Life and Death and Comedy (by Chris Knight)

Two huge, even grandiose nouns and a third tacked on the end, almost as an afterthought: life and death and comedy. A bit too serious for the blog? Well, tough. Melodrama, here we come.1

My aunt asked me to MC2 at my nana’s funeral earlier this month. My first thought was ‘sounds like a tough gig’ followed by ‘I wonder if I can get a tough-gig story from this’ followed by ‘what’s wrong with me?’ Out loud, I simply said ‘yes, I can do that’.3

MCing a funeral, in case you were wondering, involves zero warm-up or crowd banter and on no account (if you ever find yourself in the role) should you open with any material whatsoever. You will use all the skills of a host but stripped-back to the essentials of simple facilitation. You go over the ‘housekeeping’, how the service is constructed, who’s on next, when to stand, which hymn is next and so forth.

You will need to steel your emotions, particularly when someone says or does something moving just before you have to announce the next segment. You will likely feel a little bit sociopathic when you do this.4

I did all of the above, only making a few errors here and there. On the whole I believe I managed to follow the code of the MC, which is to make those in the crowd and those ‘performing’ feel as comfortable as possible. But there was one aspect where I was surprised.

There was laughter. Quite a lot, actually.

I have been to a few funerals, and I had never taken notice of this before. I think I noticed it more because I was trying to intellectualise and control all my emotions so I didn’t break down in the pulpit between eulogies. Whatever it was, there was definitely a lot of laughter throughout the whole funeral service.5

The laughter was a different kind of laughter to the usual comedy club laughter. It was nervous at first, but each laugh gave strength to the next. It wasn’t the polite laughter received from a poorly told joke, nor was it the inevitable laughter from a well-constructed punchline. It was deep and satisfying and real. It was the sound of healing, just like sobbing is the sound of something breaking.

The direct causes of the laughter were things like an anecdote about a crazy adventure, an impromptu impression or a particular saying that brought back all the foibles of a person everyone missed. I think, though, that the laughter was a way of telling each other that things will be okay, that the story isn’t finished, that yes, the pain is real but it is not going to overwhelm.

My nana prayed for her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren constantly, and she believed in the amazing grace sung about in funeral hymns. She passed on her legacy to three generations. She believed in salvation. She believed in resurrection.

In her funeral service I re-discovered the deep goodness of laughter. Laughter is a by-product of entertainment. It is a simple, almost chemical reaction in our brains when prompted by the correct stimuli. It is the sound every comedian strives to provoke in a crowd.

But it is also much more.

 

 

1. There will also be some footnotes, such as this one

2. Her term, not mine

3. Although this is not a tough-gig story, there are some excellent animated versions from great comics here

4. But don’t worry—reportedly ‘paths’, both socio- and psycho-, never care about such things

5. There was a lot of crying too, don’t get me wrong

 

(By Chris Knight) Dedicated to Lily White, 1918-2012

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