Two years ago, Kevin Knox caused concern among his friends and fellow comics when he shaved his head before an appearance at the annual ''Comics Come Home" benefit at the Orpheum Theatre. No one had ever seen him without his trademark mullet before.
Knox laughed then but kept quiet a few months later when he discovered a malignant melanoma that was treated nine years earlier had returned. In December, when he found the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, he finally told his friends. The response has been overwhelming.
''The funniest thing is, people were worried when I shaved my head," he said by phone earlier this week from a treatment facility in Florida. ''It wasn't about cancer then, it was basically the fact that I was losing my hair, and I was too cheap to buy a wig."
Comics from all over New England are showing their concern by holding benefit performances to help Knox pay for treatments that he says are considered alternative medicine and not covered under insurance. A few even shaved their heads in solidarity.
Giggles in Saugus hosted a who's who of Boston Comedy last night that included Steve Sweeney, Don Gavin, Dave Russo, Frank Santorelli, Tony V., Juston McKinney, and Patti Ross. Knox will headline his own shows at Giggles tonight and tomorrow. And the Comedy Connection will also host a show April 10, featuring Jim Lauletta, Paul D'Angelo, and Paul Nardizzi, with others still being added to the bill.
''If money and love can beat cancer, then I've already got it licked," Knox says. ''I actually feel like George Bailey from 'It's a Wonderful Life.' It's just like, Kevin Knox, the richest man in town."
Support has come from the veterans of the 1980s Boston comedy boom (with whom Knox started his career) and younger comics he's helped the past 15 years as the host of Monday night's showcase at the Comedy Connection. During that time, Knox has seen a lot of those newcomers become veterans.
Lauletta met Knox as a young comic in 1989, and they've been friends ever since. The shaved heads were Lauletta's idea, and he hosted a pair of benefits at the Connection franchise in Portland, Maine, last month.
''If anybody can beat this on willpower alone, it's Knoxie," Lauletta says. ''He's probably one of the most upbeat, positive people I've ever met."
Knox sees the timing of the cancer as a blessing. Formerly the self-proclaimed ''Wild Man of Comedy," Knox has been cleaning up his act, onstage and off, the past few years. He quit drinking and started paying attention to his diet and competing in triathlons. Though further changes in his regimen are needed, Knox says his doctors believe he's beating his cancer, in part because of his new healthy lifestyle.
''[Ten] years ago, maybe I couldn't have pulled out of it, maybe I couldn't have brought myself around," Knox says. ''But now, everything is in line."
His comedy has never been television friendly, with graphic routines on sex and relationships. It made him a popular headliner, but kept him off the small screen.
Knox still delivers a high-energy show, eyes flashing and body shaking like he's hit the third rail. But now he knows how to work clean, with appearances on ''Jimmy Kimmel Live" and Denis Leary's ''Rescue Me" to show for it.
''I've changed," he says. ''A lot of my friends have worked with me and tried to help me, teach me a little bit of self-control, just help me with that kind of thing. It all worked out for the best in the long run."
It's bittersweet, Knox says, that cancer would strike just as everything is coming together for him. But he's already finding humor in his vegetarian diet (his new nickname: Sprout Man of Comedy) and cancer treatments. Eventually, he thinks it will be one of his best routines.
''Normally, out of any big change in life comes a lot of good comedy," he says. ''So I'm expecting some good stuff down the road."
Around town: Acton native Christian Finnegan, a regular on VH1's ''Best Week Ever," debuts his own half-hour special tonight on Comedy Central at 10. . . . Bobby Collins plays the Comedy Connection tonight and tomorrow. . . . Jimmy Tingle and Don Gavin share a bill at the Off Broadway in Davis Square tonight and tomorrow. . . . The Walsh Brothers play the Beantown Comedy Vault tonight and tomorrow.