LC#19: Comedy and Death
On the comedians who wrestle with the dark.
Hello folks, happy to be back typing this up. A break from the newsletter was needed, but since it was way longer than anticipated I do apologize to those of you who missed it. Important update: I just got a new job, so I have made the difficult decision to turn letdown comedy into a monthly publication. Hopefully this will make writing these things more sustainable on the long run. Anyway, I’m kicking off the (unofficial) second season with a topic I have been pondering on for a while: the way comedy can sometimes be the only way to approach matters that are just too dark to grapple with. But let’s do a link before we get into all that.
Apparently this special was entirely written by a bot. Enjoy the uncanny!
(Thanks Chukuthulu for sending me the link)
Norm MacDonald has very recently passed away. Headlines mention a long and private battle with cancer, which eventually took his life at age 61. Even in death, Norm is able to get a bitter smile out of me when I read those headlines: one of his specials opens with a big chunk of death jokes, including a bit where he specifically makes fun of the expression “waging a battle against cancer”. I’m paraphrasing: lying on the bed watching Matlock is not very dramatic or climactic, plus you cannot be a loser against cancer if it dies with you (it’s not like after you’re gone the cancer is sleeping with your wife). Norm had other jokes offering a similarly light and naively practical angle on different death-related subjects, like heart attacks (how many chances do you have of being attacked by a terrorist, and how many of being attacked by your own heart?) or dying painlessly in one’s sleep (how can we be sure people feel no pain while they’re asleep, if we wake up when a cat walks over us?).
In TV appearances Norm joked about his own paranoia and obsession with death, and I guess this ordinary and intimate attachment to the topic is what makes the jokes mentioned above special. Not all of Norm’s takes on death were equally subtle, however. As many were quick to remember shortly after his death (as it happens on Twitter), in the 1990s the comedian made a pretty tasteless and transphobic joke in an SNL news commentary segment about the murder of Brandon Teena; a shock-jock approach to a fresh piece of news that could have probably been left alone, but also in line with his penchant for OJ jokes (as Bill Burr remembers in this tribute).
I feel the example of Norm MacDonald is especially fitting to discuss the tight relationship between dark, unspeakable things and comedic relief. On one hand, laughter can be the perfect anesthetic to exorcise one’s own fears or mitigate personal pain; on the other, a simple joke offers a seductive distance from the reality of someone else’s death (and the experience of pain endured by their loved ones) that can also result in careless damage. However, rather then investigating the appropriateness of tsunami or 9/11 jokes, or generally the equation comedy = tragedy + time (which I’ve done enough in this newsletter already), I’m here more interested in exploring the first aspect. In this respect, it’s interesting to read how Norm did not want his own cancer to affect his comedy and thus never mentioned it (thus maintaining a distance from it by talking about “uncle Bert” instead). His “anti-confessional” approach, however, is not the only option.
One of the most interesting examples of comedy as a vehicle to escape the spectre of death is Robert Schimmel’s brilliant special Life Since Then (2009). Like Norm MacDonald, Schimmel was definitely not out to craft Carlin-esque philosophical or linguistic witticisms or wow his audiences intellectually — he was a dick joke specialist with a warm voice and a magnetic stage presence. Life Since Then is quite different, however, as a large portion of it is dedicated to Schimmel’s own battle with cancer, from his first testicular biopsy to the final recovery. Throughout, the comedian only occasionally veers into the inspirational, maintaining a light-hearted approach (and leaving in plenty of dick jokes, to be sure). As the title suggests, the special was recorded after the proverbial battle was over and thus it does benefit from a kind of distance from the event; nonetheless, the photo review in the clip above emphasizes a lingering proximity, as well as Schimmel’s refusal to stop performing throughout his illness. His final appeal to learn how to “dance in the rain” could also be read as a poetic manifesto for dark comedy itself — although, we might add in light of the ambivalence mentioned in the section above, not everyone dances at the same tempo.
Tig Notaro’s Live (2012) has a few things in common with Life Since Then. Most relevantly, it details a comedian’s personal experience with cancer: Notaro opens the show by saying “Hello, I have cancer!” and proceeds to detail a series of harrowing incidents that led up to her life-threatening disease. As she walks us through accounts of stomach illness, the death of her mother, the discovery of breast cancer, and even a break-up, Notaro maintains her characteristically relaxed deadpan style, and the audience reacts as intended — by laughing at this never-ending array of personal misfortunes. It should be noted that the comedian received a double mastectomy and eventually recovered, however Live was recorded as the maelstrom that upset her life was still happening. Like Schimmel’s album, Notaro’s carries an urgency to reconnect to a shared live/lived experience in its very title: instead of being the usual mark of a live performance, “Live” is here pronounced “liv”, as in the imperative form of the verb. Also significantly, at the end of the special Notaro asks the audience for a topic she can make a silly joke about, receiving a request to do her “bee joke” in response. The call-back to a pre-cancer bit definitely expresses a nostalgic pull towards normalcy, but the relief provided by the joke (which details Notaro’s frustration with a bee surpassing her in LA traffic) is amplified tenfold by its triviality and how it contrasts with the darkness that precedes it.
Unlike the comedians mentioned above, Doug Stanhope is not a light observational comic, in the least. A masterful storyteller, Standhope is known for entertaining dark thoughts and speculations about society’s illnesses, while also relying heavily on anecdotes from his own substance-fueled lifestyle. Perhaps, the routine in the clip above represents the zenit of Stanhope’s work: opening with a hopeful (and tongue-in-cheek) remark about the existence of life after death, this 10-minute bit describes the comedian’s experience with assisting the med-induced suicide of his own terminally ill mother. The subject of a mother’s suicide is nothing short of heart-breaking, however Stanhope’s relentless pursuit of humor within the most obscure crevices of human experience makes the ride hilarious and radically free of moral messages. In line with Stanhope’s characteristic dark cynicism, in fact, the hopeful opening is finally revealed to be just a clever setup to the punchline: the promised proof of life after death is no more than Doug himself using his mother’s credit card to buy silly gadgets online after her passing.
The comedian has written a whole book about his life and relationship with his mother (which is very good), but this bit in particular is especially exemplary in terms of outlining Stanhope’s use of comedy and catharsis. When I write “catharsis” in relation to this comedian’s work you should take it with a grain of salt — let’s not forget Stanhope has a whole website dedicated to speculating on celebrity deaths — but even though the bit is overall consistent in tone with the rest of his comedic work, it does stand out for the sheer cosmic darkness inherent to the topic.
Arguably, then, rather than through inspired sincerity, the cathartic charge of the bit appears instead in Stanhope’s framing of comedy as a glorious testament to the living of a life. When his mother utters that “there are times to be dainty, and there are times to be a pig”, the comedian stops her from speaking further and over-killing what could be the perfect last words to leave to the world. Regardless of whether this detail is true of not, there might be a message to be heard here after all, beyond the contingent ugliness of one’s passing: there may not be any life after death, but art can be a way to try and infuse some final something into it, if even a mere wink to posterity.
Death has been one of the main targets of comedy since ancient times, but I think the comedians mentioned above offer a nuanced spectrum of angles on its drastic reality or possibility, as well as different approaches to comedy as a tool to navigate it in a world that has never been as fast and mediated. Let’s not forget the internet makes death so close and yet so far, emotions like sorrow and anger overlap with the compulsion to prove ourselves strong. Comedy might be more necessary than ever.