Dr. Glaucomflecken, the internet’s funniest doctor, is in on the joke

Will Flanary’s days are spent conducting eye exams and cataract surgeries at a private practice outside Portland, Ore. The evenings are for family, and a standing commitment to make dinner for his wife and two daughters. That leaves nights and weekends for the ring light, the iPhone, and Flanary’s alter ego, an internet celebrity known as Dr. Glaucomflecken.

Flanary, 36, has about 2.5 million subscribers across TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter, where his pointed satire of medicine’s many absurdities has ballooned into a cast of characters and a cottage industry. Flanary’s escalating popularity is all the more notable because his jokes, delivered in short skits, plumb the inane depths of American health care. The specificity is by design, Flanary said, giving his peers something to relate to and a growing audience of outsiders something to laugh at.

“That’s why I love building this Glaucomflecken General Hospital of characters,” Flanary told STAT. “I can be pretty specific with different areas of medicine and create this world of, honestly, pretty dysfunctional people. But it’s funny.”

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There’s the lackadaisical emergency medicine doctor, eternally clad in cycling gear. There’s the warm but disconcertingly studious pediatrician, the charmingly alarmist dermatologist, the meatheaded orthopedic surgeon, and Jonathan, the loyal medical scribe whose dedication borders on sociopathy.

Each is deployed as a comedic foil for whatever point Flanary wants to make, whether a high-minded critique of prior authorization or a farcical look at how residency works. And each submits to a few minutes of Jungian analysis, care of the staff psychiatrist. Flanary is writer, director, editor, and star, with the typical sketch foisting two or more of his characters into an instructively maddening situation that resolves with a punchline and perhaps some music, all in about 90 seconds.

Flanary is hardly alone among doctors with TikTok accounts. But unlike the many debunkers, explainers, and self-promotional plastic surgeons who populate the platform, Flanary’s primary concern is with making people laugh.

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That can be a tricky proposition. The culture of medicine is notoriously conservative, and doctors’ social media accounts tend toward the robotic. On the other hand, some physicians’ attempts at white-coat comedy have veered into questionable jokes at patients’ expense.

“What I think [Flanary] does well in general — and perhaps why he’s never been canceled — is that his humor is typically one of two things: wholesome, or relatable to everybody within the medical community,” said Sarah Mojarad, who teaches a course on social media for doctors and scientists at the University of Southern California. “These are things medical students have experienced, that residents have experienced — it’s all relatable.”

Flanary said he wants his peers to see themselves in his satire, “to come away feeling like somebody understands.” But he also hopes poking fun at the profession might help nudge doctors away from what can be a monastic self-regard.

“There’s this prevailing notion that you can’t do the things I’m doing on social media because it’s not professional,” he said. “You can’t tell jokes. You can’t talk about the problems that you have in your job without sacrificing professionalism. And what I’ve learned is that that is not the case at all. People want the opposite. People want their doctors to seem like real people who are relatable.”

Flanary, originally from Houston, has been a practicing comedian longer than he’s had a medical license. He started doing stand-up, “the hardest thing in the world,” while in college at Texas Tech University. That led to writing for the school’s satirical magazine, and Flanary contributed to GomerBlog, a sort of medical analog to The Onion, through his training in ophthalmology.

That combined dedication to learning the inside details of medicine while practicing the outsider art of satire might explain what makes Dr. Glaucomflecken work. Flanary’s best material balances the specificity of an expert with the nose for hypocrisy that typically comes from an incisive observer, said Heidi Tworek, a University of British Columbia history professor who studies health communication.

“He does this very clever combination of explaining some complex things clearly and humorously,” Tworek said. “It’s this sweet spot of demystification and comedy simultaneously.”

Will Flanary - ER doctor
Flanary in character as the emergency medicine doctor, eternally clad in cycling gear. Ayşe Gürsöz for STAT
Loyal scribe
Loyal scribe Jonathan Ayşe Gürsöz for STAT

Like many things involving TikTok, the Dr. Glaucomflecken phenomenon was born out of boredom. It was the spring of 2020, and the nascent Covid-19 pandemic had shuttered businesses around the country, including Flanary’s private practice.

His idle hands first turned to Twitter, where he’d amassed some 100,000 followers as @DGlaucomflecken, borrowing the German term for a glaucoma symptom because he wanted “​​the most ridiculous word I could think of in ophthalmology.” But soon he “wasn’t finding it as much of a challenge” to be funny via text. And Twitter, a website on which the rhetorical distance between “I disagree with you” and “you should be put in jail” can be alarmingly short, was becoming a bit of a drag. Then he found TikTok.

“I checked it out and it seemed perfect,” Flanary said. “A short format, very easy to edit and shoot, and it would work on my schedule. I could attack all these topics that I’d been discussing on Twitter just with boring words, but now I could approach it in a different way and do something new.”

His early work was squarely in the lingua franca of the platform: short, comedic videos synced to popular songs. In a clip posted April 9, 2020, he squints, scowls, and grins into the camera to explain the many muscles of the face, all with the aid of Megan Thee Stallion. Things would gradually get a little more pointed, with jokes at the expense of disinterested emergency medicine doctors, overeager medical students, and, in a running theme, well-paid and under-worked ophthalmologists.

Each got a few thousand views and some enthusiastic comments, but Flanary’s ascent to TikTok stardom would come only after a brush with death.

On the night of May 11, 2020, his heart went haywire. Flanary suffered a form of cardiac arrest called ventricular fibrillation, in which the heart’s lower chambers flutter erratically, cutting off the flow of blood to the rest of the body. Left untreated, it is a minutes-long prelude to death. Flanary is alive because his wife, Kristin, noticed his irregular breathing and performed CPR until an EMT could arrive and shock his heart back into regular function.

After a three-day ICU stay, Flanary would be fitted with a temporary defibrillator, undergo surgery to get a permanent one, and — most important for his comedy — navigate the hellish reality of American health insurance.

In his first video to get more than 1 million views, posted that July, Flanary plays two roles: the flabbergasted patient saddled with a massive bill, and the unnervingly calm customer service representative explaining that if he had simply chosen an in-network doctor while he was unconscious, all of this could have been avoided.

It was a clarifying moment for Flanary as a creator, convincing him to ditch TikTok’s de rigueur music syncopation and embrace what he was good at: crafting characters and writing jokes. And the outsized response taught him that a little righteous indignation can go a long way with an audience. Getting more than 1 million views became the norm.

“It really did kick off with the insurance problems,” Flanary said. “I saw, ‘Oh there’s a big appetite for this. This resonates with a lot of people.’”

Over the ensuing months, he’d set his sights on the idiosyncrasies of medical education, academic journals, and all of health care’s many instances of “institutions preying on people who are less powerful than them,” he said. But Flanary had no illusions that the world wanted to hear self-serious rants from a private-practice physician in the Pacific Northwest, so he made his points the best way he knew how: making up characters and writing jokes at their expense.

The Glaucomflecken repertory theater began to grow. The characters bounce off one another, either to illustrate some irksome aspect of medicine or simply to be the butt of a joke. They’re also put to use in Flanary’s tried-and-true format, dating back to the insurance video: pithy clips in which a reasonable person encounters a preposterous system, and comedy ensues.

Flanary isn’t terribly concerned that his caricatures will ruffle feathers among his peers, in part because he’s never far removed from a joke at the expense of his own specialty. Whenever he’s uncertain whether a given joke might go too far, he refers to a simple guiding principle: Be sure to punch up.

“I always make sure that the object of ridicule is clear,” Flanary said. The health care system is laden with power dynamics, “and patients are at the bottom,” he said, “so I should never be perceived as making fun of patients, because that’s not going to go OK.”

When things get a little more complicated, “what it comes down to for me is: Do I believe that my ridicule of something is justified?” he said. “And I trust myself. But at some point you just have to go for it. You have to do it and live through the consequences.”

The psychiatrist Ayşe Gürsöz for STAT
The neurologist Ayşe Gürsöz for STAT

Being funny was always meant to be a hobby rather than a vocation, but the surging popularity of Dr. Glaucomflecken has turned into a business in its own right. Flanary declined to disclose his comedy income, but he gets ad revenue from YouTube, and he’s recording three or four Cameo videos a night at $180 a pop.

He’s also starting to think bigger. Merchandise is in development, and he’s plotting a way to translate what works on TikTok into a longer-form episodic format. That likely means television, whether live-action, animation, or some combination thereof. The idea is in “the very early stages,” Flanary said, but he’s been working with an outside firm to press things forward.

The question is just how big his audience might be — and whether what works online can translate to another medium. Sarah Cooper, a comedian who rose to internet stardom by lip-syncing to President Trump, parlayed her success into a 2020 Netflix special that was not particularly well-received, and then the election came and went along with her moment.

Flanary is willing to take the gamble. Dr. Glaucomflecken’s success to date was unimaginable back in the spring of 2020. Who’s to say what 2024 might bring? And besides, even if it all blows up, he still gets to be a doctor.

“I’m fortunate to have this nice job that gives me a nice living that’s always there,” he said. “So this all feels really low-stakes. I feel like I can just try these things and see where it takes me.”

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