Losing a loved one is devastatingly sad ― but grieving doesn’t only involve tears. Sometimes, it’s not just nice but necessary for grief to include laughter.
“My dad was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and then a year later he passed away, and then the next day I went to a cafe, and they were all out of oat milk, so it’s like, ‘Pile! It! On!’” is how Los-Angeles based comedian Alyssa Limperis hard-launches her recent Peacock special “No Bad Days,” a wonderful tribute to her fun-loving, positive father, Jim.
Limperis’s show is part of a rise of recent comedy specials from comedians who are recognizing our appetite for joking through one of the most un-funny topics there can be: The death of a loved one. Marc Maron and Michael Cruz Kayne are two other recent examples of comedians, among many, who have been making grief the topic of their specials.
The COVID pandemic might be one reason for the recent rise, according to Limperis. “We’ve all experienced grief on such a massive scale that I think everyone’s worlds got shaken up that I’m sure everyone started wanting to talk more about what they were feeling and what was going on in their life,” she told HuffPost.
In this way, grief comedy recognizes that sadness is not the only way to process loss. “A lot of what we all do every day is avoid thinking about death because it’s so scary and big,” Limperis said. “Comedy just helps to be like, ‘Well, we don’t have to go all the way there if we don’t want. We can just laugh and joke about it a little.’ Which maybe just lightens the entryway into talking about it. And then once you’re talking about it, you’re like, ‘OK, now we can be more serious.’”
In Limperis’ special, the show’s pace changes physically when she describes her dad’s death in detail. Limperis goes from jogging to slowly walking in a circle to lying on the ground as she describes her dad entering a coma for seven days before dying. Limperis then talks about how she still feels her dad in the sky and the places she visits. The audience is completely hushed at this point, but then Limperis goes into the audience and asks an audience member if they happen to feel the presence of her dead father next to them in an empty seat. The person laughs and agrees, and the rest of the audience starts laughing and clapping.
“Going into the audience was always a way of being like, ‘I’m not going to let you sit. You have to be a part of this with me.’ And it was always very fun ’cause it kind of broke the tension of that soft moment,” Limperis said.
“If we’re laughing about it, that likely means we’re also feeling and relating to it.”
Ben Wasserman also explores grief through comedy, particularly in his show “Live After Death,” which takes place in a funeral home in Brooklyn, New York. Wasserman lost his father, grandfather, uncle and four friends within three years. At a funeral director friend’s suggestion, he started doing his comedy about grief in spaces we normally associate with sadness and death.
Wasserman said the setting could be a way to try to transform those spaces both for audience members and the death institutions themselves. “A lot of funeral homes and cemeteries, whatever they are, want to build a relationship with their community that exists beyond you come in when you’re dead or when you’re about to die,” he told HuffPost.
Wasserman’s show relies largely on crowd participation. One of the bits is Wasserman spinning a wheel of vulnerability with topics like “Last Will and Testament” and “Final Words” and inviting people to start sharing where the wheel lands. Those unexpected reactions people share about their losses keep the show honest.
“Death is real and comes for us all, and you don’t actually know how it’s going to shake out,” Wasserman said. “In that spirit just sort of flowing with the energy in the room and just calling on someone like, ‘Hey, you in the glasses, who are you thinking about tonight?’ And, like, that lets me start. Once I get them to start talking about who they’ve lost, then I can be like, ‘Do you remember their final words?’”
It also serves as a reminder that the comedic-vulnerable interaction can be a two-way street, and sometimes all you need is someone giving you permission to laugh so that you can start being more open about your grief, too.
“If we’re laughing about it, that likely means we’re also feeling and relating to it,” Limperis said. “It’s good. It means people are seeing themselves in it, relating to it and getting some catharsis and feeling of not being quite as alone.”
Making jokes about loss can be a way to find community with fellow grievers who get it.
Grief humor can happen across other mediums, as well. In Jason Roeder’s 2023 book “Griefstrike! The Ultimate Guide To Mourning,” the former senior editor and writer at The Onion has created a parody of a grief self-help manual that includes sections titled, “How Much Am I Allowed to Blame God?: A State-By-State Breakdown” and “Breaking The News To Planet Fitness: Your Postmortem Notification Checklist.”
Roeder said his goal with the book was for it to act as a friend in a difficult time. “When you’re looking for resources, like in the weeks and months after someone dies, you come across some really excellent ones for sure. But there’s a sort of solemn or nurturing tone that has kind of a weight of its own,” he told HuffPost. “I thought, ‘OK, well, let’s just come up with something that is really irreverent for someone who is still in the midst of their grief but just wants to deal with it a little bit differently for 150 pages.’”
Roeder’s humor book does what I’ve seen a lot of comedians do when talking about grief: Balancing the jokes with moments of vulnerability that are not played for laughs and reassuring the audience that their jokes are grounded in personal stakes.
Throughout his book, Roeder has “sincerity corner” footnotes where he reveals that a lot of the humor is drawing from real-world experiences of his mother’s death, Phyllis, in 2019. Roeder said the sincerity corners were a way to communicate “that the person behind all these jokes is an actual person who knows what you went through.”
It’s not just professional comedians and humor writers who use their platforms to make jokes about personal tragedy, either. For example, if you are on TikTok long enough, you will encounter #Deathtok, including hospice care providers, morticians and young people using the comedic audio and visual effects within TikTok videos to share darkly humorous insights about what it’s like to see someone you love die.
“It’s also a call to other people who have been there to say like, ‘I see you. Do you see me?’”
For example, one of the TikTok trends last year was to disclose a personal trauma like losing a loved one set to the tonally dissonant soundtrack of PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”
Ashley Eisenbraun, who is based in Memphis, Tennessee, and goes by @reallycoolgirl29 on TikTok, said she posted a video as part of the trend a few days after the funeral of her father, who died from COVID. Her TikTok video begins with Eisenbraun’s face captioned with “Dad gets Covid but he’s healthy and not too old, so he’ll be fine!” Then the video suddenly transitions to spinning images of her father’s casket as the chorus of “Heyy sexy lady” from “Gangnam Style” plays.
“It was almost like a little bit ironic because when he was alive, we would make funny TikTok videos and stuff,” Eisenbraun said. “He had all these crazy, wacky ideas, and he would always say like, ‘This one’s gonna go viral.’ So he did go viral, just he didn’t get to see it.”
Eisenbraun said she received pushback from some people saying her TikTok was offensive and not something her father would have been proud of in response to her video. To that, she said she knows her dad would have laughed if he could have seen her TikTok video and that there is more than one way to grieve.
“If you decide to make a video like that and post it on the internet, it’s important to remember that not everybody is going to like it, but that doesn’t mean that you are grieving the wrong way,” she said.
Although it can seem transgressive to people who have not been there to poke fun at death, it’s normal to the grieving people going through it.
“Whenever I make a grief joke, like in person with people who haven’t experienced it, they’re mortified,” said Jesse Moss, a senior marketing manager who runs the popular TikTok account for Experience Camps, a national nonprofit that offers summers camps and year-round initiatives for grieving children. “My grief friends who understand it are like, ‘Yes.’”
Moss, whose brother and mother have died, said the grief jokes she posts on TikTok could be a way for grievers like herself to find community. She cited one video where she laughs in response to another person’s TikTok about how often they call their mother, and she captions it: “laughs in dead mom.”
“The joke is showing you that you’re hurting in a way,” she said. “Yes, it’s poking fun a little bit, but it’s also a call to other people who have been there to say like, ‘I see you. Do you see me?’ So I think it’s helpful... And if that’s your way of coping, I’m here for it. I know it’s mine.”
Here’s how using humor to cope with grief can be healing.
Wasserman doesn’t think it’s taboo to laugh in the face of death, loss or grief because it’s constantly happening.
“I truly don’t know anyone who’s ever lost someone and hasn’t at some point either laughed thinking about a memory they had with their loved one who died or just laughed at the world for piling it on,” he said. “You can be in a funeral and laugh. It’s not unheard of. It’s very common that that happens... I remember sitting shiva for my dad and just making jokes with people.”
There’s a science behind why laughing can help us during painful times.
“Laughing helps us complete our stress response, so it provides some relief from the tension we carry around our losses,” said Lauren Appio, a New York-based psychologist, executive coach and consultant.
And it’s also healing for us to stay open to positive emotions during grieving.
“You know how therapists often say you can’t selectively restrict your emotions, so if you try to avoid the painful emotions, you also risk numbing out the pleasant ones? The reverse happens too –– we can experience a wider range of emotion when we’re open to it,” Appio continued. “And grief breaks us open. So we may be feeling intense sadness or anger at a funeral, and then we can’t stop laughing if we hear a funny story about the person who died. The feelings are flowing and ideally, they are all welcome.”
Angel Thomson, a Washington-based grief therapist, said humor could also bring shifts in perspective, especially with topics like grief that tend to have a lot of silence around them.
“It’s a common misconception that grief is just feeling sad all the time,” she said. “The emotional experience of grieving is wide and nuanced. In grieving, we need to be reminded that we can continue on, that we can carry our grief and continue to feel joy in life.”
Ultimately, everyone will have their own grieving process, so laughing about death may not feel right to you, but what these comedians and people on social media each show is that you’re not alone in feeling gut-wrenching grief and a need to laugh during and sometimes about it.
“Joy doesn’t stop just because a lot of shitty things like death or illness or whatever has crept into your life,” Wasserman said. “The difficult thing is being able to balance all of it...For me personally, the thing with death that always fucked me up was that life keeps going. And that includes the good stuff and trying to manage and mitigate and negotiate that kind of dance between being really sad and also finding myself ebullient at times.”