I’m probably not telling tales out of school on this: Dead Dads Club is a comedy show about dead dads. Specifically, it’s about those of Jason Gore and Kristen Bartlett, a married couple and comedy duo whose fathers passed away within four months of each other in 2010. In just thirty minutes, the show portrays Kristen and Jason passing through various stages of denial, shock and depression while having to attend to the cold logistics of things like funeral arrangements, ash scattering, and eulogies.
The first scene of Dead Dads Club sees Jason Gore, playing himself, learn that his father has passed away. Without giving away the joke, he immediately and instinctively retreats into popular culture instead of attempting to reckon with the reality of his loss. For those of us who do things like attend (or produce) comedy shows about dead family members, Gore’s attempt at a dodge feels awfully familiar. The culture we lean on so heavily—which, in some cases, may have occasionally served as surrogates for the people or relationships we’d otherwise be mourning—provide an anchor and a distraction. Temporarily.
More specifically, Dead Dads Club features the work of Tom Petty as both interstitial music and, at one point, a diegetic singalong. Petty’s prominence, which seems like an afterthought at first, speaks volumes about the show’s emotional content. Tom Petty sings in the sort of broad love-and-loss strokes that can feel like home when the listener is going through something heavy like heartbreak or mourning. Like death itself, Petty can be so ubiquitous that his sheer importance can fly over our heads. Lots of us grew up with dads blasting Petty whenever they got a chance.
These types of roundabout emotional truths, the kinds that illustrate how personalities of a certain stripe might deal with unfathomable loss, are where Dead Dads Club finds its strongest footing. Even the manic structure of an average comedy sketch, with its abrupt turns and digressions, pretty accurately mirrors the way a grieving person might try desperately to distract themselves and then, just as quickly, find their emotions coming hurtling back to earth. A certain degree of surreality is assumed.
During the middle of some of its scenes, Dead Dads Club drops into a level of goofiness so pure that it loses sight of the tragedy at its core. A rowdy, competitive aunt attempts to sing “Taps” at an inappropriate time. A mariachi band and a Spongebob piñata are employed. These types of gags can serve to keep a sketch from becoming too pointed or on-the-nose, but the tone changes often feel abrupt and unearned.
At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for the show’s lulls: In a way, they work. Dead Dads Club, maybe above all else, is about leaning on comedy as a distraction and as a solace, and about how certain grief-addled minds might search for humor wherever it might possibly be found. In the show, as in real life, some of the jokes might require more grasping than others. Some of the jokes might have less to do with your actual emotional state than others. The jokes might not always work. I have told and been told jokes that tanked miserably during high-intensity emotional situations. It happens.
Beyond their jokes about penis coffins, Gore and Bartlett are clearly working with—and through—something that’s incredibly important to both of them. How resoundingly that comes across in Dead Dads Club makes it a success. It’s not easy to coax resonant laughs out of a cataclysmic emotional event that some people never fully overcome, and while the show occasionally feels like the creators are consciously looking away from the dark place at the center of their material, who can blame them? Everyone deserves to be in an emotional state where they can be unmoved by the ending of Big Fish, and we’ve got comedy and Tom Petty at our disposal to get us there. We might as well use them.
Joe Bernardi is on Twitter.