Laurie Kilmartin lightens up the mood with morbid curiosity

Photo by Mindy Tucker

Photo by Mindy Tucker

Chad White

It’s a comedian’s job to turn personal experiences into magnificent stories. Tales as simple as going to the store down the street can soon become epic journeys filled with laughs. But not every story has a happy ending.

Laurie Kilmartin took her father’s death and turned it into many things. It was a series of jokes that garnered the attention of several huge media outlets; it brought her closer to her fellow comedians as well as fans; it spawned a comedy special/documentary. Kilmartin took her out of the ordinary hardship by the balls, translating it into a powerful comedy special on Seeso -- 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad. The jokes are impressive as Kilmartin consistently lets them fly at a quick pace. I spoke with the comedian on her work and the blending the grieving process with comedy.

How was your first week back at Conan after a long break?

Laurie Kilmartin: I pulled out of the news a lot. I didn’t delve deep as I normally do. It was really nice. It was kind of startling to get back into reading these stories. [laughs] It’s good to be back. I like working...it’s such a horrible time to be watching the news! That’s the only complaint.

I understand. I work in the news as a producer. I know everything that goes on in the horrible political times.

Laurie Kilmartin: When you go on vacation, you probably don’t turn on the news at all, right? Or are you still plugged in?

Oh no! I throw my phone into the ocean. I just tune out.

[laughs]

Do you usually take any breaks when you’re doing standup? Do you ever find yourself pulling out from all the things in pop culture when you’re about to shoot a special?

Laurie Kilmartin: No. I was working at that time. I sort of split myself in half. Half of my brain was for Conan and for events. And the other half was for standup and my personal life, which I use [in my work]. My standup is all about my personal life; it’s not political at all. I’m sort of compartmentalizing those two parts of my brains.

I noticed at the start of your special -- this is kind of morose -- that you were wearing black. It kind of symbolized death itself as you gave this very funny [eulogy].

Laurie Kilmartin: I kind of wanted it to look funereal I guess. And I wanted it to be dark looking. It was a black background and I was head to toe in black. I sort of wanted to be a yellow head buried in blackness. That was my goal on that.

Was it your decision to start the special off with a 20 minute documentary?

Laurie Kilmartin: No! That was the idea of Frank and the production team from Angry Buddha. I did the standup; I taped it myself. Then I was trying to figure out what to do with it and they said “Why don’t you add stuff to it? Add context to it. Let people know how you started down this path of talking and joking about it?” I was hesitant because I couldn't visualize it but they actually could. And they did it. And they executed it. It was such a huge addition. I’m so glad they did!

When you first sat down to discuss the death and the process, did you find it easy to do so like you did on stage?

Laurie Kilmartin: No, it was so -- When I was on stage, it was seven months after my dad died and the documentary was almost two years. It just felt so different. I felt that I’d processed it a lot and it felt so...My mouth wasn’t trembling when I was [recounting]. You know what I mean? I felt like I had come to terms with it. When I was doing the standup, it was pretty new. I realize when I look back. I still struggled with sometimes telling jokes. Now I can talk about it on stage and it’s no big deal.

Andy Kindler likened it to a memoir. Conan [O’Brien] said it was brutally honest. I saw it as very lethargic for you to get up there. Like a weight got off your shoulders, even though you still carried this burden with you. Do you ever see yourself putting those jokes into book form and just writing out everything your dad did for you and your family?

Laurie Kilmartin: I’m actually writing a book about grief. I actually had a lot of stuff that didn’t make the special; stuff that works better in print than on stage. For a nightclub situation, jokes have to be really short. My stuff is a little bit longer. So I am kind of working on stuff like that now.

It felt kind of reminiscent of what Tig Notaro was going through when she was sick. Through the pain, she was shopping all of her jokes. Did it help you alleviate any personal issues that you had with the death coming so rapidly?

Laurie Kilmartin: I’m sure it did. It’s hard to exactly track what made you feel better. But that’s how I process all of my emotions -- trying to write jokes. It definitely helps. If you’re a knitter, you’re compulsively making sweaters. It sort of helps, for me, to have some sort of goal -- you know -- to turn this crazy situation into a joke.

How long did it take you from shopping those in smaller venues to get to that point? Was it easy?

Laurie Kilmartin: I would say it was from June until October when I went out on stage almost every single night. Where I would fly to these little places and work it out. It was a very intense four months of writing it, sticking to my topic. Trying to think of every angle of that experience and if there was a way to joke about it. It was a pretty intense couple of months there.

For the Jackie and Laurie Show, you guys discuss comedy and then you discuss performing and then you go up and tell those jokes with comedy in mind. Has discussing the situation, has discussing all types of forms of comedy made it easier to go up on stage and doing your job as a comedian?

Laurie Kilmartin: It’s interesting. Now, I realize I got too specific with some jokes. And now I feel like people know the jokes ahead of time. They’re like “Oh that’s that one she was working on!” I regret that I brought people too much into the process. When I’m talking to Jackie about the process, you kind of forget other people are listening. It feels like I’m talking to Jackie only. It’ll probably happen again! [laughs]    

Follow Laurie Kilmartin on Twitter, watch the Seeso special, and check out her podcast with Jackie Kashian.