Social media has given all of us a new way to collectively grieve the deaths of famous people. But for some folks, like comedian Laurie Kilmartin, it also became a way to help process the slow demise of a loved one. Kilmartin mourned her father the only way she knew how: by joking about it. Through every step of the way, she tweeted short, cutting, and ultimately touching commentary like, “For Valentine’s Day, I got my dad a gift card from JC Penney. I said, ‘Dad, I want this card to expire before you do.’”
That 2014 viral tweetstorm became the foundation for this new hour of stand-up, which Kilmartin titled, with brusque brilliance, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad. Rather than just standing in front of a crowd and reading out her best tweets, she builds off of the same themes, which allows her to go into more ribald territory. She talks of getting turned on by the uniformed soldiers who gave her dad a 21-gun salute at his funeral (“Only your eyes should be wet”) and her appreciation for her boyfriend’s thoughtfulness in not using “Who’s your daddy?” during sex.
A lot of the special is unblinking gallows humor that dares to find the funny in a situation that would have flattened most people. Patton Oswalt and Andy Kindler, both of whom lost loved ones recently, speak to that in a filmed segment that precedes the comedy. It’s not as out-and-out brave as, say, Tig Notaro announcing her cancer diagnosis from the stage at Largo, but there is something defiant and bold about telling a room full of strangers, “My dad died doing what he did best: growing tumors.”
What 45 Jokes could have been was a weepy, one-woman show that tempers the humor and ends on some profound commentary on the nature of death and family. Kilmartin is far too smart for that. She reserves any poignancy for a prologue that features her mom and sister all talking about how this event affected their family and speaks to the power of sharing the mourning experience with each other and Kilmartin’s new volley of followers.
With that out of the way, we can devote the rest of our time to wallowing in the muck that is the end of life with Kilmartin. It’s a place that, as her boss Conan O’Brien points out in the intro, a lot of people aren’t willing to even talk about in our culture. Because of that, this is certainly going to ruffle some feathers of folks looking for a salve for their own fresh emotional wounds, like the woman in a videotaped clip declaring how unfunny she finds Kilmartin’s jokes because her mom was in hospice care. But just as her tweets touched a nerve in the hearts of the people reading them, this hour could offer up the catharsis that someone needs during a tough, terrible time.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.