Skip to main content

Psychiatric Nurse Shows Humanity, Humor On and Off the Stage

Research Psychiatric Center December 31, 2014

Shelah Erickson, RN, is night house supervisor at Research Psychiatric Center and performs as a stand-up comedian in her free time.

People frequently do a double take when they see Shelah Erickson. Tom Arnold did. People at the airport do, too. It happens all the time, Erickson says.

Erickson bears an uncanny resemblance to comedian Roseanne Barr. Her voice sounds like Barr’s too. In fact, when Erickson, RN, is not working nights at Research Psychiatric Center, like Barr, she makes people laugh.

“She favors a lot of my tweets,” Erickson said. “Evidently what I’m saying she thinks are right on.”

Erickson is staffing coordinator at Research Psychiatric Center. Nursing is her passion, but so is being on stage making people laugh, she says. Erickson spends many of her weekends traveling across the country performing as a stand-up comedian, usually as the headliner. She blends her vocations. Erickson performs four to five times each quarter in California, New York, Florida, South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas and beyond. For larger venues, she performs for a week at a time. She works in comedy clubs most of the time, but she also performs at conventions, some of them health-care conventions to cash in on continuing education hours. Audiences range from 150 to 500. She was the first female comedienne to perform at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D. She has performed as a stand-up comedienne since 1995.

“I have been all over the United States and overseas, mostly in the U.S.,” Erickson said.

Erickson, of St. Joseph, Mo., became a nurse before taking to the stage. She started out as a psychiatric aide at the former St. Joseph Hospital in the late 1980s. She earned her LPN while working as an aide, and then became RN certified in 2011. Erickson always has been drawn to psychiatric nursing where she can make a difference, she said. The mother of eight, who traveled the country as a military wife, says she takes what she has learned in life to give back to patients and audiences.

“(It is) all the events that happened in my life – empowering others, understanding others where they are at,” Erickson said. “We have to not feel sorry for ourselves when great loss happens. You have to learn that from all bad things. Sometimes good things can happen.”

As a nurse Erickson humors her patients and co-workers and folds life stories into her stage persona. Her topics range from health, aging, raising children and living in Midwest to life as nurse, everyday predicaments and how life changes you. She teases her black and grey-streaked hair up high, slips into cowboy boots and dons tight, cheap-looking tops and pants to personify her stage moniker, “Trailer Trash Comanche.” She has been described like a Dolly Parton-looking comedian, she said.

“It transforms me into this other character,” Erickson said. “I know what my purpose is, what I want to accomplish — making people forget about working and being upset. Our world’s got a lot going on right now. If I can make people happy for just a little bit, make them smile at themselves or someone they know.”

Erickson enjoys watching and encouraging other stand-up comedians. She has become friends with Tom Arnold, Roseanne Barr’s former husband. Erickson said Arnold could not take his eyes off her while he performed stand-up one night. After the show, she went to congratulate him on his performance. He told her he thought she was Rosanne sitting in the audience.

“You scared me to death,” Arnold told Erickson. “You remind me so much of her.”

Erickson said she inherited her sense of humor and stage moniker from her parents, both of whom were very funny, she said. Erickson, who is part Lakota Sioux and part Cherokee, grew up in a small town in Missouri where her father was an auctioneer and musician. She said while she was growing up, her mother was constantly telling her to stop acting like a wild Comanche and to quit acting like a little piece of trailer trash. 

“She had a great sense of humor,” Erickson said. “I get a lot of it from her. My father was quite humorous. He played guitar and great singer.”

Erickson, like her father, was a natural entertainer. As a teen she was singing country songs at county fairs. She taught herself to play seven instruments. She had not considered performing professionally until a physician she worked with told her she was very funny.

“He just thought my sense of humor was very relatable, very understanding of humanity,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I have been there with them.”

Stand-up comedy is therapeutic, Erickson said. She doesn’t do it for the money, she says. Erickson donates 90 percent of her performance earnings to various charities such as March of Dimes, American Heart Association or to homeless people she seeks out to help on Sunday mornings. Erickson says she has a heart for people with mental illnesses and addiction.

“They are the most underserved population,” she said. “I think they are the most misunderstood and underserved. That is my passion. A lot of comedians have a lot of psyche illnesses.”

Erickson knows how to use humor on the job as a nurse, said Christa Wilson, RN. She is very appropriate, Wilson said. Wilson and Erickson once worked together in hospice care. She is an excellent team worker, Wilson says. Staff can be up to their eyeballs in work and Erickson knows how to take the edge off, she said.

“She tells a little joke to break the edge,” Wilson said. “She knows when to use it and when not to use it.”

Erickson is tough, too, Wilson said. She pushes co-workers to let them know they can do this, Wilson said, but in a good way. She is knowledgeable in everything she does, Wilson said.

“She is very compassionate and loving,” Wilson said. “She is like a cheerleader for other nurses. She always puts that smile first. ‘Come on you can do this.’”

Wilson, also of St. Joseph, saw Erickson perform at Foster’s Martini Bar in St. Joseph. Erickson keeps audiences rolling in their seats, she said. She does a bit where she is Janis Joplin doing karaoke with a Korean accent, Wilson said. She has a standing joke saying the taller your hair, the closer you are to Jesus. Erickson had gastric bypass and jokes about her weight and about getting old.

“She is beautiful,” Wilson said. “She makes fun of herself being older.”

Wilson says Erickson can keep crowds guffawing, but always ends her performance with a life lesson. Erikson has had her share of heartbreak, Wilson says. Two of her children died. One had a heart condition. The other died from an overdose. Erickson battles anxiety after losing two children.

“She’s up there to change the world,” Wilson said. “Her outlook is to make a difference.”

Besides raising eight children, Wilson says Erickson has taken homeless teens into her home. Erickson formerly worked with Samaritan Center in St. Joseph, an agency that helps homeless and mentally ill people, Wilson said. She is everyone’s mother, Wilson said.

“I just think she is a giver,” Wilson said. “She’s got many, many children. She’s lost some. She’s a mom, she’s a comedian, and she’s a nurse. She’s just a rock star. That’s what I think of her.”

Laurie Fank, of Rossville, Kan., is a comedian and has performed in some of the same venues with Erickson. The two recently performed for service people at Fort Riley, Kan.

“She was very well-received,” Fank said. “She’s tremendous. The way she takes real life – she flips it on its head and finds the humor in it.”

Erickson has the ability to find a little bit of humor in anything, Fank says. 

“I can see her using it as a nurse,” she said. “I would want her by my bedside, honestly.”

Fank says Erickson’s performances include tough issues and real life pain. Fank is going through a divorce right now. Her husband cheated on her, Fank said. Erickson told her to put it in her act. People can relate to stand-up comedians who tell the truth, Fank says. Fank did what Erickson said, and the audience loved the show, she said. Fank said Erickson has a heart of gold but does not pull any punches. If you want the truth about a situation, Erickson will let you know if you want to hear it, she said. She is one of the most kind, loving, giving people Fank said she has ever known.

“I would consider her a lifelong friend forever,” Fank said.

News Related Content