Karen Mills has her audience in stitches. It’s Thursday night at The Comedy Catch, and she’s serving up the kind of humor that comes out of observing life as it happens.
She cracks a joke about pulling up to the drive-thru window at a bank and asking the teller for her prescription. The audience, which is still laughing at her last bit, doubles over. She’s on a roll.
After admitting she acts like a Southern Belle when she has to, Mills makes a quip about radar detectors. “They’re handy devices,” she says. “They let you know the moment you’re caught.”
The following morning, she’s musing on her ability to see the humor in everyday situations. “Comedy follows me,” Mills says, a smile popping up on a face that looks younger than she hints at being. “But instead of getting angry and calling someone stupid, I look for the funny.”
Mills appreciates a nod of understanding as much as she does a belly laugh. Some jokes hit so broadly, her audience occasionally looks like a gaggle of bobbleheads. “I love humor that’s relatable. I enjoy doing bits that make people elbow each other in the ribs because they do the same thing,” she says.
The previous night, Mills earned a big laugh with a line about turning down the radio when she’s driving so she can see. It’s something many people have done, but Mills was able to see the absurdity in what she did and then use it to make people laugh.
“A good audience is one that’s engaged in life,” she says. “They can see the humor I’m bringing to the table when I talk about myself.”
Short, blonde, and urbane, Mills spares no corner of her life when mining it for humor. Even her ordeal with ovarian cancer made its way into her material.
“In 2013, my doctor found a huge mass during a routine check-up. It was ovarian cancer,” she says. “When the surgeon cut me open, my right ovary popped out the size of a cantaloupe and my left ovary popped out the size of a grapefruit. It turned out my muffin top was a fruit salad.”
The bit was a crowd-pleaser when Mills performed during the Keller Williams Downtown awards luncheon in February. Mills, who’s now cancer free and doing well, did the show in exchange for a donation to Women’s Oncology Warriors. But she doesn’t just play that experience for laughs; she uses it to create a moment in which laughter overshadows the pains of cancer.
“I’m grateful for what my life has brought to me,” she says. “People need to be able to find the humor in their circumstances, whether it’s cancer or something else.”
Mills has taken her story about her battle with cancer outside of comedy clubs and to survivor events, women’s conferences, and a speaking engagement with the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance in Washington, D.C. She also recently recorded a TED talk at TEDxChattanooga titled “Cancer is a Laughing Matter.” (A video of her talk will be available at www.tedxchattanooga.com.)
By turning a time of tribulation into a way of helping others, Mills has given her comedy a greater purpose. “Every time I speak, people come up to me afterward and tell me that was the first time they’d laughed since they were diagnosed,” she says. “I feel blessed to be able to speak to these people, and maybe make their journey a little easier.”
Mills hasn’t always been a stand-up comedian. A local girl, she first made a name for herself playing basketball for Bradley High School and then the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She was an All-American point guard in 1980 and 1981, and led the nation in assists in 1980. Mills thought she was going to coach the sport she loved, but during a graduate assistantship, she discovered she didn’t enjoy working on the sidelines as much as she did being in the game.
“I came to realize that I liked to entertain the crowd,” she says. “I would rather make a behind-the-back-pass than score the points because that’s what got people involved in the game.”
However, Mills didn’t yet realize where life could take her. Even advice from those who saw her talents off the court failed to hit its mark. While Mills was at UTC, the booster club held an annual event called Meet the Mocs. Each year, she put together something humorous as a way of introducing the players. One year, she wrote a “Saturday Night Live” style skit; another year, she did a takeoff of the movie “Airplane.”
After one event, an elderly gentleman approached Mills and asked her what she was going to do after she graduated. She told him she was going to coach basketball. Referring to the skit, he said, “But this is your gift.”
“I told him I couldn’t just have fun, I was going to have to make a living,” Mills says. “I was going to get a job with insurance and do what was expected of me.”
One such position took Mills to Atlanta but only made her miserable. In an effort to steer herself in a different direction, she took an acting class. Around this time, she was watching the stand-up comedians on the “Tonight Show” and thinking, “I could do that.” A friend told her to get her tail to The Punchline Comedy Club and try.
“The comedy scene in Atlanta was fantastic. Every Tuesday, Punchline had open mic night. They would give six people five minutes each,” she says. “I had a real audience, and it was a great opportunity to gauge what I was doing.”
The manager of the Punchline thought Mills was good enough to do comedy for a living, and encouraged her to write her own material. Mills took a class in comedy writing, and then returned to the club and performed the set she’d worked out. She was a hit, and landed a job as a regular.
Working at the Punchline opened doors for Mills, and she gradually moved up the ranks from opener, to featured act, to headliner. Over time, she became a regular on SiriusXM Blue Collar Radio and Laugh USA, toured with Joan Rivers, Ron White, and Jon Stewart, and wrote for the “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” She eventually landed a spot with the Southern Fried Chicks, an all-female comedy troupe the Chicago Tribune called “the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with better hair.”
Today, Mills is once again living in Chattanooga, although her calendar is peppered with dates that keep her on the road. She’s having fun but says traveling does get tiring now that she’s older. She looks no worse for the wear, though, and is plowing ahead on multiple projects, including a CD of new material and a DVD special. (Some of the material she performed at The Comedy Catch could make it onto the CD.)
Down time is rare, but when Mills is able to hit the pause button, she recharges her batteries in simple ways, such as spending time with her two dogs and one cat, going to movies and concerts, and following the Atlanta Braves.
Mills once thought she was going to have to travel a well-worn path through life. But she found a way to turn straight-forward realities into smart, keen, and funny observations that both entertain audiences and help those who are struggling with cancer, placing her at the crossroads of humor and poignancy. It’s a life she feels fortunate to have.
“I’m having a ball,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Neither can the many people she makes laugh. After all, humor is her gift.
For more information about Karen Mills, including video clips of her performances, visit www.karenmills.