As Funny as a Brain Tumor! Part 1

Over the years, I have told this story hundreds of times.  At restaurants, friend’s homes, men’s retreats, camping trips and many other places.   There have been a number of times where I start telling the story to one person and soon find myself surrounded by a number of people all tentatively listening. These attentive listeners will often interrupt me with eager questions that they just can’t hold in any longer.  “How is that possible?”  “What did you do?”  “Why didn’t you go to the doctor?”  “What did people think?” etc………

People always seem captivated by the story and I hope that it will someday be on the discovery channel as one of those medical mystery shows.  I’ve even had a number of people tell me that it could be a movie featuring Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey as Steve Neff.  I’m not sure I can imagine that, but in the meantime,  I thought I would share it here on the internet.

I find the story quite entertaining to tell and it is all 100% true.  My goal in sharing my story is to perhaps give comfort and hope to others who might be going through their own story. We all have our own stories with our own ups and downs, highs and lows, etc…… and in that we can hopefully all relate and know we are not alone in our struggles.

I always struggle with how to best begin this story, so I guess I should just begin. Back in the early 90’s (1993-1995 time range) life was good.  I was feeling great about many aspects of my life.  I was 26 years old and was playing the sax full time which had always been my dream and passion.  I had a girlfriend I was crazy about and lots of friends.  I was working out and my health was good. I drove a cool silver Nissan 300ZX sports car and was feeling pretty good about my life.  I was involved in a great Christian church in the Boston area and at the time felt like life was great!

1985 Nissan 300ZX-probably the absolute worst car to drive in snowy New England-But I looked cool……

During this stage of my life,  I started noticing that I was laughing a lot.  I know what you are thinking “That’s good!  You were happy. Life was good. Happy people laugh a lot!”  That is true, but this was a bit different. Have you ever met somebody who would laugh whenever they were uncomfortable or nervous?  Well, that was me.  It started out where I would laugh at odd moments like during a serious conversation or when someone else was upset.  I think the people around me would just write it off as “this guys a little strange.”

As time went on,  my laughing became even worse.  It was now becoming the kind of laughter where I felt like I couldn’t stop.  My whole body would move up and down shaking and I would laugh hysterically so hard that I would fall off my chair if I was sitting down.  I was doing it all the time,  many times a day. Let me give you a few real life examples just so you can understand.

Every time I went to the bank and had to stand in line I would start cracking up.  Just laughing and laughing while in line.  Sometimes there would be other people in line and sometimes, I would just be standing there alone.  Either way, it didn’t matter, I would be cracking up laughing.  I would get up to the teller and she would ask me “What are you laughing at?”  I would say  “I don’t know” and just keep on laughing.  Many times this constant laughing would make other people laugh with me so it was kind of funny to see everyone at the bank laughing with me. The tellers at the bank actually named me the “Laughing Boy”.  They always seemed to get a big kick out of me when I visited…………

The bank line. Worst part of my day!

Another situation, that happened all the time,  is that I would burst out laughing during uncomfortable times in movies. One specific time, that I remember clearly, is when I went to see “Braveheart” in the theater with a bunch of my friends.  Do you remember that point where Mel Gibson’s wife gets her throat cut and dies……..well, I started cracking up.  Just giggling and shaking trying to hold it in.   It got so bad,  I had to leave the theater because I couldn’t hold it in and burst out laughing as I headed down the aisle (when you laugh during points like this in a movie,  people usually think you are a nutcase and they start to wonder if you might be a closet serial killer………..).  I finally got a hold of myself and went back in.  Do you remember how “Braveheart” ends? (clue: FREEDOM!!! while Mel Gibson is disembowelled)…….Well, let’s just say I had to leave the theater again and my friends and everyone else there were wondering “What the heck is wrong with this guy?”

Mel Gibson making me laugh hysterically in Braveheart

Another experience that I remember, is that I would always lose it in elevators.  I would be standing in an elevator by myself praying no one else would get on. The doors would open and a bunch of people would get on.  It would be really quiet and that nice elevator music would be playing.  Then, out of nowhere, I would start snickering and chuckling as I tried not to laugh.  The people would turn around and look at me and I would apologize.  They would turn back around and as soon as they did, I would start laughing again even louder while apologizing repeatedly.

Awkward elevator tension before I burst out laughing

It’s interesting because some people would laugh with me even though they had no idea what I was laughing at.  Other people would get mad.  You could see it on their faces.  They would start fidgeting and checking their clothes and zippers.  Others would check their backside and shoes looking for the source of my amusement because they were afraid I was laughing at them.  Most people would get off the elevator nodding their heads in bewilderment but others would glare at me like they were personally offended by my laughter.

Any time I would have any kind of deep and meaningful conversation with my girlfriend at the time,  I would always end up laughing uncontrollably sooner or later.   If she was mad about something I would start laughing.  If she was concerned, I would start laughing.  If she was sad, you guessed it, I would start laughing.  I had no idea why I was laughing!  Most of these times, there was nothing at all funny about what we were talking about, but nevertheless, all I could do was laugh.  Let me just say that this laughing thing did not prove to be a healthy building block for a strong and lasting relationship………..

One time,  I had a performance appraisal that was given to me by my very over-weight boss. (I started working as a manager in a convenient store in 1995)  As we sat down in my small office and he started to talk about my performance over the last year, I started cracking up.  It started out sparse, a giggle and a snicker here and there, but eventually, I exploded!  I was laughing so hard I fell off my chair and couldn’t talk.  My boss started turning red and I could tell he was getting quite angry!  I imagine that he thought I was laughing at him because he kept asking me “What are you laughing at?” “Are you laughing at me?”  I would gasp “No” over and over in between the laughter as tears were running down my cheeks.  Although he gave me a great performance appraisal at the time because I was doing a great job,  I’m pretty sure that he thought I had some mental issues troubling me after that encounter and that he would need to fire me sooner or later.

Another time, at this same store, the president of the company came in to meet me as he toured all of his stores.  He was a pretty serious guy as most millionaire CEO’s are.  Let’s just say that I didn’t leave the best impression.  We met each other in an aisle in the store where we shook hands and he introduced himself.  He then proceeded to watch me laugh for what felt like five minutes straight.  The boss who had given me the performance appraisal was also there and trying to do his best to cover for me but I’m pretty sure that CEO was wondering why the heck an idiot like me was managing one of his best stores. Luckily, at that time I had one of the best performing stores in the region so I think that helped me not to get immediately fired that day.

One of the most painful memories to share was when I had to go to the funeral of my girlfriend’s father who had died unexpectedly.  I had just spent an afternoon with him a few weeks before and asked him for his blessing to ask his daughter to marry me.   The funeral home was packed and I was sitting in the second row with my girlfriend and the family.   Even though I felt very sad, that laughing feeling started rising out of my gut again.  “Oh No”,  I thought.   All I wanted to do was be there to support my girlfriend at the time but here came the laughter.  As with all the stories above, I couldn’t control it!  “What was wrong with me?”  I had to leave the funeral home and walk out in front of everyone as I laughed………. This again, was not a building block moment for this relationship………..

Another memory I have,  is of being in a Sunday night church meeting and the Pastor was talking about people “going to hell”.  I didn’t find anything particularly funny about this message of his but nevertheless I started cracking up hysterically.  There was nothing subtle about it, I just burst out laughing in a room full of about 50 people.  This caught the Pastor’s attention and he asked me what was so funny as I continued to laugh.  I couldn’t give him an acceptable answer for my outburst which seemed to make him quite frustrated and mad.

He then proceeded to change his lesson from “people are going to hell”,  into “people going to hell is not a laughing matter”.  In this new revised lesson, he taught that if you think people going to hell is funny,  you should not be going to a church meeting about “people going to hell!”.   I was still laughing hysterically as he made his new points which of course made the Pastor even more angry. Finally, my continued laughter used up any of the patience he had left and he told me to get out.  I remember laughing the whole way to the door, out to my car and all the way home…………..(I wasn’t invited back to those Sunday night church meeting after that)

I’ll continue with the rest of this story next time. There’s much more to it so check back later…………..Part 2

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site


  1. Hi Steve – I was worried about you back then and really thought you were simply losing it. Most of the stories above I’m now hearing for the first time. The times we spent on gigs, though, went from wonderful to strange and we didn’t know what to make of it. I have my memories of how you came to be diagnosed, but will wait to see what you post about that so as not to spoil this fascinating story. You are a miracle man, Steve, and I’m so glad you’re here to tell about it.

    • I remember being on those gigs and I couldn’t even play through a solo without stopping and laughing. At first it was funny but after awhile it was just annoying. I haven’t gotten to that point in the story but Jeff C. in the band was really the one who helped me the most and got me to get medical attention. I’m still very grateful to him for that.

  2. Hey Steve, this was all a huge WOW! as I haven’t been in touch since HS. Didn’t know any of it, and am eagerly awaiting the rest of the story. Fascinating, really! And I too am glad you’re around to tell the story yourself.

    [edge of my seat Man!]

  3. Steve,

    Interesting story. This certainly waxes the theory that laughter is the best medicine… I can’t wait to hear how this ends

  4. Avatar Andy Baron says

    I’m reading this on a City bus ride home from a gig. Very eager to read the rest of the story.
    I laugh a lot myself. The story immediately brings to mind a tune written and performed by Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, titled ” The Laughing Song “. Check it out on you tube.

    • Hi Andy, Thanks for taking the time to read my story. It’s a cliffhanger! Haha! At least it will keep you entertained on those bus rides. Steve

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