Death is no laughing matter… except when comedian Laurie Kilmartin talks about it.
The Emmy Award nominated writer for Conan makes kicking the bucket a little more lighthearted in her book, Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed. Inspired by her father’s death from lung cancer, Kilmartin coaches the dying, the bereaved, and everyone else in their sphere to face the end with dignity and a sense of humor.
The book was a long time coming. Kilmartin started joking about her father’s cancer shortly after his diagnosis, but audiences seemed hesitant to laugh. “I think they were kind of like, ‘Hey, why don’t you go home to him instead of being in this bar, telling us about it?’” she recalls. “But also, I wasn’t very good at talking about it. It was so shocking to me.”
That shock continued after he passed. During her first two months of grief, she’d wake up in the morning and go through the painful realization that she was fatherless all over again.
After absorbing the reality of his death, it became easier to talk about, and doing so onstage helped her work out her feelings. She knew she was ready because she could joke about her dad’s death in the same way she does about dating or her son. “I don’t want to get emotional. I don’t want my voice to quiver. It did take a bit of time before I was comfortable saying, ‘My dad died’ as if I was saying, ‘My kid is driving me crazy.’”
Seven months after her father’s death, she did a special, 75 Jokes About My Dead Dad, and thought she was done with that topic. But a year passed, and she realized she had more to say, and that it would be better said in prose.
Dead People Suck makes you laugh through your tears (which Kilmartin advises you shed naked, with plenty of bubble wrap to pop, on a soft surface). She answers frequently asked questions like: “Can I shame my dying loved one into living longer?” (Absolutely.) “Is it okay to be attracted to the soldier who plays 'Taps' at your dad’s funeral?” (Let your genitals lead the way!) And: “How can I make sure my mom’s ashes don’t fall off the mantel?” (Save a step; store them in the vacuum.)
Kilmartin offers tips for physicians on giving prognoses in digital age terms, such as: “You will live long enough to watch all five seasons of The Wire,” or “You’ll only make it through the 94-minute documentary Man on a Wire.” She suggests dying dads shred their porn (to spare their daughters the surprise) and that they take advantage of Facebook sympathy. She also offers a sample Craigslist ad for no-strings-attached grief sex and a script for punking telemarketers when they call for the deceased.
Nothing about the death of Kilmartin’s father was off-limits when it came to comedic material. She and her sister made fun of their mom for cleaning non-stop while her father was dying. “That was the meanest we got, but even she was laughing, and my dad was laughing.”
“Welcome to the Dead Dad Club” was the most annoying response she received after her father’s death. It happened on Facebook. Kilmartin didn’t know the man who wrote it well. “I just wanted to punch him,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in this dumb club. I didn’t want someone else saying my dad was dead. ‘You’re not allowed to talk about that yet,’ you know? That was the thing that made me the angriest.”
Kilmartin recommends “I’m sorry for your loss” as the go-to condolence statement. It may sound generic, but that’s better than inventing your own version and offending the bereaved in the process.
“Whenever someone said, ‘I’m sorry for you loss,’ I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, man, what a cliché!’ I felt grateful that they had noticed I was in pain and said something,” Kilmartin says. “Sometimes it’s a standard for good reason. It covers all the bases but it doesn’t intrude too much. It really is perfect. You could also say, ‘I’m sorry’ with some heart emojis if you’re online.”
As for what her father would think about his death being used for comedic fodder? “I think he would get such a kick out of it,” Kilmartin says. “I’m so mad that he’s not here to see the special or read the book. He liked my sense of humor. He loved the fact that I was a comic. He thought it was the craziest thing.”
IF YOU GO:
Laurie Kilmartin reads from Dead People Suck.
Magers & Quinn
3 p.m. Sunday, July 8
Kilmartin is also at Acme Comedy Co. this week. Her shows are at 8 p.m. through Saturday, plus 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.