Undertaking: Vilsmas believes that comedy should always live next door to horror. Picture: SUPPLIED
Undertaking: Vilsmas believes that comedy should always live next door to horror. Picture: SUPPLIED

Caustic comedian John Vlismas may be reaching the end of his stand-up comedy career.

That wasn’t the plan when he began writing his next solo show opening in April, but calling it The End could prove prophetic.

It will hit audiences with his usual blend of deeply dark and highly intelligent humour, with science and medicine wrapped into jokes and observations prompted by the death of his father.

Humour is what keeps some of us going through life, and even at his father’s deathbed in 2018 , Vlismas couldn’t help letting a joke slip out.

“I realised at the moment when one of my most loved people on earth was dying in front of me that I genuinely do find things amusing. It was affirmation that to me comedy isn’t about cheap laughs, it’s about triumph of the spirit. It’s very important to eat darkness and spit out light,” Vlismas says.

The new show will be very funny, he promises, but he would be doing his father a disservice if he didn’t have an honest, profound look at the sheer awfulness of death as well.

“I always think comedy that lives next door to horror is the most important comedy,” he says.

The death of his father bestowed a clarity that triggered several changes. He ended a long-term relationship, stopped managing other comedians, and will never again apologise for being educated. He used to do that, he says, because comedy often dumps things down.

“If you’re offended by something I’ve said then you haven’t read enough. It’s not offensive, you’re stupid, and there’s a huge difference.”

On stage, he’s spent his life making us cringe while we roar, but he’s tired of its transience, and how we settle back into emotional mediocrity after the quick high of laughter. The finality of death has galvanised him into figuring out a way to raise our happiness on a permanent basis.

“I don’t think my legacy is going to be what I’ve done until the age of 45, I think my legacy at work is going to start now,” he says. “If I can build a scientific toolkit for human happiness I don’t think you could do anything better than that.”

Vlismas has registered a business called Upside, offering short courses backed by long-term support to make corporate workplaces happier.

“What we now know about happiness is that it’s completely hackable. You can fool your body that you’re happy,” he says.

“Drugs like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin all have different effects on the human condition that we call happiness, but basically happiness is a careful mix of a cocktail of these drugs in your system,” he explains.

“There are neuro-scientific exercises that produce serotonin and ways of carrying yourself that increase serotonin. So we start with ways to literally feel the chemical composition of your body change.”

Since short squirts of happiness hormones soon wear off, he talks about shaping your chemical balance through diet and exercise, by rewiring how you think and reassessing the things you covet or crave. How you fit into your community, what kind of partnership you have and your relationship with your children are other influencing factors. Practising gratitude and learning to be more analytical and less emotionally reactive are also elements of Upside’s approach.

“I’m not interested in Kumbaya airy-fairyness, it’s completely scientific,” he says.

Vlismas is trying to persuade companies that it’s worth investing in happiness coaching, and cites solid reasons why they should.

“We draw an absolute correlation between measured workplace happiness and measured increase in profitability. Your share price can go up, fewer people are going to be absent from work. You’ll get less churn in your staff, more people applying to work at your business, and ultimately you’ll get a measurable increase in discretionary input,” he says.

Upside is a direct result of his studying for an MBA at Henley Business School, where he now works on the executive education team. One course he teaches is political intelligence and office politics, or how to get people with dissonant agendas to collaborate. He also lectures on empathy and reframing your opinions.

“The single biggest limiter on great decision-making is the human need to prejudge things. Once you’ve made a judgment you’ve kind of stopped reasoning and that limits your processing capability,” he says.

“That’s why liberals are generally more clever than conservatives. But I’m probably not allowed to say that unless I reference a research paper!”

Upside was created with design thinking expert Dr Puleng Makhoalibe and employee engagement expert Terri Brown, and he’s loving this intellectual journey.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, there are fewer rules. It’s OK to cite a paper then do a dick joke!”

Vlismas has also successfully lobbied for changes in the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech, working with lawyer Dario Milo to argue that its hate speech provisions are unconstitutional. He contacted Pieter-Dirk Uys, cartoonist Zapiro and other comedians and submitted examples of their material to parliament, prompting changes to protect satirists and artists.

“It’s accepted all over the world that the role of art among other things is shock, offence and disturbance. Those are actually three enshrined acceptable outcomes of art,” he says.

Shock, offence and disturbance are his forte, I suggest, and Vlismas laughs.

“My thing is that people don’t understand why I shock, offend and disturb. That’s the kicker. It’s because everyone is asleep, so you have to switch on the alarm clock before you talk to them.”

• The End runs at Montecasino Theatre from April 24  to June 2. Tickets are available from Computicket.