What’s funny about grief?

A new generation of stand-ups is mining the heartbreaking loss of a loved one for ambitious shows

By Jason Zinoman

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Published: Fri 19 May 2023, 11:22 PM

Are these the new five stages of grief? It can seem that way to those following the comedy scene. The past year has brought us specials and solo theatrical shows with jokes sandwiched between deeply felt thoughts on the death of a father, mother, girlfriend, boyfriend and sister.

Dead baby jokes were once a juvenile niche. Now comedy about the death of a child has become its own heartbreaking genre. Just this month, comic Liz Glazer released her debut stand-up album, A Very Particular Experience, about the stillbirth of her daughter (“a comedy show meets shiva”) and Michael Cruz Kayne premiered his wrenching solo about the death of his son, Sorry for Your Loss. Early on, he warns us that we might cry. “If you don’t,” he adds, pausing, “that’s rude.”

There are so many grief-stricken comedians these days that it invites the question: For an art form traditionally associated with punchlines about dating and airplane food, why is it mourning again (and again) in America?

The pandemic certainly put grief on the minds of artists and audiences, and that also explains a boom in books, theatre, podcasts and television on the subject. One way to look at the final season of Succession is as a cringe comedy about people who are terrible at grieving.

But the growth of stand-up on this theme is rooted just as much in aesthetic changes in the form. One of the most exciting developments in popular culture over the past decade is the growing ambition of comedy. Not only has it produced some of the finest, most urgent art on the pandemic, #MeToo and other newsworthy topics, but comics have also displayed a broader emotional palette than they did a generation ago. They are after more than just laughs. These new shows illustrate how grief, precisely because it’s usually handled with solemnity, jargon and unsaid thoughts, is ripe territory for stand-up.

At the same time, there’s so much grief comedy right now that it’s already developed its own clichés: Joan Didion references, bits about the phrase “He’s in a better place.” Striking the right balance between light and dark is also tricky. Several comics sink into an indulgence they can’t afford. Comedy doesn’t have to be only about jokes, but when it stops being funny, there had better be a good reason.

A signal turning point in modern stand-up was the moment when Tig Notaro walked onstage at a club in 2012, grabbed the microphone and said, “Thank you. I have cancer. Thank you.” She revealed that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and that her mother had died. She wondered aloud, “What if I transitioned into silly jokes?”

Then a funny thing happened: The crowd protested, loudly. Notaro sounded surprised, even mocking the interest in bad news, before adding: “Now I feel bad I don’t have more tragedy to share.”

That storied set was eventually released as a special, called ‘Live’, to considerable acclaim. Many comics followed with raw tragedies to share. Laurie Kilmartin live-tweeted as her father died before turning that into a special. Doug Stanhope used his mother’s last days for a baroque routine.

Comedy has always gravitated toward darkness. Richard Pryor and George Carlin broached the saddest subjects. But there is a difference in comedy today, in aim and overtness. An extreme example is Red Blue Green, a 2022 special from Drew Michael, who has produced some of the most formally experimental and artistically polarising hours in recent years. Toward the end, he describes comedy as “mining sadness” and transforming it into a balloon animal to make it palatable for an audience. That was the setup to the twist, a long rant about his own failings and insecurities and miseries that ends without a punchline. The result was something more like therapy than art — a deflated balloon.

This is the risk of comedy that lingers in tragedy. It can get stuck there. Hannah Gadsby had also toyed with the surprise of setting up tension without relieving it in the surprise hit “Nanette,” to make a point about how always going for the joke can stunt your growth. That success touched a nerve, and the backlash included loud complaints that it wasn’t comedy at all. Besides giving short shrift to Gadsby’s deft balancing act, this policing of genre boundaries does comedy no favours. A flexible, broad art form is a healthy one.

The push into melancholy territory can be found in more ingratiating work, including specials by the most commercial stars. In his 2018 special, Adam Sandler downshifted into melancholy and sang about the death of his friend Chris Farley. But the tone has changed most dramatically among a younger generation of comics who seem interested in more than mere escapist entertainment. It’s also probably no coincidence that little-known comics are more likely these days to get attention from producers and industry people if they build shows around a narrative or theme.

“At this point in comedy, it’s not enough to be funny,” Ben Wasserman said in the Brooklyn funeral parlor where he staged his vaudevillian Live After Death, which explores the death of his father and grandfather (not to mention his tragic lack of an agent). “You have to make people feel.”

Maybe that was said with tongue in cheek, maybe not. Either way, there’s no question that in certain quarters of comedy, jokes are not enough.

For instance, at shows around New York, the quirky, swaggering Gastor Almonte has been performing a hilarious 10 to 15 minutes about his hatred of oatmeal. In a previous era that might have added up to a debut special that resembled the work of Jim Gaffigan. But when Almonte turned it into an hourlong solo show, The Sugar, that material was beefed up with a soul-searching story about his diabetes diagnosis and how the prospect of mortality changed his family. Watching it, I confess I wondered what the Gaffigan version of this show would look like.

The Sugar was staged downtown at Soho Playhouse, which has developed into a hub of weighty theatrical stand-up shows, many of which are transfers from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. One of that theatre’s biggest hits of the year was Sam Morrison’s breakthrough, Sugar Daddy.”

Quick-witted and charismatic, Morrison delivered a tightly honed work about the pain of losing his boyfriend that is both a love letter to his partner and a self-deprecating satire of a culture of mourning, one that spoofs well-intentioned condolences and support groups. He argued that the difference between comedy and tragedy was thin, saying that in the plays of Shakespeare, “comedy is only tragedy with a marriage at the end.” He explained that grief was lonely and impossible and “nothing helps as much as this show,” before a pinpoint pause, “because you guys can’t talk.” And he flat out played the vain millennial fool. “What is trauma but unmonetised content?” he asks, echoing a line from WandaVision, a series that itself is a grief narrative.

In contrast to Drew Michael, Morrison is uncomfortable going long without a laugh. I saw the show twice, and the second time the punchlines had become faster, more insistent, almost as if the best argument he came up with was to keep you laughing.

Most of these comics share a belief that discussing the subject has become taboo, even stigmatised. “We don’t talk about grief: We keep our grief to ourselves,” Kayne says in Sorry for Your Loss. Glazer hit this same theme. “For that reason alone,” she says, “I want to talk about it.”

There is an irony in so many comedians talking about grief by saying no one talks about grief. It evokes the parade of cancel culture-obsessed comics complaining about how you can’t joke about anything without getting cancelled while doing that very thing. But the grieving comics are quicker to mock and undercut their own motivations.

The fundamental hallmark of these shows is a meticulous self-awareness. The comics are constantly justifying their own work. There’s a defensiveness here, an anxiety that is understandable. Grief doesn’t sound like a fun night out. And there has been a backlash that you can detect from other comics, even ones practicing dark comedy. In his amusingly navel-gazing special Blocks, Neal Brennan poked fun at himself and others by terming this genre “stand-up traumedy.”

John Mulaney ridiculed the tendency to exploit death in his special, Baby J, by recalling how in elementary school he was jealous of a classmate whose grandfather had died because he became the centre of attention. The recent movie Sick of Myself takes an even darker view in its scathing satire of the culture of victimhood. In one scene, the wildly self-involved protagonist fantasises about her own funeral. It’s funny, if glib and uncharitable, in the way that biting satire often is.

The truth is that death is too good of a straight man to ignore.

So many of the opening jokes get their laughs by treating mortality with just the right amount of irreverence. (Glazer begins with “I hope you like stillbirth.”) The lightest touch is just enough. Witness the dry understatement of this line from comic Rob Delaney’s wrenching memoir A Heart That Works, about the death of his young son: “In between Henry’s birth and his death was his life. That was my favourite part.”

Another reason grief is an unexpectedly great subject for comedy is that in a fragmented, polarised culture, with a shrinking common collection of references, it’s universal and relatable in a way few other topics are. Even if we don’t know someone who has died, we will. Or as Kayne explained to his audience: “We’re all pre-dead.”

When someone dies, the conversations follow a tight script. Sorry for your loss. There are no words. We are all afraid of saying the wrong thing, and those suffering don’t entirely know how to respond. It’s a relief to hear comics not just poking fun at the stale jargon of condolences, but also demystifying the hidden world of the grieving, which can be messy and petty. The competitiveness of grief is a frequent subject. Who suffers most? The consensus is it’s parents of children who die, but only in these shows might you hear someone weigh the levels of pain of a parent of a two-year-old versus that of a 10-year-old (as Colin Campbell does in Grief: A One Man Shitshow, about the gutting experience of losing two teenage children in a car crash).

While it might seem counterintuitive, the popularity of joking about death represents a welcome shift from pessimism about comedy that was popular among performers like Gadsby and Michelle Wolf during the Trump era. These more recent comics generally share a faith that comedy helps — even if only a little. There’s a joy in the performances of Morrison, Kayne and Alyssa Limperis (whose No Bad Days focuses on her late father) that takes you by surprise.

It makes you question the seeming obviousness of the incongruity of this kind of comedy. Death is an integral part of life, one every great art form explores. It’s the existential elephant in every room. Why do comics joke about it? A better question: How can they avoid it? This may be part of the reason the most riveting special on grief spends no time analysing the subject. In his eye-opening The Domino Effect 2: Loss, Ali Siddiq, a revelation of a performer, adopts a different approach. Instead of self-aware jokes, he leans into stories that are easy to get lost in, especially with his jaunty, magnetic delivery.

The best art doesn't hit you over the head. It taps your temple with metaphor, allusion and maybe an oblique tease. Stand-up is so immediate, so direct in its relationship between the comic and the audience, that there’s a temptation to just be blunt, to tie up and underline your points with a punchline that calls back to an earlier one. But while there are only a limited number of subjects to joke about, there are infinite ways to do it. That variety is where art flourishes.

One theme repeatedly voiced in these shows is the impossibility of overcoming sadness. We are told that time will not heal all wounds; that grief makes you want to get others to understand, even if they never will. The final stage of grief, the real one, is acceptance, and in one of his early jokes, Kayne tells you that is the one you will never get to.

You don’t need to have endured the death of a loved one to confront this problem, the one of failure. But you can try approaching it in different ways. This is what Kayne’s show is all about, how you can see the same thing from a radically different perspective. He cleverly illustrates this point by looking at examples in math, language and, most of all, comedy. The death of a child is the worst thing that has ever happened to him. It’s obscene to use it for comedy, to laugh at it.

But by turning this experience into a show, he keeps the memory of his son alive. It’s a subtle, moving performance that finds beauty in the trying. You get the sense that it’s what allows him to laugh at things he shouldn’t. When he takes the body of his child to a funeral home for cremation, he pays the bill and receives a receipt, which is projected on the wall behind him. It reads: “Thank you please come again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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