Talking ‘Dead People Suck’ with Laurie Kilmartin
When faced with the loss of her father, comedian Laurie Kilmartin was confronted with an additional challenge: how to make a topic as well-tread as death funny and original. “It’s like trying to do a joke about airplane food.” She started with her moving 2016 comedy special 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad. But even with as much ground as she covered in that hour, she wasn’t done there. Today marks the release of Kilmartin’s new book Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed. Rather than an encyclopedic volume of all things mourning, it’s a targeted guide that the author describes as “…aimed at my own sort of pain, the middle-aged loss of an older person…I wanted to start in chronological order and go from the dying person, to you’re in hospice, to you’re dead, to what do we do with this dead person, and how do we get over it or keep going.” The result is a hilarious, revealing, and unconventionally practical walk through loss and grief. I talked to Kilmartin about the new book, the deal she made with her unborn child, and leaving death behind.
I’m glad we had time to chat. I know you’re super busy. What does your daily routine look like?
Monday through Thursday Conan is 9:30 to 6:30-7. Friday it’s 10 to 5. The podcast (The Jackie and Laurie Show) we sneak in at odd hours. Sometimes we do it really late, like 11 at night after spots, or on the weekends. Standup I try to do four or five nights week if I can because I get rusty very quickly, at least I think I do. It helps my brain from freaking out with, “Oh, I haven’t done stand up in three days. My career is over.”
With all of the various cogs that power the wheel of your career, occasionally something is going to have to take a hit.
My agreement with my fetus when I was pregnant with it was that it would always take the hit.
That poor kid.
I said, “You can miscarry now, but if not, you know what you’re getting into.” Sometimes I don’t get to put my kid to bed at night, but he seems to be doing okay.
How old is he now?
What an exciting age for a boy and also that boy’s mother.
I feel like I have one more year of calm and then it’s finding goo on the shower tiles. I’m trying to enjoy this last year.
When I saw the title of your new book, Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed, I was reminded of Beetlejuice and the Handbook for the Recently Deceased.
Oh my God, I swear that never occurred to me. Oh, Jesus.
I love that running theme in the movie where people have to keep referring to the book because nobody is really prepared for the afterlife. Your book acts as a similar guide for people who may not have thought about the various angles associated with the death of someone close to them.
It’s like trying to do a joke about airplane food. I’m not the first person to tackle death, so I was trying to make everything super, super specific to my experience with my dad and my feelings. I always worry I’m going to touch on something someone else has done because I can’t read everything and I can’t remember everything. Everything in my book is something that happened or is an offshoot of something that happened. It was a tough topic to think, “Has anyone done this?” or, “Is there a more specific angle on this that no one has done so that it’s definitely mine?”
You definitely put so much of yourself in it. We talked just a little over a year ago when your special 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad came out. When I asked what else you had coming up you told me that you were working on a book about grief geared towards middle-aged people based off of your experience and what you were processing at the time.
Yeah, once you get past the deep feelings, you have the aftermath and the cleaning up, then the second anniversary of, etc. In my case it was selling my dad’s house, which is a whole other set of memories that you now just have to have in your brain. You can’t go back and touch the tree he planted or you’ll be shot on their front lawn. It’s a constant reminder that you are temporary, my dad was temporary, and now he’s just memories for me, my sister, and people that knew him.
You get into a whole other aspect of death that I found intriguing. A lot of times when you’re dealing with a tragedy you feel guilty about doing very normal things and having very normal feelings, as if doing those things and having those feelings takes away from the tragedy itself. One of those ways that works is with sex. You have chapters like Never Leave Your Dying Loved One’s Side Unless of Course It Is to Have Sex and All Those Sex Acts You Would Never Try While Your Parents Were Still Alive? Time to Party. I found those oddly comforting. It can feel like such a selfish thing, but you were saying from your experience to go ahead and do it.
We humans are selfish things. When you’re at someone’s bedside you can’t have that same devotion 24 hours a day. I felt a little guilty when I came back from the hotel with my boyfriend because I wasn’t there for my dad’s breakfast, but I still think it was a necessary reprieve from taking care of a dying person. And it wasn’t that long — no offense to my then-boyfriend.
We don’t really know anything about the afterlife, which I think is where you got the title. Dead people suck because they don’t come back and let us know what’s going on, right?
Was there a therapeutic aspect to you putting this book together?
It was kind of weird, because when I started writing it I realized I had to go back there again and find stuff. I had written a lot of notes when my dad was dying because I knew I would forget a lot of stuff. I wanted to be able to remember it. I didn’t want it to be a blur. I had tons of notes to go from. Sometimes it was therapeutic, but other times I would wake up early to work on it and go, “I don’t want to feel this bad at 7:00am.” But to write a chapter properly I had to go back to that feeling and walk myself through it again so I could come up with the best jokes about it. It was slightly therapeutic, and I feel like, “Wow, I’m really done with it now.” I’m looking forward to not using my dad’s death as a source of potential material for anything. I want to be able to just deal with it on my own and not have to bring out a knife and fork and make a comedy meal out of it.
Kilmartin’s book is now available at Amazon.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.