use the “H word” in the eye clinic. It upsets the doctor.

MED STUDENT: H word? What, hospital?

OPHTHALMOLOGIST: Ugh, make him stop!

JONATHAN: Please, stop! Sir, do you need some extra vacation time?

OPHTHALMOLOGIST: No, I think we’re done for today. I’ll see you Monday.

MED STUDENT: But today’s Wednesday.


[TikTok ends]

FLANARY: He’s technically, like, now, chief executive scribe Jonathan. That’s his full title. And that’s probably the most popular character that I play is Jonathan. People love Jonathan.

A medical scribe is a doctor’s assistant who specializes in capturing and managing information. Jonathan is an endearing character; he’s eager, willing to do every task with extreme speed and efficiency. He often doesn’t say a word, merely giving a compliant nod to the ophthalmologist, or to the audience. But he’s also a commentary on what Will sees as a failure of medicine in this country.

FLANARY: The reason scribes exist is because, uh, of just our messed-up health care system in that, uh, we have to be so focused on documenting in a way that allows us to, like, bill appropriately, otherwise insurance won’t reimburse us. And so, basically what the scribe does is all, like the inputting, all the numbers, the documentation. As I’m talking to the patient, I’m discussing the assessment and plan with the patient, they’re writing it all down for me, putting it into the record, and then I sign the chart whenever we’re done.

JENA: What does it allow you to do with your patients?

FLANARY: The biggest thing is allowing me to just have that eye contact, that one-on-one. So much of what we’re taught to do as doctors is creating a rapport with a patient, right? You want to create that connection. I can do that so much faster if I’m just focused on the interaction. I’m not looking at a computer screen. I’m not typing as they’re talking. So, even though I’m only spending maybe, like, seven, eight minutes with a patient, like, I promise you, I — it’s like, it’s almost as if I spent 30 minutes because all of that time is face-to-face, you know, eye contact, telling jokes sometimes.

JENA: I was going to ask — so, do you tell jokes to your patients? And, and do they laugh?

FLANARY: I do. I do. It’s very different humor, though, because, you have to be careful with someone that you’re just meeting for the first time or that you only see for, like, 10 minutes. You can’t, like, be risky with your humor at all. Right? So, it’s all dad jokes. It’s, like, very, very bland. But I think it’s really helpful, though, to be able to tell a joke because I think there’s no faster way to form a connection between two people than to share a laugh.

JENA: So, you’ll say things — “Yeah, I’ll keep an eye on that.” That’s the type of thing you’d say?

FLANARY: Uh, I mean, kind of. That’s, that’s a little bit more lame than I’m willing to go. Um, but like, a patient has their second cataract surgery done, and they come back, and I’ll be like, “Okay, well, when do you want to do your third eye?” It — just, like, little things like that. They, like — patients, they eat that stuff up. They — they love it.

There’s another reason why Will’s comedy might be meaningful to his patients.

KELLY: So, one of the things that my research goes back to over and over again, is the role of anxiety in communication

That’s Stephanie Kelly. She’s a Professor at North Carolina A&T State University, where she studies communication.

KELLY: We’re really interested in how different variables play out in determining how people understand and transmit messages.

There’s a lot going on when we communicate with other people, whether one-on-one, or in a larger forum, like Will does. Stephanie’s work focuses on anxiety, and how communication might diffuse it in certain contexts—like the physician-patient relationship.

KELLY: One of the variables that we re-occurringly see associated with helping with anxiety is the use of humor.

As Stephanie explains, one of anxiety’s key features is its effect on our working memory.

KELLY: Our working memory is that in-the-moment cognitive processing power that we have. Our working memory is what we use to think about what we’re going to say, or to decode what a person has said. When we have anxiety in any context, then the working memory is also what we have to use to manage those anxiety symptoms. So, anxiety is what often robs us of our ability to process information.

If you’ve ever been a patient, or cared for a loved one, you know it’s important to be able to take in a lot of information. You also probably know about anxiety. Some amount of anxiety surrounding health problems is normal and expected. Even routine checkups can cause anyone to feel anxious. And while doctors can sometimes be the source of a patient’s anxiety, they can also help address it.

KELLY: The main function of humor in the physician-patient relationship is to ease anxiety. And it does that not just by breaking the tension that the patient is feeling about the surrounding context, but it also helps to build a connection between that patient and the provider.

And when that connection is built and the relationship is made stronger, it matters. In 2020, researchers at the Mayo Clinic and a few other institutions looked at how the nature of the patient-provider relationship could impact outcomes. Their findings suggested that an improved relationship did, in fact, result in better functional health among patients. So, should doctors try to be funny?

Humor is subjective, which can make it hard to study. A few years ago, Stephanie and her colleague, Mike Cundall, tried anyway. He’s a philosophy and humor researcher. In 2021 they published a book of case studies where they and other experts looked for themes in how humor seemed to work — or not — in the patient-physician relationship. They took a few key recommendations away from this project.

KELLY: So, more than anything, you’ve got to remember that when a patient is in a health care setting, they have a variety of places for anxiety. It might be, how am I going to pay this bill? Or what’s wrong with me? Or am I going to get sick being around these other people? So, when the humor is being used, it has an opportunity to actually elevate their anxiety if it’s not used correctly. And what I mean by using it correctly is making sure that the humor is never directed at the patient because that is going to make them feel worse given where their headspace probably is. The second biggest piece of advice that we can give to health care providers is to remember that we’re not asking them to get a laugh. We’re asking them to get a smile. So, something as simple as wearing funky socks can be a way that a health care provider can incorporate humor into their care that does not actually require them trying to tell a joke.

There’s a different kind of humor that’s used by and between physicians that tends to make fun of scary or life-threatening circumstances. There are debates within medicine about whether it’s okay to make jokes about certain dark topics, but Stephanie says there are instances where it can be appropriate.

KELLY: Gallows humor is something that some patients will use as a form of self-care to help deal with their realities and to relate to other people and to try to lighten the mood. That is a tool that they can use to make themselves feel better. And we should support it as caregivers.

We were all in the gallows together in the spring of 2020, and maybe that’s why Will Flanary’s videos about the medical profession took off the way they did. But he also knows a lot about using comedy as a form of self-care.

FLANARY: I just felt that urge, like, I have to deal with this stress in my life the only way that I really knew how, which was to just make fun of it and tell jokes about it.

After the break, we’ll hear what, exactly, helped Will cope with more than one health crisis. And what these experiences have taught him not just about being a doctor, but about being funny. I’m Bapu Jena, and this is Freakonomics, M.D.

*          *          *

As the Twitter and Tik Tok star known as Dr. Glaucomflecken, Dr. Will Flanary has amassed quite a cast of characters, all played by him in short, incisive, scripted videos. The word “glaucomflecken,” by the way, is a German term for one of the symptoms of the eye disease glaucoma. Earlier this year, Will told the medical news website STAT that he chose glaucomflecken because it was quote “the most ridiculous word” he could think of in ophthalmology.

Before the break, Will talked about his lifelong interest in both medicine and comedy. And even though he decided to become a doctor, he never stopped trying to make people laugh. While Will was still in medical school he kept doing stand-up, getting lots of his material from what he was learning. Around this time, though, something else happened. And it wasn’t very funny at all.

FLANARY: So, I was a third-year med student, uh, when I found a lump in my testicle. And I went in, got it checked out, was diagnosed with cancer. So, I had testicular cancer. Um, how old was I? I was probably 26, something like that. You know, testicular cancer is eminently treatable if you catch it early enough.

Luckily, Will’s testicular cancer was treatable. He was diagnosed with a stage one seminoma, which meant it hadn’t spread beyond the testes, and he underwent surgery to have that testicle removed.

FLANARY: And then about four years later, I’m now in residency at the University of Iowa, I wake up one morning, and I found a lump in my other testicle. And, I’m just, like, really good at finding my own testicular cancer. It’s, like, a — it’s, like, a thing. I could actually probably, like, make a second career out of this. Like, I think. Like, it would be weird, an ophthalmologist, like, you know, just finding testicular cancer, but it’s something I could do. It’s all just balls anyway. So, I — you know, I get cancer in the second testicle. And second time around was, was a little bit more difficult to deal with. Uh, just because now I was facing the prospect of losing my other testicle, right? So, having to talk about, like, you know, banking sperm, and were we done having kids, and, you know, having to postpone residency all these things.

Will likes to joke around, but this was obviously serious stuff. Nobody wants to be told they have cancer. And nobody wants to be told they have cancer again. But in that moment, humor wasn’t what he needed most.

FLANARY: That second time I was diagnosed, when I was in residency, I literally left clinic, to go to ultrasound. I was, like, trying to sneak away for a few minutes to find out if I have cancer. And so, I received that diagnosis, uh, and I was on call. And as I was walking out of the radiology department, I — I get a page from the emergency department. And they tell me that they have a patient, um, who has a traumatic eye injury and needs emergency surgery. And, and I just, like, I couldn’t handle it. It was too much. Like, I — I just lost — I started crying. It was — it was just too much for me to handle. It was, like, just getting this diagnosis, and now I have to go in and see this, you know, horrible injury. Um, and then what really saved me at that moment was a, a friend of mine, one of the ophthalmology fellows at the time, he saw me, and he — I told him what had happened. And he just, he took the pager from me, and he just said, “Go home. Like, be with your family. Uh, you don’t need to do this. I’ll do this for you.” And, uh, it — it just meant so much to me because honestly, I don’t know if I would’ve thought to just do that — to give that to somebody. Because we’re not trained that way in medicine, which I think is a problem. We think we can handle every situation that comes our way, no matter what. Like, it’s on us. We have to do it. But sometimes you can’t. And you need to give yourself a little bit of grace, right? To say, “This is too much for me. I need somebody to help me.” So, he provided that help for me when I wasn’t able to ask for it.

JENA: I think most people who are not in medicine would think that if they had a sort of a devastating diagnosis like that happen, it would be expected that somebody from work would just say, “Go home.” Right? But you didn’t even expect that response, which is why it stood out in your mind so much, which is also kind of jarring for me to, to think about.

FLANARY: We just — we need to, like, do more of that for each other. Right? I honestly think, showing compassion and humanity for other health care workers is a way that we could help combat burnout in medicine, uh, because we all have this kind of sense of individualism that we have to just go, go, go. and we can’t expect other people to help us. And, but we all — we need help. everyone is burned out in medicine right now with the pandemic. And we need to help each other more. We need to show each other that humanity a little bit more so that we can all get through a career in medicine together.

Will recovered from both bouts of testicular cancer. But in the spring of 2020, just after he had started to gain some attention for his funny videos, something else happened.

FLANARY: I had a little bit of an issue with, uh, cardiac arrest.

JENA: Yes, a little bit of an issue. 

FLANARY: Just a li — little tiny — little tiny problem with my heart.

JENA: Yeah. As they say, a touch of the cardiac arrest.

FLANARY: A touch — a touch of the cardiac arrest. it was back in May of 2020. So, we’re talking, you know, peak of the pandemic, basically. It was at four o’clock in the morning. My wife woke up and heard me gasping for breath. And she thought I was snoring. I was very — really loud snoring. She, like, nudged me, you know, pushed me, was, like, trying to get me to wake up. but I was still making those noises. And so, she knew something was wrong. And what she didn’t know was that I was having agonal breaths, which are a sign of cardiac arrest. My wife is not in medicine at all. She’s in marketing communications but she knew something was wrong. She called 911, uh, who then walked her through C.P.R. because she had never, you know, done C.P.R. and then she proceeded to do 10 consecutive minutes of chest compressions, uh, until E.M.S. arrived. 10 minutes.

JENA: Yeah. Wow.

FLANARY: That’s, that’s an eternity. When you’re doing, like, two-person C.P.R., right, you know, you’re supposed to, like, tap out every two minutes because you get tired. She did effective chest compressions on me for 10 minutes. And I still don’t know how she did. I mean, adrenaline is a wonderful thing. We have the 911 call, and, I — I actually play this call whenever I go and speak, uh, to audiences about this because it’s such a powerful call to hear what people go through in terms of medical trauma to their family members. We always think about the patient, right? But she was the one that lived through that trauma. And so, it’s honestly more her story than it is mine, because I went to bed one night. I woke up in the I.C.U. two days later. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But she lived through that, and eventually E.M.S. arrived. They took me off to the hospital, and, uh, I pretty much got admitted to the I.C.U. right away. They cooled me down. It was basically, they, like, targeted hypothermia treatment for about 24 hours. And then we all waited until they woke me up to see if I would survive.

Will’s cardiac arrest was the result of a life-threatening arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation. When this happens, the ventricles, or lower chambers of the heart, quiver erratically. This cuts off blood flow to the rest of the body, and if untreated, leads to death. Fewer than 12 percent of people who suffer a cardiac arrest outside the hospital, as Will did, survive this event. He has since had a defibrillator implanted in his heart to prevent this from happening again.

Will’s wife undoubtedly saved his life. It was a compelling story that people followed closely on social media. He has an even bigger platform for his comedy now, and more material. Remember that first clip we played about the patient whose I.C.U. stay wasn’t covered because the doctor at the in-network hospital was actually out-of-network for the patient? That was about Will’s own hospitalization after his cardiac arrest.

By making fun of these situations, Will is certainly not making light of them. In part, it’s how he helps himself cope, even if it’s not what he wants from others.

FLANARY: The most important thing that I was able to do was start telling jokes after those experiences. At the time that I was first diagnosed with testicular cancer, I had gotten away from comedy, just because of life, you know, and then I got that diagnosis. And then I just felt that urge, like, I have to, like, deal with this stress in my life, like, the only way that I really knew how, which was to just make fun of it and tell jokes about it. And that’s why humor is such a valuable coping mechanism, because at times, we’re all faced with, like, these challenges that we had no idea were coming that feel like they take control away from our own lives. By using humor it’s almost like you’re taking back control over the situation in which you don’t have any control. Like, I’m addressing cancer on my terms, I’m framing it in a way that gets people laughing with me about it. And it’s just a very powerful way to deal with these types of challenges.

JENA: So, with the testicular cancer and the cardiac arrest, I presume you’ve had to keep up with seeing doctors. Do doctors use humor with you?

FLANARY: Everybody has got their own style, their own personality. I hope that people don’t ever feel like they have to be funny with me because this — it’s just, be yourself. I think it’s much better for people to just be who they are in physician-patient interactions. And that’s going to go a lot farther with developing that relationship.

KELLY: If you think about the physician-patient context, it is not a physician’s job to be a comedian.

That’s Stephanie Kelly again.

KELLY: Often, we find that health care providers who want to be humorous are too intimidated to do it because in any setting, we don’t want to tell a joke and have that joke fall flat. That’s going to be embarrassing for us, but especially in a position where their credibility is on the line at their job. That’s something that can make them anxious and uncomfortable.

Being funny certainly doesn’t come naturally to everybody, and doctors are no exception. But knowing the difference a humorous interaction can make for some patients—at the very least in terms of mitigating their anxiety — does make you wonder:

KELLY: My colleague Mike Cundall likes to say, “The question continues to be, should we teach health care providers how to be humorous? And the question is wrong. The question is, with all of the evidence we have about the benefits of health and humor, why aren’t we training health care professionals to use humor?” It just makes people more comfortable with their provider. And when they are comfortable, they are more likely to be honest about what’s really going on with them.

FLANARY: I think that’s one thing I’m really good at is I can read my audience really well in terms of, like who will be receptive to a joke. I think that’s something that doing stand-up, you kind of get that sense of where to go with what you’re talking about.

JENA: Can you imagine a scenario in which humor would have sort of tangible, clinical benefits? Like, they would be more likely to trust a recommendation you might make or something like that. Because it certainly is going to make them feel more comfortable with you, but you think it goes beyond that?

FLANARY: I mean, I don’t — I don’t think you can separate the two, right? I mean, if they’re more comfortable with you they’re going to — I feel like they’re going to trust you. And they’re going to be more likely to take the advice that you have to give them. Um, but in the end, it’s like, are you solving their problem? I don’t know. So, it certainly helps. It’s not the only thing, though.

Using humor in a clinical setting, or as Will Flanary does in a public forum, could be good for everyone. It can help patients and physicians connect with one another, and maybe even get better results. But humor also seems to benefit the doctors themselves, or anyone coping with challenging, changing circumstances.

FLANARY: One of the big surprises for me over the last two years putting out these videos is people just will send me emails just to say, like, it meant so much to have a funny video to watch at the end of the day because they’re, like, in the I.C.U., like, seeing Covid patients all day. You know, people are dying all day. So, when I started doing these videos, I was like, “I’m just doing this for me. I think this is funny. This is great.” And then it — something changed. I really started to get that feedback of, “This is really helping me. This is really helping people be able to just smile when they haven’t been able to smile or laugh in months.” And it’s not something I intended. I think it’s wonderful. It’s great. And it’s actually what has really kept me motivated to keep making these videos, because as an ophthalmologist, I mean, I’m somewhat limited in what I can do during a respiratory pandemic. Um, and so, if I can just do something as simple as making someone laugh who is really having a tough time with this, I’m more than happy to do it. And so, it’s really been a great motivator for me to keep going.

It would be great if we could prescribe what Will does as a treatment for any number of ailments. Like, watch three Dr. Glaucomflecken videos and call me in the morning. But we can’t quantify humor in that way because it’s impossible to measure. What if it wasn’t?

KELLY: A lot of my area of study is in measurement. How do we measure things? And when we examine the measures that we have available to us to actually assess humor, they often fall apart because from context to context, from person to person, from stress level to stress level, how we intake humor changes. And so, that is something that we are working on. But one day we are going to get there. And one day we are going to be able to be a lot more confident about just how beneficial humor is and just how to use it best.

All kidding aside, I really look forward to that day. I want to thank Will Flanary and Stephanie Kelly, and of course, thanks to you, as always, for listening. Make sure to let us know what you thought about today’s episode and send us an email at and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts! It might seem like a small gesture, but it really helps us to know what you think.

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Next week on Freakonomics, M.D.:

CLIP: After the episode that mentioned the effect of full moon has on driver’s safety. I started thinking more about my driving habits and what distractions I need to be aware of.

A few weeks ago, we told you we wanted to try something new, and we asked you to send in any questions you had for me. Well, you listened! So, next week I’m going to answer a few of these compelling and creative questions. I’ll also walk you through how I’d try to do a study based on the question at hand.

CLIP: Hey, Dr. Bapu. My question for you is: do you think cancer screening programs work or does lead time bias take an effect?

I’m starting to wonder if there might be some budding physician-economists out there in the audience. Keep those questions coming, because this is something we’d like to continue to do on the show! Send a voice memo to, and make sure to record somewhere quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute. Thanks again for listening, and for being so curious.

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Freakonomics, M.D. is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and People I (Mostly) Admire. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @drbapupod. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer and mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help this week from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Morgan Levey, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Original music composed by Luis Guerra. If you like this show, or any other show in the Freakonomics Radio Network, please recommend it to your family and friends. That’s the best way to support the podcasts you love. As always, thanks for listening.

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JENA: My wife is a radiologist, and at the beginning of the pandemic, she, too, did not have any clinical responsibilities because radiology basically closed down at her hospital. So, my question for you is: what job did the hospital assign her?

FLANARY: Oh, man.

KANFER: A riddle.

JENA: You can get this.

KANFER: A scribe! Scribe!

JENA: A scribe.

FLANARY: She was a scribe?

JENA: She was a scribe.

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  • Will Flanary, ophthalmologist at EyeHealth NW and comedian.
  • Stephanie Kelly, professor of business information systems and analytics at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.



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