Comedians are celebrating being alive to use their final words to mock death, writes Jay Richardson
Most comedians dread dying on stage. Even if, like Tommy Cooper and, more recently, Ian Cognito, only a handful do so literally. But living funerals, that is funerals performed for the living, are a growing cultural phenomenon, with the terminally ill, forward-thinking and monstrously self-centred embracing the Japanese practice of “seizenso” – celebrating one’s life with loved ones while you’re still around to enjoy it.
Unsurprisingly, comedians have started jumping on the bone wagon. Notwithstanding snobbery about “dead dad” shows, a little personal tragedy does play well with award judges. Last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Rose Matafeo introduced herself to the Fringe in 2016 with Finally Dead, a song and dance spectacle masquerading as her own pre-emptive knockings from the coffin.
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For Rich Wilson, whose varied jobs have included working at an old people’s home and funeral directors, Death Becomes Him is a chance to take stock. “I’ve seen people take their last breath” he reflects. “And once you get past 40, you’re always thinking about death a little bit more.” Even so, the comic – whose popular interview podcast about masculine mental health, Insane in the Men Brain, has chronicled his darkest and occasionally suicidal thoughts – stresses that his show, set in the afterlife as he pleads his case to Heaven, “isn’t depressing."
“In Edinburgh especially, there’s a predisposition towards the dramatic. But a lot of people come to comedy to get away from things. So I’m talking about death in a light-hearted way.
“This is my mid-life crisis” the geezerish comic admits. “Me looking back at the mistakes I’ve made and the good I’ve done. How I’m perceived by others. I’ve been kind and I’ve upset people in my life. Paul Newman said ‘a man with no enemies is a man with no character’. Well, I’ve been a bit of a character…”
Myra Dubois can relate to that, after an 11-year career of glittering highs and swiftly passed over lows. Pointing out that mortality is universal, she’s “been to funerals with the photographs of the deceased everywhere, everyone’s talking about them, playing their favourite music, the pomp and ceremony of it. And I thought: ‘I’ll get me a bit of that!’ What better occasion to pile all the attention on yourself?”
Conducting proceedings as her own celebrant, Dead Funny is “a lovely ego-stroke. There’s opportunities for the audience to stand up and say a few words about what I mean to them. And in the event of my actual demise, it’s a little blueprint, readily available.”
A lady of grand, indeterminate age, the garrulous entertainer chats to the crowd to decide how she died each night and hopes that she won’t have “too many more gruesome ones”. Having worked on the show and its songs with her associate Gareth Joyner and musical director Richard Thomas, of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame, she’s aware “that we’re touching on some things that might be quite raw. But there’s catharsis in mocking death. I’m imagining myself as a cadaver and singing about which part of my anatomy might live on and be treasured as a relic.”
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Like Wilson, she’s wary of, and “a little fatigued with the effort that some people put into delivering a meaningful Edinburgh show, spinning their personal trauma, using it as free therapy. But bugger me, if that isn’t what I’ve accidentally gone and done!”
Similarly, Andy Field has come to appreciate that “I’ve really enjoyed my life. It’s something you wouldn’t necessarily think about in such depth if you hadn’t worked yourself into a corner pretending to be a hologram at your own funeral.”
Dreamt up at the end of last year’s festival, his “fundamentally optimistic” hour was conceived as a creative challenge, “to fly in the face of general wisdom about how important it is for a comedian to be present in the room, that live aspect of comedy that makes it more interesting. How do I deliver the show when, narrative-wise, I can’t see or hear the audience?”
Though it plays with the concept’s rigidity, Andy Field’s Funeral has also clarified the stories that he’s sharing. “This is the end of my life, I’ve made all of my memories, so what’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to me? What’s the saddest?
“Going to extremes, it’s been really useful coming up with stories that I previously couldn’t broach because they felt too personal. It’s been hard. But when you reveal the most ashamed you’ve ever felt to a big room of people and they laugh throughout, that’s a massively rewarding experience.”
Obviously, there are pitfalls to funeral shows. The generally healthy 27-year-old has “had quite a few messages on Twitter, expressing their deep sadness that I’ve passed. It’s confused some people. But that’s funny, so I’m fine with it.”
And as Dubois enthuses, “next year’s show’s almost written itself. ‘The Resurrection!’ With all my ‘admyras’, it’s definitely been a good time to kill myself. In my own modest way, I’m becoming a cult.”
Myra Dubois is appearing in Dead Funny at the Underbelly Bristo Square (Venue 302), Rich Wilson is appearing in Death Becomes Him at Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14) and Andy Field is appearing in Andy Field’s Funeral at Just The Tonic at The Caves (Venue 88), all until 25 August