Surgery Is Not Funny

… That is, unless you’re in the OR with Dr. John D. Kelly.

Photo by Shane McCauleyEditor’s Note: This story won first place in the 2009 Delaware Press Association Communications Contest.

It’s a toss-up as to where Dr. John D. Kelly is more at home: at a Wildwood, N.J., comedy club or in the operating room. On stage, he’s polished, professional and funny. And in the OR, he’s polished, professional— and funny.

The Newtown Square resident is in his 19th year as an orthopedic surgeon, having spent 18 years at Temple University Hospital before joining the University of Pennsylvania in September as an associate professor of orthopedics and director of undergraduate orthopedic education. His comedy career officially began a couple of years ago, but really, he’s been doing standup for most of his life. It’s a part of his DNA.

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Kelly’s father, the late John D. III, was the longtime owner of Kelly’s Logan House in Wilmington, Del., where his Friday and Saturday night standup routines were legendary. The jokes didn’t stop when John D. left the bar. “Every dinner at our house was a performance,” says Kelly, 52, who has a twin brother and a younger sister. “But it was never profane in any way. And it was like that at the Logan House, too. He wouldn’t stand for any loud profanity or impropriety. There were a lot of fights there, but my dad was a professional boxer and a Marine Corps champion, and he won them all.”

That’s another skill Kelly and his brother, Michael (a Wilmington attorney), learned from their father—how to use their fists. The first birthday present he can remember was boxing gloves. “My dad took Michael and me into the back yard, put the gloves on us, and we boxed,” he says.

Later, the elder Kelly would take the twins to a local gym and have them spar with inner city kids. “We were a couple of fun-loving, peace-loving kids, and we really didn’t want to,” recalls Kelly. “But we did it.”

Gifted athletes, the twins acquired what Kelly calls “a quiet confidence.” Should the occasion arise, they could defend themselves or their families. Kelly remains connected to the sweet science through boxing legend Joe Frazier, who is among his patients. A fitness fanatic, Kelly used to spar a little and work out on the heavy bag until the pounding started to affect his hands. Comparing himself to one of the “great white hopes” of the 1980s, he says, “I’m Gerry Cooney on the heavy bag.”

But he knows his limitations. Once, feeling full of himself, he asked Frazier’s son, Marvis, to get into the ring with him. “I’ll have to ask my father,” Marvis replied.

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“Thank God!” Kelly says, looking back on it now.

Kelly’s deeply devout Irish Catholic family imbued him with a sense of service, and as a pre-teen he even briefly considered the priesthood. “Then I saw my first short skirt,” he says, “and that was the end of that.”

The next best thing, he concluded, was to be a doctor.

After graduating from Columbia University, where he and Michael were three-year starters on the football team, he entered the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where his comedic talents blossomed. He did impressions of his teachers for classmates, served as emcee at the annual talent show, won the Robert Swain Award for “transforming the drudgery of medical school into an enjoyable experience for one’s classmates” and the Ciba Award for “excellence in relating to patients,” and was the graduation speaker in 1984.

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When Kelly hit the half-century mark two years ago, it prompted him to test his standup chops in a more demanding atmosphere: comedy clubs. He met Andrew Scarpati, who booked the surgeon at one of his cabarets in New Jersey. “He obviously enjoys it,” says Scarpati. “He’s still learning, but he relates very well to the audience.”

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Kelly’s comedy runs to jokes and a few impressions (Columbo and Arnold Schwarzenegger are two) as opposed to situational humor. It’s often medically related—as in, “I had a patient the other day that was so old, his driver’s license was in Latin.” Sometimes it has a religious flavor: “I used to be an atheist, but I finally gave it up—there are no holidays.”

And like his father, Kelly never uses profanity. “The f-bomb is a default option for comedians,” he says, and he finds no need to resort to it.

Since joining the ranks of Philadelphia’s top surgeons, Kelly has become the go-to host for local and regional medical events, and his comedy routines are the highlight of staff parties, where he does spot-on impressions of colleagues. He’s also been called on to discuss sports injuries on Comcast SportsNet.

Kelly has made humor an integral part of his medical practice, too. “Doctors are healers first, not just technicians,” he says, “and I believe humor and healing are closely related. When you’re happy, your office is happy and your patients are happy. They want to come and see you—to listen to you—and they want to do well.”

Kelly may greet a new patient with, “Do you know how many unnecessary surgeries I had to do this week to pay for my kids’ tuition?” Or he might stumble into the OR, slurring, “So are we doing a lobotomy or a sex change today?”

“He helps relieve the relative intensity of the situation,” says Dr. Ray Moyer, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of sports medicine at Temple. “But it’s never anything derogatory or unkind, and it often reflects on him.”

“He has a joke for every patient,” says another colleague, Dr. Bruce Vanett. “And it’s always upbeat, always positive. It makes them feel at ease.”

Still, Kelly’s considerable comedic skills don’t come close to matching his surgical talent. “He is a fabulous doctor, one of the best technical surgeons I’ve ever seen—and he is way ahead of the curve in shoulder surgery,” says Vanett. “He reads up on everything, and he has a photographic mind, so he knows the very latest procedures.”

Kelly’s comedy gigs are done gratis, which means he won’t be quitting his day job soon. Not that he would. Kelly is too good—and enjoys teaching and being a surgeon too much—to ever consider another line of work. He was twice named teacher of the year (1996 and 2003) in his specialty at Temple University Hospital.

A devout Catholic, Kelly, his wife, Marie, and their twin 16-year-old daughters attend St. Anastasia Church in Newtown Square, where he serves as a Eucharistic minister and volunteer coach for several sports. A quasi-vegetarian, Kelly is a trim 188 pounds—about 40 pounds below his college football weight. He rises at 5 a.m. each day to work out and meditate, then he writes out a daily mission statement.

The person who knows him best, of course, is his brother, who is eight minutes younger. They look and sound so much alike that Michael has impersonated John (briefly) in the OR, and John has appeared as Michael in the latter’s Wilmington offices. They talk every day and see each other twice a month for family get-togethers or workout sessions. Their mutual affection and respect seems to know no bounds.

“He’s a very empathetic, kind, loving guy,” says Michael. “And if ever I get the big one, as Redd Foxx used to say, I want John D. Kelly operating on me.”

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