Dying of laughter: Shows about death at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe
Dead funny? 2012 Edinburgh Fringe has comedians looking at death and mortality from every angle
This article is from 2012.
Occasionally they die on stage, other times they kill audiences. What is it with comedians and images of death? Nicola Meighan talks to five performers who are tackling issues of mortality
Earlier this year, William Shatner made the headlines by advising that he might die onstage in his new one-man show. His life-threatening sales pitch was a literal one: at 80, the former Star Trek legend admitted that embarking on regular 100-minute performances of Shatner’s World at an age when ‘people are dying’ might be mortally unsound. But it also neatly illustrated the enduring kinship between death and comedic language: die laughing, killing audiences, dying onstage.
Comedy and death have long made for great bedfellows, from Hero’s mock expiry of humiliation in Much Ado About Nothing, through the classic slapstick tropes of head-bound falling anvils and pianos, to Alvy Singer’s fascination with mortality in Annie Hall. This year’s Fringe programme furthers this tradition: there are shows about funerals, murders, death, and comics dying on their arses. Does the prevalence of death and dying in comedy, and in the comic idiom, suggest we take death too seriously? Or not seriously enough?
Sean Hughes’ Life Becomes Noises, is a poignant narrative about the death of his father. It’s billed as showing ‘the lighter side of dying’, but perhaps it would be fairer to suggest that it casts light on death. ‘I don’t think we take death too seriously, because obviously it’s a serious subject,’ Hughes says, though it bears noting that his show features pop music, costumery and puppets. ‘My show deals with death and what happens at the funeral, but in essence it’s more about capturing the moment that defines a relationship. It’s actually one of the most uplifting things I’ve done.’
As with Hughes’ pragmatic riffs on the dying process, The Funeral of Conor O’Toole underscores the absurd bureaucracy of death. ‘My show aims to address the banal organisation that’s often forgotten in the wake, literally, of someone’s death: the inane instead of the emotional,’ offers O’Toole. The 21-year-old Irish comic’s show has him planning his own funeral at a different venue every night. ‘Death is very serious, and that’s why it makes for good comedy; people tend to be very delicate about it. It wouldn’t be as funny to treat death with flippancy and make petty remarks about it if it didn’t worry people. And light-hearted treatment of tense subjects can be a great release.’
Mark Thomas’ Bravo Figaro! follows the writer and comedian’s attempts to stage an opera in his dying father’s living room. ‘It’s about my reaction to my family ageing and their approaching demise,’ he says of the tale’s grave subject matter. ‘Death is one of the least light-hearted events in our life’s social calendar, although I have been to some very funny funerals. The infamous Malcolm Hardee’s funeral was hugely funny and touching too. And Dave Allen did extremely funny routines and sketches about death and funerals.’ Does Thomas think comedy and opera are particularly suited to dealing with death? ‘Not really, no. All art forms have covered this topic, and no one art form by virtue of its form has the ability to look at the topic in any better or worse ways.’
Joe Lycett believes that death and comedy make for especially fertile associates. ‘On the surface, the topic of death is no different to any other when it comes to writing material; I’m looking for what is funny within whatever topic I’m writing on. But it is different because my fear of death is a big and profound part of my life, and so the material is likely to be more sincere than a knee-jerk reaction to something like Kerry Katona. There’s more truth in it, I suppose. I think death isn’t taken seriously enough.’
Lycett makes his full Fringe debut with Some Lycett Hot, a show that touches on dying and death. Why does he think the comedy dialect is rooted in mortality? ‘Maybe it’s because comics are prima-donnas and they’re prone to hyperbole,’ he offers. ‘But there is something of the battle in comedy, something a bit aggressive about it maybe, so the language emerges from that raw energy state you’re in when performing. The term “dying on your arse” sums up the process of failing on stage quite succinctly, because it is completely humiliating and inescapable.’
Ross Sutherland’s interactive murder mystery, Comedian Dies in the Middle of Joke, most closely, and literally, explores the language and presence of death in comedy. ‘The show deals with both meanings of dying onstage. On the surface it’s a whodunit; everyone knows that the comedian’s going to get shot at the end of the show, and everyone’s going to find out whodunit, but actually, that’s just the window dressing. What’s more interesting – and what we try and focus on – is the other kind of dying.’
As the hour marches on, the jokes intentionally become less and less funny. ‘As people change roles, the show basically becomes this dying-comedian simulator: it’s the same routine over and over again. Dying onstage myself a few times definitely helped me when it came to this show. I actually think there’s a sense of liberation about crashing and burning.’ So dying onstage can actually offer a comedian a new lease of life? ‘Absolutely. And that moment of failure is very human.’
Perhaps what these shows have in common is not so much death as our day-to-day humanity. Sean Hughes agrees. ‘I didn’t really want to broach a taboo; it’s just that recently I’ve been involved in death quite a bit, so it was a logical step to make the show about that.’ Is a comedy about death therefore a way of celebrating what we’ve got? ‘Yes, I think it’s a call-to-arms, in a sense, to just enjoy your life.’