When I interviewed him over the phone last week, comedian Brennen Reeves was huffing and puffing while taking a walk on a hot day in Savannah, Georgia. When I followed up with him later, he was packing for a move. These two routine activities—walking and lifting—are borderline miracles for Reeves, who underwent a double lung transplant when he was 19 years old.
He was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at eight months old. Doctors told his parents his lungs would disintegrate as he aged and he'd never live to see his high school graduation. Reeves obviously prevailed, and at 26, he's touring with his one-man show Breathe, in which he describes a childhood informed by the belief that death is rapidly approaching. Hilarious, right?
Despite Breathe's gloomy subject matter, Reeves engages audiences with levity and self-awareness. For example, as a hormonal teen, he wanted to do what other hormonal teens do: go on dates. He was on an oxygen tank at the time, so romantic evenings required ground rules. The lovely lady would come to his house. He'd be on the couch with his tank next to him. She'd sit, ironically, on the love seat. They'd talk. Date over.
Reeves laughs when he recounts this pattern for dates. "I don't want [the show] to be like a roller coaster, but only going down at a 90-degree angle," he says. "I like the climb, the loops, the twists and turns."
He was aware of his life expectancy during his youth, but most kids see the future in the abstract. So Reeves went about his business. He played sports, pretty much anything that wasn't football. He ran until he couldn't maintain the necessary strength to do so, which occurred when he turned 15. Doctors began closely monitoring Reeves until he was in dire need of the double transplant, but not too sick that it wouldn't take. When he was 19, the time had come.
Reeves bounced back and started college as if he'd never gone through such a harrowing ordeal. "I never talked about my disease growing up," Reeves says, and after surviving, he sought an outlet to discuss his condition. He'd always admired comedians like Mike Birbiglia, Bo Burnham, and Amy Schumer, who tell stories about facing their own demons with an adroit use of humor. He took cues from their work, particularly Birbiglia's album My Secret Public Journal Live (a masterful blend of embarrassment and catharsis), and tried stand-up, making self-deprecating bits about his height (five foot six) and thin, sickly body. After taking a solo performance class during his senior year of college, he wrote Breathe.
"I started by just talking about the seriousness of it all, literally no humor," he says. "My director David Lee Nelson would tell me I have to give the audience permission to laugh."
So he begins the same way each evening: "Obviously this story has a happy ending, because I'm here telling it." v