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Comedian turns multiple sclerosis into a laughing matter

By Kat Carney
CNN Headline News

Jonathan Katz
Jonathan Katz

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(CNN) -- Comedian Jonathan Katz has been making audiences laugh for many years by creating and starring in shows like "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist."

But when I spoke with him recently in New York, he told me how his life changed when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

The initial symptoms began in 1996. "I was working on a TV show called 'Ink' with Ted Danson, and after every episode we would take a curtain call and I noticed that I needed a head-start."

Fatigue coupled with other symptoms prompted Katz to pay a visit to his doctor who sent him to a neurologist. "I had a spinal tap, which didn't hurt. I had an MRI, where they put you in tube [for] 45 minutes, and I actually enjoyed the privacy."

A year later after more tests, doctors confirmed that the comedian had multiple sclerosis. "I was so relived to finally put a name on this thing. You can't negotiate the name of the illness, I was rooting for Vanessa."

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Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is an autoimmune disease in which the body's defense system attacks the protective layer of fatty tissue surrounding nerve fibers. The damage can then result in scarring, or sclerosis.

Currently, there is no cure for MS, but there are medications and lifestyle approaches to managing the disease. "My first neurologist had a very holistic approach to the illness. No more red meat, no more salt, no more alcohol. I said, 'What about sex?' He said, 'I'm seeing someone.'"

It's jokes like that, which help Katz cope with MS. "Joking, it's a particular defense mechanism of which I was blessed."

Over time, the funny man found it difficult to hide his "physical" condition behind his jokes. "I was producing a show, and it was too physical a job for me to get from one location to another and I had to pretend I could keep up with everybody. My manager and attorney said, 'In Hollywood you can't be old or sick.' "

But hiding his condition became too much of a burden for Katz, and he eventually disclosed it. Now he speaks publicly as part of a tour sponsored by a manufacturer of medications used to treat MS.

"People have been pretty supportive; nobody never had me in mind for an action film because of the kind of work I do -- mostly in the world of animation, which is not a big issue because as a person, I can't run that fast; as a cartoon character, I can fly -- literally."

And Katz, who now gets around with the help of a motorized scooter, says he doesn't regret his decision. "One of the reasons I disclosed my condition is because it is much easier to live with MS than to pretend you don't have it. If I could convince everyone of that, my job here is done."

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