Meet Nicole Tanner, Doctor by Day, Standup Comedian by Night

Meet Nicole Tanner, Paediatrician by Day, Stand-up Comedian by Night

Nicole Phoebe Tanner wears two hats, usually trading the pair at night-time, bi-weekly, or after working 28-hour shifts at the office.

By trade, Nicole is a resident-in-training doctor working at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, treating young children in illness. Her hobby typically tends to adults, tickling their funny bones with lung-cracking humour on Instagram and in Hong Kong’s comedy clubs.

A newcomer to the city’s comedy scene but experienced in her medical field, Dr. Tanner hopes to break stereotypes storming Hong Kong’s comedy scene as a female comic and a funny medical professional.

The Beat Asia sat down with Nicole to explore her dual passions for treating children in one of Hong Kong’s largest hospitals and her sardonic allure to crack jokes and induce laughter in people.

Comedy and medicine have existed within Nicole’s heart since a young age, a double-pull of wanting to embed herself within both the wards saving lives and on the stage bemusing or provoking an audience.

“I have always loved being on stage,” Nicole told The Beat Asia in a Zoom interview, speaking from her office cubicle on hospital grounds in Sha Tin. “When I was young, I had a draw to doing drama, theatre.”

“After becoming a doctor, I did not really have any time [to practice]. The commitment to theatre is huge. But I love watching comedy and being [able] to write my own stuff. I can write jokes and tell them, performing it myself!”

However, her passion for treating others has remained a 20-year commitment and dream, hailing from her childhood. "Growing up, I was the unpopular kid in school, I was not Miss Personality. I had spent so much time obsessed with the idea of being a doctor.”

“When SARS hit in 2003 [when I was 7], I remember seeing doctors on TV giving hope to people. I was like, oh, I want to do that, I think that’s so cool. From there, it grew into a passion for the science as well.”

“Very early on, I loved kids, I always wanted to be a paediatrician. I had considered entering surgery, because that stuff is cool man! But [paediatrics], helping babies, is better.”

Nicole’s contemporary journey into comedy began at the turn of her 26th birthday, with the professional medical worker seeking a path to materialise her funny hobby into a productive gig, and equally, seeking an outlet for the stress of her doctoral position.

“I started in comedy because being in medicine, it often feels very stressful. I [have] struggled a lot with mental health during med school, a lot of depression and anxiety, eventually being diagnosed with bipolar [disorder].”

"It was a very difficult time for me getting through med school. Becoming a doctor was even harder with longer hours and [it being] physically more taxing. That’s why I wanted an outlet to express myself. Combined with my love for theatre and being on stage, I decided to give comedy a try.”

Nicole’s foray into comedy beyond Instagram began in late 2021 with her entrance into the local comedy scene, performing at weekly open mic events at The Aftermath, working comedy gigs in Wan Chai, and joining all-femme comedy troupe Bitches in Stitches representing female-empowered humour in Hong Kong.

“The open mics are supportive and fun. It is a community of comedians that get together every week, we write jokes, get drinks, and bounce content off each other.”

Promoting her sardonic humour on Instagram starting November 2021 was a suitable step for the 26-year-old Hong Kong-born doctor to dip her toes in comedy.

With an urge to build up her social media presence and curate parodic and sarcastic videos taking aim at trending news locally and stereotypes of Hong Kongers, entering her “late twenties” convinced her to transition her Instagram into a self-branded comedy page. “I don’t even care what people think anymore. I’m just gonna (sic) go for it.”

Nicole’s followers, likes, and exposure shot up when she began producing quippy Instagram reels mocking expats speaking Cantonese, influencers in Hong Kong, and corny life in the busy city.

“There are a lot of comedy pages out there. But I want to be a niche, something that is special from my standpoint as a paediatrician doctor.”

“It is hard sometimes because a lot of the stuff that goes on inside the hospital, you wouldn't joke about. When I was in a children's cancer centre, and you see all that pain, it's hard to turn that into jokes.”

With her comedy, perspective-seeking is essential. “Working as a doctor I want my page to not only make people laugh, but spread good values and exist as a beacon for self-love or [educating on] mental health.”

“A lot of my jokes are very self-deprecating, and I hope that people can see that making jokes about yourself is a form of self-love. People like to put doctors on pedestals and glorify their healthy life. But that’s not me. I drink wine too! Us doctors are also human.”  

She describes her Instagram comedy style as parody (usually of banal Hong Kong phenomenon) tinged with topical humour about local and current global events. “I try not to deprecate other people. I want to be as relatable as possible. I want people to look at me and say, that’s exactly something that I would do or this [is] me!”

Her influences of her stage work include her plight with a complicated family history, living as a single woman in Hong Kong, dating in the city, and working in medicine. “I am kind of a dramatic person. Even talking to a screen, I talk in a very dramatic way. Quite a bit of my comedy is simply acting.”

Leaving her mid-twenties 20s behind, Nicole saw comedy as a space to express herself creatively outside an ordered and scientific field of work. It also represented a way to break the moulds of her professional life and stereotypical expectations. “There is so much in my life I have not experienced or triedired,” she said.

“I was worried that someone would see my comedy and cringe. But I was like, you know what, all of this doesn't matter. Because when you're young, that's when you should try things.”

Her worries about producing comedy that “wasn’t particularly PG-13,” creating jokes that strew against a former generations’ Hong Kong-styled traditionalism, having her comedy career ruin a future job opportunity, or her discussions of mental health diminishing first impressions faded away when she received a newfound boost in beginning her comedy career.

“I have learnt that what people think of you is so insignificant. [It is better] to really focus on your priorities and what you enjoy.”

To Nicole, comedy is a hobby, but social media is a platform for discussion of topics of mental health and daily struggles with body image and work-life balance.

"I don’t think I will ever quit my job as a doctor because I love it,” Nicole said. Her commitment to her child patients and daily visits to the wards has reflectedreflect a genuine connection to her job, the “meaningful work.”

“When the kids are well, you get to play with them, you get to enjoy their company. But when they're not well, I find it [a] very blessing to have the opportunity to be a part of helping them or saving their life.”

Nicole’s dedication within to her job has translated to the written world, with the doctor planning to release an illustration book in June 2022 titled “The Adventures of Dr. Pheebs.”

“The book is about me, Dr. Pheebs, as I see a kid in the hospital who eats a nasty nugget. My job is to hunt down the nasty nugget

“The inspiration [with my book] is to quell children's nerves about entering the hospital. The doctor [in the book] looks for the nasty nugget throughout the entire hospital. In a way, I hoped the book will be an introduction to hospitals [for children] to make them feel less afraid when they’re actually there.”  

Nicole said her children, of whom she tends to and treats daily, is the reason for her drive in her medical field and related illustrations for her book. In comedy, “I just want to make people laugh!”

She describes a need for comedy to counter her “very science-y” and stress-inducing 9-to-5 medical position, that necessitates a monthly rotation of six 28-hour shifts, one of which she had just “endured” during our Zoom interview.

“As a paediatrician, mistakes are not accepted. You make mistakes, you’re gonna (sic) get penalised a lot. That stress really boils up, sometimes contributing to my mental struggles. I think everyone needs a hobby, an outlet to express themselves creatively.”

Through her comedy, mistakes are welcomed, and jokes are seen as an egress path to de-stress. “Comedy is so fulfilling because you’re on stage and [your audience laugh] It's adrenaline rush after adrenaline rush. You get so excited you keep wanting to do it again, like being on a roller coaster.”

“Someone telling you you’re pretty, that’s makeup, that’s whatever,” she said. “But someone saying you’re funny, that’s like, wow, damn!” The ego boost Nicole seeks fuels her repeated return to the comedy stage and the upload button of Instagram for the next comedic video to share with friends and the world.

Nicole is set to release her illustration book for children in June 2022 with a local publishing company. Her return to the comedy stage begins with her entrance in Comedy.HK’s New Comedian of the Year on April 23 at Social Room. A second show to celebrate the end of night-time COVID-19 restrictions will be previewed at The Aftermath on April 28.

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