How Laurie Kilmartin Coped with and Honored the Death of Her Father by Making Jokes About It
It was by tweeting, “For Valentine’s Day, I got my Dad a gift card from JC Penney. I said, ‘Dad, I want this card to expire before you do,'” that comedian and Conan writer Laurie Kilmartin began documenting her family’s experience as her father began hospice after losing a battle with lung cancer. Her tweets, bitingly funny and deeply touching, went viral, spawning a standup tour centered around her father’s death. That material, along with documentary footage of her experience, is now part of a new Seeso comedy special 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad. It’s equal parts hilarious and heavy, something that Kilmartin realized she would have to ease people into. “I opened with a knock-knock joke, basically. I wanted to start dumb and simple and then slowly turn it up.” We had an in-depth chat about the special, how it almost wasn’t released, and some exciting new projects for 2017.
I’m recovering emotionally from watching your new special last night.
I’ve seen it too many times to have any sort of opinion anymore. Was it a good “emotionally?”
The documentary part was really hard for me. I cried during that part, but the standup that followed after was very therapeutic. When this was all happening you made the decision to put the play-by-play on Twitter. What was the initial thought behind that? Were you just trying to fire those thoughts into the void?
I had some jokes that I just wanted to get out. I also didn’t have very many followers, so I didn’t think it was going to be seen by anybody other than other comics. I had a hard time talking about it in real life. My boss, Mike Sweeney, and Conan knew that I was home for hospice, but I actually couldn’t say the words, “My dad is dying.” I knew that everyone at work followed me, so I thought, “This is how I can let them know.” It was easier to just write and jokes and let them figure out that I was going to be there for a while. I remember it was a little over two and a half weeks that I was out of work. I never called in or anything. I apologized later and said, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t able.” I just couldn’t articulate that my dad was dying in a real way. I wouldn’t have been able to make that phone call. By documenting it via jokes it became pretty obvious that he was dying.
How soon after your father’s passing did you begin to talk about it onstage?
I was talking about it when he was diagnosed with cancer. I kind of felt like if I did a bunch of coarse jokes it would make him kind of immune to dying. How could he die once his daughter said all these mean things about him? It would be too cruel. But that’s not the way chemo works. So I was talking about it probably six months before he died: his cancer, jokingly plotting for all of the great things I would inherit when he died, just stuff like that, desperately hoping that those jokes would be dropped because he wouldn’t die. After he did I kept going with it.
How long was the whole process from when you found out to when your dad passed away?
My dad was 83 and he had nine months of chemo, so I kind of had time to prepare. I obviously hoped he wasn’t going to die, but I was just sort of the following the journey that my dad was on. It was nine months from when he was diagnosed to when he died.
When you were tweeting about everything, was it Patton Oswalt that kind of pushed it into the public eye?
Yeah. Before that it was just my friends, but then Patton retweeted a couple of them and that’s when other people started looking at it.
There’s a beautiful moment where you, your mom, and sister are gathered around your dad and you tell your dad that all of these people know about him now. And then he smiles. I don’t know how communicative he was at that stage, but it seemed like that smile was such a big expression for him. He got it. I was thinking that if this situation had happened twenty or thirty years ago the power to document everything and connect with that many people wouldn’t have been as strong.
That was the neatest thing about all of it, reading comments to my dad. My dad was very religious, Catholic. When I see “thoughts and prayers” I think Anthony Jeselnik and roll my eyes. But my dad doesn’t. My dad believed all that stuff and it made him feel good. He was an engineer and a very private guy who knew about five people at the dog park. For us to show him and read him all of these comments…I don’t think he’d ever experienced anything like that. I think he felt a connection to God in a way that I didn’t.
The documentary portion isn’t something that you see in a lot of specials. Sometimes the comedian will go back to their old neighborhood or school, but your accumulated footage gave you enough to create kind of a mini-documentary before the standup even begins. When you first started touring with this material was the documentary portion part of your vision?
No, it wasn’t it all. In fact, almost the opposite. My intention was, “Hey this is an experience just like any other and if you’re a comic you should be able to write jokes about it and get away with them.” That was kind of what I wanted to prove. I had the standup portion edited, but had a really hard time selling it. I’m not particularly famous or anything, so that doesn’t help. But when Chris Italia took it over he looked at this other stuff to add some context and to fill it out a little bit because the standup is only 44 or 45 minutes. They were able to see it in a way…that it might be bigger than just a regular standup special, tilted a little bit different.
Do you have any projects coming up in the new year?
This has been such a thing on my mind, but once it’s out and done I think I have enough new material to probably record a CD in the next year. I’m writing a book on grief. Before Seeso was interested I thought, “Gosh, no one’s going to buy this thing and I have all these jokes.” I have a book deal with a company and I’m writing a comedic book on grief, sort of aimed at middle-aged people who are losing older parents, that very particular death where it’s not a tragedy, but you’re still devastated.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.