Most critics of comedians who love to take their audiences to dark places usually have a single criticism in mind when they prepare to launch their arsenal of self-righteous indignation.
"The dark, sad things you're trying to make people laugh about wouldn't seem so funny if they happened to you," a heckler might shout from the darkened recesses of a comedy club.
Comedian and Conan writer Laurie Kilmartin who is known for not steering clear of tough subjects in her comedy faced just such a moment when her father Ron was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to suffer through it until his final days earlier this year. She didn't just do what a good comic would do in the difficult, but inevitable situation. She did what any sane person would do.
She tried to keep her sense of humor and find ways to joke about it.
Coincidence? My dad's current oxygen sat levels used to be my goal weight.— Laurie Kilmartin (@anylaurie16) February 26, 2014
"Even during the sickness, I was making jokes about it," she says. "I was used to tackling it. It was a little tougher to turn it into the past tense but I've been a comic for 27 years. I'm really used to going at a subject and doing a take-down of it. That's the way my brain works. I organize my emotions and thoughts in joke form and talk to them on stage. It wasn't any more difficult to talk about than being a mother or anything like that."
She amassed a long list of jokes and updates on her Twitter account through her father and her family's painful ordeal. Kilmartin's tweets went viral and they attracted heartfelt messages of hope and peace for her father and her family from all around the world. She's turned those jokes and the experience into a very personal comedy show called 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, which she'll perform at 8 and 10 p.m. this Saturday at the Dallas Comedy House.
Part of the challenge of doing such a show is finding an audience willing to accept the concept of death and dying as a possible punchline. Kilmartin said she doesn't see making these jokes as trying to shock people into a laugh. She sees it as "giving a middle finger to death and grief."
"It seems to be a topic where people are very uncomfortable and it gets very awkward and they wish the topic would go away," she says. "It's an evolution of figuring out what I can get away with. Almost every show, I know that I can do this joke and not this joke and I'm a comic. I want to get laughs. I'm not trying to prove I can get a laugh with this. I want to figure out a way to serve them jokes that they'll enjoy."
priest stopping by tomorrow. note to self: hide son.— Laurie Kilmartin (@anylaurie16) February 27, 2014
Of course, someone is bound to speak up no matter how accommodating the crowd and she said she's had a couple of people speak up in the middle of her act when she starts unfurling her list of dead dad jokes. A woman at a club in Tucson who Kilmartin spotted looking at her phone spoke up during the set, "My mom died in hospice and I didn't think you were too funny."
"I've had a couple of moments where people would shout, 'My mom just died and I don't want to hear this,'" she says. "It's delightfully awkward. Anytime in standup, you're potentially stepping on someone's personal landmine when you talk about any topic at all."
However, the response to her tweets and her new special has been overwhelmingly positive and seems to have provided a sense of relief to people who are suffering or grieving. Kilmartin says the responses also provided the same for her and her dad.
"I got a lot of texts saying it was really helpful," she says. "People would come up giving me hugs and saying thank you for that and it still happens to this day. It was cool to show to my dad before he died and he got all these wishes saying that they were praying for him and he was thrilled by that. It was covered in the British press and Australia and people all over the world are saying they're praying for you and that meant the world to him."
Hospice says to reassure the loved one that they can go, that we will be ok. So me sobbing "Dad, don't fucking leave me!" was frowned upon.— Laurie Kilmartin (@anylaurie16) February 27, 2014
Kilmartin says her father was a huge supporter of her stand-up comedy. He would often accompany her as she went on the road to perform at bars and clubs and even though the material may have sometimes been "much dirtier than my dad would ever be," he always encouraged her to keep chasing after her dream.
"He used to go on the road with me and would tell people to shut up when I was on stage," she says. "He was really proud of my standup. He never criticized my material. The only thing he ever said was that I would say 'like' or 'um' too much. He thought it was really cool that I was a comic."
See Laurie Kilmartin at Dallas Comedy House at 8 p.m. & 10 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $15-20.