Last week, an Ohio man’s obituary listed the NFL’s sorriest franchise as the cause of his death:
Paul Stark passed away Dec. 27, 2017, of complications from a brief illness, exacerbated by the hopeless condition of the Cleveland Browns.
Humor in the face of death seems to work every time — whether it’s fans shitting on their sad-sack hometown teams, “20 Hilarious Funeral Humor Memes” or funny tombstone collections on Pinterest. Perhaps our mortality is so terrifying that any escape from its morbid reminder is a welcome respite — no matter how taboo the joke may be.
For example, take my mentor Jim Vallely, executive producer of Arrested Development. He got the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard at the funeral of our beloved friend Gary Shapiro earlier this year. Following a prolonged, ceremonial prayer from the rabbi and cantor, Jimmy took the mic and said, “Wait a second, Gary was Jewish?”
“Funerals are the easiest laughs you can get because it cuts the tension,” he says now. “Water tastes great if you’re walking through the desert.”
“Sad times like funerals are what humor exists for,” agrees J.J. Wall, another friend and veteran comic. “It’s almost impossible not to get a laugh at such a tense time.”
“Humor helps us get through the day,” explains Allen Klein, author of numerous books about the lighter side of bereavement — including The Healing Power of Humor, The Courage to Laugh and Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying. “It gives people perspective on life, too. Like the 17th century Zen poet Mizuta Masahide wrote: ‘Barn’s burnt down — now I can see the moon.’”
Of course, a good line in an obit or at a funeral is more fleeting than not. And so, many choose to leave their eternal comedic mark via epitaph. “A good tombstone joke is one that both acknowledges death and references something specific about the deceased, generally an attitudinal jab at something worldly, something wholly corporeal that couldn’t possibly matter to the dead,” explains Dylan Brody, a humorist and playwright who also has written several books on the subject of laughter in grief. “I think W.C. Fields’ was ‘On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia. Pancho Villa’s last words were, ‘It can’t end like this. Tell them I said something important.’ I love this. It captures that desperate, last need to be remembered as better than we are.”
“George Carlin likened death to a football game,” Klein adds. “‘Just before you die,’ he said, ‘you will receive an audible warning letting you know that you have two minutes left to live.’ He advises to say the most outrageous thing you can think of and then say, ”If that isn’t true may God strike me dead!”
“My dad did a lot of routines on death and his own death in particular,” says Kelly Carlin, my friend and George’s daughter. “He wanted his tombstone to read, ‘Geez, he was just here a minute ago,’ because that’s the line we always use when people die: ‘Oh my God, he was just here a minute ago!’”
“Comedy is about releasing tension,” she continues. “You set up the joke in such a way that you create tension and then break it with a laugh. That’s so important in grief. There’s so much tension around death that we don’t know how to deal with. So we can’t help but laugh.”