Life

How Do You Write Jokes When Your Life Is Afflicted by Tragedy?

Stand-up comic Laurie Kilmartin lost her mom to COVID-19. She’s still performing.

Laurie Kilmartin stands onstage with a microphone and speaks.
Laurie Kilmartin performs onstage at the Slipper Room in New York City on Oct. 17, 2016 in New York City. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Seeso.

Laurie Kilmartin is a comedian and writer based in L.A. whose career, like that of many others, has been disrupted by the coronavirus. She’s had to pivot to Zoom, whose lags have ruined her timing. And she’s been making jokes about the pandemic. One of them was about her 82-year old mom, whom she loved but with whom she’d also fight about politics—Kilmartin would say she was avoiding washing her hands just hoping to infect her mother. That joke’s going to be tweaked, because her mom did die of COVID-19 at a nursing home a week ago. But Kilmartin hasn’t stopped kidding around. In fact, her jokes about losing her mom to the coronavirus have been going viral. Her funny version of grief has turned out to be a kind of trick mirror, reflecting the experience of tens of thousands of Americans who have also lost loved ones.

On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Kilmartin, who’s previously written about parental grief in the book Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed, about grief and humor in this very sad time. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: You look at telling a joke as a kind of incantation: a way to keep your worst fears at bay. 

Laurie Kilmartin: In comedy terms, it’s like, if I make a joke about this very specific thing, there’s no way it’s going to happen, right? I would make jokes about my mom slipping in the shower or whatever, just to, like, almost protect her. Because it would be too on the nose for my mom to die exactly the way I had predicted in a joke. In a way doing a joke about my mom getting COVID is a way of me going, Well, she’s not going to get it because I made jokes about it. And there’s no way those two things never intersect. It obviously didn’t work. The coronavirus is very strong and it doesn’t pay attention to my ridiculous rules.

My mom had been driving me crazy for four years. So that was sort of a staple of my act: When is my mom going to die? She’s never going to die. She’s just going to keep living. So for I guess two months I was working on a joke about how even COVID couldn’t kill this woman. Anyway, that’s one’s going to be changed.

Part of the reason you’re so good at coming up with jokes about death is that you’ve done it before. When your dad went into hospice for lung cancer a few years back, you live-tweeted the whole experience, including the 24 hours your family spent with his body after he died. It was intimate, and people responded. So it makes sense that when your mom got sick, you didn’t think twice.

The task of trying to write a joke was also a relief to me because I was like, Oh, here’s something I can do pretty well. I can’t really help my mom. She’s dying. I can’t do anything about it. But I can write a joke about how crazy that is.

Part of how I started paying attention to your Twitter feed was that you were so willing to access the anger and hopelessness that I think people who are dealing with loved one’s COVID infections also feel Someone tweeted something about masks, like, I don’t want to wear them, I’m not going to wear them into businesses. So you tweeted right back at this guy, like, My mom is dying of COVID. I’m watching it right now on FaceTime. The palliative care team says her bed’s gonna be ready for you in 12 to 24 hours. See you then. Did you know that you were going to make that joke as soon as you saw this thing fly across your feed?

My fingers started typing it. It was all just outrageous, just so stupid. And it hit me when I’m watching my mom die because somebody like that was careless. My mom was first quarantined with me. We were really careful. So when she went into the nursing home, she was COVID-free because they tested her. So she came in contact—I wouldn’t even say with somebody working at the nursing home because I think they’re being as careful as they can—with somebody who maybe went to the beach on Memorial Day weekend and was asymptomatic. I look at people like that as people who killed my mother. So, I don’t care. I’ll come after you. I’m not saying my mom would have lived 20 more years or even through the end of this year. She was very frail. My pain is from the way she died: alone as opposed to at home.

I think there are people out there who will hear this in different ways, like some who maybe want the country to open up again and kind of get back to “normal.” I could hear them saying, Your mom was vulnerable and we need to protect vulnerable people, but why can’t we get back to the way things were for everyone else?

I understand that, especially if you’re losing income, but it’s not just old people. Physically frail people are more vulnerable and may die. If you don’t care about that, I can’t help you. But you might die. How do you know you don’t have an underlying condition that hasn’t been diagnosed yet? Do you want to find out by being in the COVID ward? Trust me, you don’t. I’ve seen a COVID ward. It’s awful. You don’t want to be there. You don’t want your loved ones watching you on an iPad, when you can’t talk because you don’t have the energy to speak. You don’t want that.

In the past, you’ve called your mom the Donald Trump of your family. Can you explain that a little bit?

She was a Trump supporter and Republican. She listened to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, all those guys, in my house. So there was a lot of tension, and I was frustrated. But when I could put aside her politics, and when she wasn’t flaunting them in my face, we could just be two people who loved each other.

What did she think about the pandemic?

She was terrified of it. She knew it wasn’t a hoax. And she was very afraid of getting it. That’s what my sister told me. I didn’t know that. She didn’t tell me that, maybe because I would have gone into an anti-Trump rant. But she did tell my sister that. So I hope she didn’t know she had it. I’m still debating, should I call the hospital and ask? Was she conscious when she came in, since they tested her at the hospital she died at? I hope she didn’t know that she had COVID. That would be devastating.

Have you been able to write any jokes since your mom died? 

Yeah, I mean, there are a bunch of jokes on my Twitter feed.

Is it different? Is it easier? Is it harder?

It’s just, I’m chronicling this side of it. Before, I was chronicling the part where she was dying, and now she’s dead. I’ve done it before with my dad. So I don’t know, maybe I have calluses or something, but grief, sadness, rage don’t don’t come out in joke form in your body. They come out in noises and wails and your stomach tightening. And then it’s my job, when that ends or when that starts to subside, to sort of tie it up into a neat little joke. That’s my job.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.