MIDTOWN — Gathered around a hastily made stage on the sixth floor of Hope Lodge, a group of cancer patients laughed as Jonathan Goldberg held an imaginary world championship dusting competition and struggled to find words that rhymed with “banjo.”
As a high-powered corporate lawyer by day, Goldberg doesn’t have much time for cracking jokes.
But as a comedian by night, he and other members of his group Cherub Improv have spent the past four years bringing their brand of on-the-spot hijinx to hospitals, seniors homes, veterans centers, homeless shelters, and cancer support organizations across the city.
Goldberg, 40, a former clerk for a federal judge and a partner at Midtown’s SNR Denton, said he was first introduced to improv comedy nearly a decade ago by a girlfriend who had a hunch he’d enjoy a class.
“I said it was now or never,” said Goldberg, an Upper West Sider, who wound up falling in love with improv immediately.
“The first class just blew me away,” he said. “There’s something about the craft. It’s magical. Because they’re on the spot, you really see what’s in peoples' minds and hearts,” he said.
About two years after those first classes, Goldberg’s father suggested that he start sharing some of his new comedy skills with the seniors at the Kateri Residence on the Upper West Side where he was already volunteering.
Shortly thereafter, Cherub Improv was born. Today, the organization has more than a dozen members who travel around the city putting on performances and leading improv workshops — all for free.
“It’s literally performing community service,” Goldberg told the audience before a recent performance at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Midtown, where Cherub performs several times a month. The Lodge offers cancer patients and their families a free, temporary place to stay while they’re in the city receiving treatment at local hospitals.
As patients began to trickle into the large kitchen and living room space where couches had been moved to create a makeshift stage, the tone was solemn. Some residents wore face masks and rubber gloves to stave off infection; many were weak. Voices were hushed as they sat and waited for the show to begin.
But as soon as the "Cherubs" burst onto stage, singing a ridiculous song about banjos, the mood began to noticeably change. Mid-way through the set, residents were laughing, shouting out suggestions and clapping along, no matter what was happening on stage.
Florida-based Marilyn Weiss, 72, and her husband, Barry, 72, were among those who turned out for the performance after catching the group two weeks before.
“This was really good. It was fun. I love improve,” said Marilyn, who is suffering from multiple melanomas skin cancer, and traveled to New York for a stem cell transplant after earlier treatments failed.
She said events like the show make a huge difference to patients who are under so much duress between doctors and hospital visits.
“It’s entertainment. It’s something to do instead of just sitting in your room," she said. “In our position, you just have to laugh a lot."
Jane Gleason, 68, from New Jersey, who is battling breast cancer, agreed that laughter can sometimes be the most helpful medicine, after seeing Cherub for the first time.
“I like to say Hope Lodge is a blessing," said Gleason, who’d arrived at the Lodge two weeks earlier on her fourth visit.
"We eat and we laugh," she said.
Goldberg said that part of what makes Cherub unique is that it’s always participatory, from asking audience members for suggestions, to pulling them up on stage.
“You really unleash that creative energy in other people,” he said.
Sometimes, he admits, the responses are more subdued than others, especially when performing to elderly people who may have difficulty hearing. But even then, he said, it’s worth it.
“When we meet with the groups after, we realize how meaningful this is,” he said. “For us, even a sprinkling of laughter is enough to satisfy."