In this five-part series, comedians and humorists write about their experiences with the grieving process and its effect on their comedy. Today, comedian Jim Bruce writes about the death of his brother and mother, and how experiencing grief taught him empathy.
The Bygone Bureau: Tell us a little about your loved one. Did this person inform your comedic sensibility? In what way?
Jim Bruce: My brother Bill committed suicide. The idea of suicide is peculiar, intellectually. It is so counter to our natural instincts to survive that most humans struggle to understand it.
When I first got very personal with my comedy, my brother’s suicide was one of the first things I talked about, but I would talk about it mostly in the abstract. Suicide as a concept, and the jokes came from there. As I developed the material it started to get more real, his suicide in particular and then my own thoughts and attempts at suicide. So Bill did have an impact on actual material. My mother had a much more profound affect.
My mother was an alcoholic who quit drinking through AA and then got cancer and died. So I got very little time to enjoy my sober mother, and that woman was lovely. My mother was also very funny, and I would credit my sense of humor, finding comedy in dark places, to her.
Can you tell a short (maybe funny, maybe not) anecdote that encapsulates this person? Has thinking about the events of this story changed for you in the grief process, and if so, how?
Thanksgiving: One year my mother was pretty drunk on Thanksgiving. She made a pumpkin pie and a cream pie, but got confused and put the pumpkin pie in the fridge and the cream pie in the oven. As a result the pumpkin pie was raw, the cream pie was on fire.
Very funny to remember, but here is the best part. When my mother got sober, she would tell this story, and other stories of mistakes she made, herself. She was humble, and funny, and honest. She could be mean, she could be stubborn, but she could also be very sweet, and funny. In short, she was super Irish.
So I learned to laugh at my own mistakes, and believe me, there have been plenty. I did an hour comedy special and much of it was about my mother, my brother, my one legged father and there is humor in all of it.
Describe your experience with grief a little. Did it interrupt your desire to write or tell jokes? If so, in what way? When did that desire return, if it did. What happened that made it come back?
I don’t think grief ever interrupted my desire to tell jokes but it did change the kind of jokes I wanted to tell.
I like all kinds of comedy, from the absurd to the real life, but in the middle of grief I tend to want to tell and hear truth. Other people are different. They want the distraction. But for me, in the middle of it, I kind of want to soak up the grief, to feel it as much as I can. Then when it’s subsided some, I like to jump into jokes about whatever. In retrospect, I think that’s just me healing.
How has experiencing grief changed the way you think about comedy in general or certain jokes in particular? How is it different, and how is it the same? Are there any sorts of jokes that you were comfortable with before that you aren’t now, or vice versa?
I think you can joke about anything, but here is what has kind of changed for me: I feel very comfortable talking about my suffering, my troubles, my mistakes. I am less inclined to mock someone else’s grief. I also tend to think about how other people are human beings, so when I make jokes, it’s from that point of view.
Case in point: A celebrity like Lindsay Lohan. I find it strange that we are amused when someone has an addiction problem to the point that we seem to be hoping they’ll crash and burn. I find that instinct far more deplorable than anything she has or hasn’t done. So in my comedy, I tend to make fun of that instinct. TMZ and shows like it are filled with garbage human beings who should feel superior to nobody.
It’s been sometimes said that humor comes from pain. Has any comedy writing come directly out of your experience with the loss of a loved one? Is there anything funny about death or grief, whether in the abstract or in your personal experience?
Yes, death is funny, and the less abstract the funnier to me.
In my new comedy special, I open with a piece about how weird funerals are, and close with how I think mine might go. Everyone you know is, right now, dying. That’s just how it is. If you can’t find it funny how life works, then I feel for you. For me, finding it funny is the only way to continue on.