Laughing his way through to beating cancer – The Mercury News


For a local theater company to thrive, it’s important to maintain a positive attitude and take creative risks. So, to kick off its new late-night series, being launched this summer on select Fridays, Redwood City’s Dragon Theatre chose a headliner whose stand-up comedy is focused on positivity and tackles a difficult subject.

Michael Riley’s new act, which he’ll perform there on Friday, July 21, is, “Attitude is Everything or Cancer Sucks, So Let’s Have Fun!”

“It’s the first time I’ve ever done a routine that’s so personal,” says Riley, a cancer survivor.

It’s a fine balance — dealing with such a serious topic while trying to generate laughter. “I struggled with that,” Riley says. “I’ve probably written it 150 times. The first one was depressing as hell. So I thought, ‘What’s my point? Why would I want to tell people about this? Why would somebody want to listen?’ It boiled down to, I’m just a regular guy like anybody else and having a sense of humor and a positive attitude helped me, so I’m going to find the humor in this journey.”

In June of 2012, he was diagnosed with Stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer. “I learned the hard way, if you’re ever diagnosed with anything, do not look on WebMD. They said I had an 85 percent chance of dying in the first year. Rather than bumming me out, it pissed me off.”

Riley, a San Jose resident, was determined to be among the 15 percent who did not succumb. He had his wife, Dianne Lynch, to provide tireless support. He also had his sense of humor and inherently upbeat attitude to see him through.

“Those were the skills I had, when everything else was taken away,” Riley says. “You can have a negative attitude or a positive attitude. We all have that choice. I choose to have a positive attitude.”

That doesn’t mean he’s wearing a smile 24/7. “I can’t say I never get bummed out. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. What I do is, if I’m feeling uncomfortable in a situation, I take a look at why I’m feeling uncomfortable — and I can usually find some humor in that. And using that humor boosts the positive attitude.”

Riley certainly had downbeat moments after the diagnosis. “You are going to be sad and angry. And deep down inside, I don’t care how much of a macho person you are, you will be terrified. You’re faced with your own mortality and that’s as real as it gets.”

Riley grew up in San Francisco, the middle child of six. “I developed my sense of humor as a way to be noticed,” he says.

A stand-up since the early ’90s, he has opened for such stars as Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Burr.

On Friday, July 21, at Dragon Theatre, Riley is the headliner. The opener, Eric Ruben, will bring his own distinctive comedy.

Founded in 1999 by Executive Artistic Director Meredith Hagedorn, the nonprofit Dragon Theatre’s mission is to provide low-cost, high-quality professional theater that is “uncommon, intimate and accessible.”

In 2013, Dragon Theatre relocated from Palo Alto to a bigger space in Redwood City. The company started a Monday Night Play Space series, giving local artists a place to workshop new plays or test out new acts. The new late night series is a spin off of that. Comedy is in the spotlight for the first show. But subsequent late night presentations could include local musicians and poetry slams.

Managing Director Kimberly Wadycki says, “We have a unique opportunity to extend a hand to some of these artists. Theater, and the arts in general, are a great way to connect to people and tell different kinds of stories and create a community. So we’re thrilled to open our doors to new creative experiences.”

The addition of the late-night series reflects the ongoing revitalization of downtown Redwood City. The city’s Civic Cultural Commission is providing partial sponsorship for the series.

Riley says he has always had a passion for small theaters like Dragon.

“That takes true commitment. Putting together shows with no budget, you really need to believe in what you’re doing. I really admire that. Dragon’s been doing it for quite a while. They’re able to do very provocative and thought-provoking theater. And that’s the most important thing theater can do -— make you think.”

Wadycki says Riley, with his thought-provoking stand-up, is an ideal first headliner for the late night series. “He was very excited about helping us to give this new format a try. His own personal story is very relatable. I think everyone knows someone in their inner circle of family and friends that has dealt with cancer.”

Riley, 59, now cancer-free, hopes to inspire the audience. “I’m looking at it like, ‘I’m just like you and, if you have some devastating news, you can get through it, too.’ I also want them to walk away with one sentence — Attitude is everything.”

His attitude is as generous as it is positive. In his own team-building company and other corporations he works with, Riley has been involved with philanthropic programs that provide bicycles and backpacks filled with school supplies for kids in need, canned goods for food banks, and cancer care packages for patients undergoing treatment.

“I find that giving of myself to others, that really helps me. When you’re faced with possibly the end of your life, you think, ‘What have I done for other people? What mark have I left? How do I want to be remembered?’”

Email Paul Freeman at


Who: Michael Riley, Eric Rubin

Where: 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City

When: 10:30 p.m. (doors at 10 p.m.) Friday, July 21, 2017

Tickets: $17-$20 (including one beverage); age 21+;





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