Should D.E.A.T.H. be a taboo subject in comedy?


APRIL 30TH 2013


I haven’t got a lot of time because I’ve got a plumber coming around in a minute to sort out a leaky pipe. I just can’t get it to light, even using good quality tobacco and Swan Vestas matches. So let me crack on right away. A comedian’s act can cover a wide range of subjects. Some of them are palatable to most of the audience, but some joke/quips or comedic observations can cause offence and at times outrage. One subject with the potential to get a negative reaction from an audience is D.E.A.T.H.


D.E.A.T.H. comes to us all eventually. But as Woody Allen said “I know death is inevitable, but I don’t want to be there when it happens”. There are plenty of great jokes about D.E.A.T.H. that couldn’t really be described as offensive, mainly because they’re so damn funny. Here’s one of my favourites.


There’s an old man, 95, lying in his bed, dying, with his family surrounding him, all of them hushed, respectful and tearful. Suddenly the old man opens his eyes, sniffs the air and says, in a dry, croaking voice, “Is that a baked ham I can smell?“ and his wife, who’s sat by the bed holding his hand, says “ Yes, darling. I put it in the oven a little while ago”. He gently squeezes her hand, looks into her moistened eyes and says “I’m not long for this world, but that ham smells so delicious, my last wish is to enjoy a slice of it between two pieces of warm, crusty bread.” And his wife says “I’m sorry, honey, that’s just not possible. It’s for the funeral!”…


There’ve been many sitcoms, plays, farces and films that were based around dead bodies (ones that go missing, usually), funerals & funeral directors, greedy people wanting to bump off elderly relatives for their fortunes, eccentric ghosts returning from the grave to wreak comic vengeance…and so on. They amuse and no one takes offence. So how long should we leave it before we look for humour in a tragic situation? Well, someone far cleverer than me once said….”Tragedy plus time equals comedy”. Not that it gives us carte blanche to make crass, badly-judged jokes about the Holocaust, African famines,‘plane crashes, horrific crimes and natural disasters that claim thousands of lives. But some comedians aren’t prepared to wait for tragic events to become history.


They write and perform jokes, entire routines maybe, about these appalling things while they’re still part of ‘The Zeitgiest’, knowing that most audience members will laugh. Which is always their ’Get out of jail’ card. I’m not making any judgement here – just observing.


When a comedian does badly on stage, he is said to have ‘died’. Which means his jokes fell flat or the audience didn’t take to him or he was just not on the top of his game. Whatever the cause, to spend even five minutes on a stage, desperately trying to wring laughter out of a stony-faced audience can be soul-destroying. You do ‘die’ a little inside for the rest of the evening. But the next night could be entirely different and you’ll have the entire room rocking with laughter. That’s comedy for you.


When a well-known comedy actor or comedian really dies, it seems to affect us more than when a famous ‘straight’ actor passes on, because we hold funny men and women in real affection and recall the times we’ve laughed at them. I’m talking about the greats like Eric and Ernie, Benny Hill, Ronnie Barker, Eric Sykes, Spike Milligan, Les Dawson, Bob Monkhouse, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd – and more recently Richard Briers. In time, the big comedy names of today will pass on, but will they be mourned as much as the previous generations of comedians? In 2013, stand-up comedy can be far stronger and crueller than the silly, often lightweight and whimsical material of previous decades, which the public at the time had found endearing. So when say, Alexei Sayle or Frankie Boyle pop their clogs, their passing might not touch the public in the same way the performers from a gentler age did. I may be wrong about this. Please feel free to disagree if you think that when Russell Brand shuffles off this mortal coil, thousands, nay millions, will shed a nostalgic tear and queue-up for days to sign a ‘Bookie Wookie’ of remembrance.


There is an upside to D.E.A.T.H. and you don’t have to be an undertaker or florist to appreciate it. We humans are quite robust. We may take an emotional battering and be inconsolable for weeks and months in our grief for a parent, grandparent, partner, relative or good friend who’s passed. But gradually, our minds and bodies somehow manage to recover so that we can carry on. It’s quite astounding how that happens.


We’ve been through the mill, survived one of Life’s great traumas and it’s strengthened our character so we’re ready to take on the next big problem that bunch of bullies The Fates have in store for us.


Having a sense of humour and being able to enjoy a joke and a laugh can be therapeutic in times of grief. There’s scientific evidence to prove it – not that many scientists are a barrel of laughs.


So until the next time, remember to live every day as if it’s your last – and one day you’ll be proved right.


Damn, my pipe is still leaking.


Thanks for reading 😉