Right up there with the rule of threes, “tragedy + time = comedy” is one of the most trite principles of joke-telling. Although there are exceptions—looking at you, Jeselnik—many comedians are careful when it comes to sensitive material pertaining to death and the grieving process. Comics constantly grapple with the question: How soon is too soon?
I’m from Orlando, Florida. For weeks after the Pulse shooting, a harmless question of “where are you from?” became a sensitive matter. When my response was “Orlando,” my questioners would usually take a moment or two to reassess where the conversation was headed. Some were curious if I knew anybody affected and would ask me outright. Some were quick to change the subject. A seemingly harmless question indirectly led the conversation towards the topic of death; naturally, people dealt with that in different ways.
As a comic myself, I wrote a joke about experiencing this awkward exchange that was happening pretty frequently: “I’m from Orlando. Yeah, it’s weird saying that right now. People are like ‘Where you from?’ And I’m like, ‘9/11.’”
As you can imagine, this joke was hit or miss. It’s hard to make death funny, but I understand why comics would gravitate towards that kind of material. There are those who simply love the challenge—looking at you again, Jeselnik—and then there are those who turn jokes into a sort of therapeutic process, a means of coping with their own grief. Here are ten comedians who are tackling the subject of death and who are, for lack of a better term, killing it.
1. Laurie Kilmartin
“My dad died doing what he did best: growing tumors.”
I think it’s fair to put Kilmartin at the top of this list, since her most recent special was literally titled 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad. In 2014, Kilmartin live-tweeted the painful experience of losing her dad to lung cancer which was the seed of inspiration for her special. 45 Jokes includes documentary footage of her and her family while her father was in hospice care, which give great and grave context to the hilarious 45 jokes that would follow. As Robert Ham observes in his review for Paste, “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.”
2. Patton Oswalt
“Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in front of him when he was nine and he travels the world and becomes this amazing [crime fighter]... That’s ridiculous—he would have grown up to have been Gotham City’s most annoying slam poet.”
By the end of April, it will have been a year since Patton Oswalt lost his wife Michelle McNamara. Oswalt has been open about his grieving process, talking about it publicly on Twitter and on shows like Conan and The Late Show. In a recent interview with NPR, Oswalt explains that pop culture’s representation of grief is way off—hence the Batman comparison. When referring to superheros specifically, Oswalt elaborates:
...part of their motivation is based on losing someone that they love. Which then of course leads them to travel the world learning martial arts and doing CrossFit and getting really cut… And that’s not been my experience. When you lose someone, you tend to eat Wheat Thins for breakfast and rewatch The Princess Bride about 80 times and not sleep all that well.
The entire interview is eight minutes long—it’s really worth a listen.
3. Chris Calogero
“My best friend and roommate passed away and I am actually the one who found her in out apartment. It was just the worst way any roommate’s told me they don’t want to live with me anymore.”
Roughly two years ago, NYC based comedian Chris Calogero lost his roommate Amy Daulton, also a comedian. I distinctly remember telling that joke at a bar show only a month or so after her passing. I was struck not only by the fact that he was onstage so soon, but by how funny the joke was. I’ve remembered it ever since. Chris now hosts Mourning Coffee, a podcast where he interviews other comedians about their experiences with grief—how it affects their personal lives as well as their comedy.
4. Shane Torres
“It’s interesting, when somebody you know passes away, you get reminded of them in subtle ways after they’re gone, you know. Like you see a picture or you hear a Linda Ronstadt song, or you drive by a little league field they said they’d be at… but the way my father has chosen to haunt me, is to have all of his debt collectors call me.”
In his late night debut on Conan, Shane Torres continues to elaborate on these “hauntings” from his belated father. We’ll get to see more from Shane soon, since it was recently announced that he was one of fourteen comedians selected to record a Comedy Central Half Hour. In the meantime, though, here’s his set from Paste Studios.
5. Alyssa Limperis
“Hardest season to have a dead dad: holiday. Second hardest: tax”
Alyssa Limperis is a NYC-based comedian who has mounted several installments of her one-woman play No Bad Days, about her experience losing her father to brain cancer. Somehow, it’s packed with jokes. (I know because I’ve seen it firsthand.)
In addition to taking to the stage, Twitter and Facebook, Alyssa has written numerous blog posts that serve as a beautifully raw and insightful glimpse of her inner life throughout the grieving process. On Christmas Eve in 2015, her first Christmas without her father, she posted a “Christmas Newsletter”. She prefaces her entry by introducing what was apparently a tradition: “My dad used to write sarcastic Christmas newsletters to humorously highlight the not so great moments of our past year. Luckily for this exercise, 2015 was filled with many of those. In his honor, I wrote one for this year.”
It’s just as funny and sad as you’d expect it to be.