Death, dying and bereavement is not funny. Still comedians, cartoonists, and cinematographers show us that it is possible to laugh during times of loss and provide, as Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, says “a little anesthesia of the heart.” In seeing demise through humorous eyes, their funny creations not only help us get a different perspective on somber situations but also help us get the upper hand on the inevitable.
Currently, cute little cartoon characters are singing and dancing about death in an extremely popular public service announcement promotes rail safety. “Dumb Ways to Die” has won a number of awards and, in spite of it having a death and dying theme, it has been viewed on YouTube over fifty-five million times.
Several well known cartoonists consistently use death and dying themes to get us to laugh. Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, and Edward Gorey, are among the most popular.
Addams, the creator of The Addams Family with its dark and macabre themes, for example, has one cartoon depicting a woman on the phone informing the caller where here husband is. In the background we see a recently dug grave outside the window. The wife replies literally to the caller, “He’s in the garden.”
Similar to the cute cartoon images in “Dumb Ways to Die,” cartoonist Edward Gorey has a number of books which might at first appear to be for children but a closer inspection reveals that they are not. One such book is The Gashlycrumb Tinies. In it Gorey illustrates the alphabet but unlike a children’s book, this time it shows how each child died. For example:
“A if for Amy who fell down the stairs”
“B is for Basil assaulted by bears”
“C is for Clara who wasted away”
“D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh”
Cartoonists not only poke fun at every form of death and dying but also involve celebrities in their work. In a T.O. Sylvester cartoon, two chickens are reading a newspaper with a headline that reads, “Martha Stewart Dying.” The caption reads, “It’s fabulous. She tells you how to macramé your own shroud and construct a casket from old toothpicks.”
Another cartoonist shows Steve Jobs in heaven being introduced to Moses. “Moses, meet Steve. He’s gonna upgrade your tablets….” Even Charlie Brown gets involved in death-related stuff. In a two-part cartoon, Lucy asks Charlie, “When you die, are you ever allowed to come back?” He responds, “Only if you had your hand stamped.”
Often cartoonists depict death in the typical black robe carrying a large sickle. One such cartoon shows death taking away an elderly gentlemen moving along slowly with his walker. The man protests saying, “But I just figured out how to use the DVD player.”
They poke fun at executions (“Paper or plastic?” asks the executioner of the man whose head is about to be chopped off at the guillotine.) They poke fun at the deceased’s last will and testament. (…and to my nephew Charlie. I leave that portion of highway I-95 I adopted.” They poke fun of heaven. (“Sorry, but we can’t let you in without a referral from your primary care physician.”) And of hell. (The important thing is to stay hydrated,” says one hell-bound person to another.)
Comics too provide us with some “anesthesia of the heart” as they also explore death, dying and bereavement with humor.
George Carlin, for example, had an entire routine around the subject. In one part, he jokes about death being like a football game where you get a two-minute warning. “Just before you die,” he says, “you will receive an audible warning letting you know that you have two minutes left to live.” So he advises to say the most outrageous thing you can think of and then say, ”If that isn’t true may God strike me dead.”
Woody Allen is another comedian who frequently focuses on death. In the final scene of his movie Love and Death, Allen and death go singing and dancing down the road. In Everyone Says I Love You, all the corpses in the funeral home pop out of their coffins dancing and singing “Enjoy Yourself It's Later than You Think.”
Some of Allen’s famous funny one-liners around death themes are: “Birth is a fatal disease,” “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear, just in case.”
There are also a number of movies that deal with bereavement and end-of-life situations in a lighthearted way. Among them are The Loved One, Weekend at Bernie’s, Waking Ned Devine, Death at a Funeral, Gates of Heaven, Undertaking Betty and the classic Harold and Maude, among others.
My favorite humorous death-related scene in a movie is the funeral scene in Steel Magnolias where the grief-torn mother of the deceased is encouraged to take her anger out by hitting someone who nobody likes.
Television has also had its share of shows sprinkled with death and dying humor such as M.A.S.H., Northern Exposure, and Six Feet Under. There were two memorable and hilarious funeral scenes on TV. One was for the funeral of Charlie Harper, the character played by Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, and the other was the classic scene on The Mary Tyler Moore Show for the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.
What cartoonists, comedians and cinematographers may not realize is that getting us to laugh at death is, according to the Hungarian-born British author George Mikes, actually giving us triple pleasure: the pleasure of the joke itself; the malicious joy of laughing at death’s expense; and the pleasure of taming death and fraternizing with him.
In other words, cartoonists, comedians and cinematographers are showing us that with humor death and dying situations can be less of a grave matter.