Brad Nieder’s career as a practicing physician probably ended before it began. Long before, in fact: watching Johnny Carson monologues as a child at the foot of his parents’ bed, and then George Carlin’s less family-friendly HBO appearances.
His father was a physician and that appeared to be a natural career path, one that Nieder, now 47, would follow, obtaining his MD degree. But comedy kept calling.
In high school, Nieder began writing funny things for the school newspaper. The summer before heading off to Stanford University for his first year, he discovered improv at a club in Denver and spent many nights there taking it all in. Once at Stanford, Nieder took an improv class and joined an improv troupe called The Stimps (the Stanford Improvisors), which still exists today.
As his college career progressed, though, Nieder decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and in 1995, he applied to medical school in Denver, where he was raised.
He was accepted.
Back in Denver and in medical school, without his improv troupe, Nieder felt a void. He started going to open mic nights at comedy clubs and doing bits about life as a medical student. “I kept it quiet at first, but I was fairly good early on and the word got out,” he said. “Soon there was a contingent from the medical school that would show up to watch me perform.”
Each year Nieder hoped medical school at the University of Colorado would stir his passions in the same way that performing did. Pathology and pathophysiology? Unfortunately, they didn’t do it. More electives? They didn’t deliver either. Intellectually, he knew medicine would be interesting and challenging and it would be a way to make a nice living while helping people, but even the clinical work during his internship in Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Virginia did not feel like his life’s work. “I liked creative things like writing and performing and there’s not a lot of room for that in medicine,” he said.
At first, Nieder told himself he would practice medicine and do comedy on the side.
“You always hear that you can’t make a living as an artist, as a comedian,” he said. “That’s a good hobby but you have to do something more practical.”
However, after taking his boards and becoming licensed as a general practitioner, he realized he was talking himself into a career as a physician when his heart was really elsewhere.
So Nieder bit the bullet and decided to take a different route: He would not practice medicine in the traditional sense. In 2002, he would launch The Healthy Humorist and tell jokes about medicine instead. “Everybody thought I was out of my mind, including my parents,” he said. “But truthfully, I was miserable.”
Fortunately, when he started out, he had a friend who worked as a veteran motivational speaker who believed if Nieder stuck to his niche — medicine and healthcare — he could do really well because there are so many conferences and meetings in the medical industry.
Nieder said one of his first inspirations was George Carlin. “I would tape [his specials] and would watch them and memorize them and his dirty words,” he recalled. But Nieder’s friend said he would have to work “clean” on the conference circuit, and he would have to deliver more than just jokes: there would have to be a bigger message.
Another piece of advice: instead of doing 5- or 10-minute sets at comedy clubs to get experience, Nieder should offer to speak for free at service organizations like Rotary and Lions clubs. These always need speakers for their weekly meetings, providing 30 minutes to try out material and find the right balance between comedy and content.
Nieder’s first gigs paid him in free lunches and souvenirs like Rotary Club mugs. But soon people in those audiences would ask if he would speak to their staff or at a meeting; he got to know other speakers, who would refer him when they had to turn down an opportunity. In his second year, speakers’ bureaus found out about his act and started calling to book him and pay him very decent fees.
In a good year now, Nieder does about 40 shows and does as well financially as he might have if he were practicing medicine as an internist. Nieder recognized early on that he had a good niche doing clean, health-related humor and had no desire to try to make that material work for a general comedy club audience or disregard his medical background and enter the comedy club fray doing the usual relationship jokes. Plus, he said, he likes his sleep and prefers not to be awake until the wee hours doing multiple shows in smoky clubs around the country for 3- or 4-day stretches. “Performing at conferences and conventions is a bit more civilized and it doesn’t keep me away from my family for such a long time,” he said.
Unlike physician-turned-comedian Ken Jeong, MD — who won the Big Easy Laff Off in 1995 and went on to appear in the hit movie “The Hangover” as well as star in his own ABC sitcom “Dr. Ken” — Nieder does not have film or television aspirations. “I like living in Denver and I’m not crazy about L.A.,” he said. “I feel very comfortable in my niche. I hope to keep on doing what I’m doing.”
Some of Nieder’s performances in 2018 included a heart fair for a community hospital in St. Louis; a leadership institute at a hospital in Georgia; an event in Texas for the second largest dermatology practice in the country; a liability conference for insurers in Orlando; a reunion for the Indiana University School of Medicine; a conference for physicians’ assistants; and an event in Dallas on health and safety involving a variety of companies that deal with OSHA regulations.
His parents are not only on board with his career now, he said, they are among his biggest fans — even his mother who, like any mother, had been looking forward to saying: My son, the doctor. And Nieder now gets a lot of material from visits to the pediatrician with his three children, ages 5, 8, and 10. (He married his girlfriend from medical school who, he said, continued to love him after his big career change).
“They see me much happier,” he said. “They see me uplifting people and making them laugh. I still feel like I’m practicing medicine. Just in an unconventional way.”
Nieder gives wellness advice these days from the stage. Here’s his bit on what Dr. Seuss might say if he were, well, an actual doctor.
I will not eat a lot of sweets.
I will not overeat red meats.
I’ll keep my portions smaller sized.
I’ll limit salt and all things fried.
I will not drink a lot of booze;
Instead plain water I will choose.
I’ll keep my fats the good kind like in soy and nuts and beans,
Olive oil; fish like salmon, tuna and sardines.
Fruits and veggies, fiber and whole grains are really key.
I’ll get my daily calcium, my aspirin, E and C.
I’ll get my antioxidants. I’ll eat my lycopenes.
I’ll eat omega 3s and flavonoids, now what that means
Is I will choose the darker colors for my meals and snacks,
Like spinach green and berries blue and tea both green and black.
I’ll choose tomatoes, broccoli, garlic, red wine and I’ll win.
For purely social reasons I will never drink White Zin.