Death Dialogues: Comedian Sean White
Death Dialogues features interviews with professionals who deal with death, dying, and grieving in their work. From creatives to funeral directors to taxidermists—we talk about why and how they've chosen to spend their working life examining the afterlife.
“You only need to know three things about me to get the rest of these jokes, okay…
So number one: over a period of two years I watched my entire family die, one by one. Real dick move on their part.”
I called up comedian Sean White to talk about Dead & Gone, his debut comedy album that’s focused on the death of his entire family.
“Number two: in the middle of all that lovely, lovely death, I got divorced. Apparently I was being a bit of a bummer. In her defense though, I’m pretty sure she didn’t know she was leaving in the middle.”
We talked about how and why he decided to take on these grim topics by spinning them into hilarious, dark, and honest jokes about those who are left behind in the wake of shitty situations.
“And number three: Guys I’m sorry I’m just exhausted, I just flew in from Atlanta... and boy is my family dead.”
If you’re not laughing yet, you should be and can.
As many learn in the wake of loss, grieving can leave you feeling out of touch with reality. Sometimes up seems down, black seems white. And, possibly, things get even more confusing than that—it's not black or white, but rather a hazy, foggy shade of blue-green that you've never seen before... and for some reason, this new perspective makes you feel really fuckin' weird. Things that seem like they should be sad are hi-larious. Things that were once coped with by crying are easier to deal with through laughter.
Personally, I still laugh about the woman who told me that she knew my mom was in the dragonfly flying around my head while I gave her eulogy—she was, in fact, in the morgue awaiting cremation. We laughed through tears at her memorial, after someone made a joke about my late grandfather "looking up" to watch all of us spreading her ashes. And I laugh when I think of certain memories, which other days make me bawl uncontrollably.
Of course, there's a line drawn, somewhere. Though I don't know where it is for myself or my family, Sean White has done some work to figure out where it lies between him and an audience full of strangers.
Alica Forneret: What was it like the first time you had to talk to a stranger about death?
Sean White: Well, I was drunk. I was going through the process of losing family members and I was going to open mics trying to continue doing what I was already doing, acting like nothing was happening. So it first came out when I was on stage and I just realized, ‘I hate what I’m talking about right now, I don’t want to talk about this at all, the only thing I want to talk about is how upset I am.’
AF: So was it something you developed as you were going along?
SW: Eventually I decided to actually write it, but it didn’t start that way at all. After a few months of accidentally doing it and going, ‘No one’s going to like that, no one’s going to laugh at that,’ I got maybe the occasional laugh but it wasn’t going well. It was very bad in the beginning.
I had never seen anybody do any material like that so I had no guidance on how to do it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do any of the other jokes I had because they just felt so stupid and pointless when I was going through so much more. My family was going away, I was going through a divorce at the same time, I didn’t have anybody offstage that I could talk about it with, so I kind of had to talk about it onstage because I didn’t really have any other options.
AF: Has it been something that other comedians or other people come up and talk to you about after a show?
SW: Oh, certainly. After you’ve done jokes about it, people love coming up to tell you all the negative experiences they’ve been through and want to talk to you about death very eagerly.
They don’t understand how sadness works. Like, ‘You want some more on your plate? Let me give you fifths and sixths…
The problem is that everybody thinks that their problems are extremely special so they refuse to share them because they assume people wouldn’t understand. “You wouldn’t understand what it’s like that I lost this person, you don’t know what they meant to me.” But we all know about loss, and when they see me do those jokes they think, “Oh, he understands.”
AF: And do you think that there’s something specific about laughter and making a joke that makes it easier for you to talk about - taking it that one step further and turning it into comedy?
SW: Some of the basic principles behind laughter is that jokes usually result in feeling safe, laughing at something, then you feeling smarter than something. And when you make jokes about death, which already has that innate tension, you’re able to make somebody feel superior to death and it takes away some of the teeth. All of that tension that comes with staying away from it suddenly becomes something that you can play with.
AF: Yeah, just breaking down that wall — not feeling that you have to be sad about it and that you can’t overcome it any way other than being sad about it.
SW: I have submitted some clips to festivals before and the festival sent back and was like, “Why did you send a grievance video?” Like they didn’t even consider it comedy. And I get stuff like that all the time, where people are averse to it.
AF: What is your response to those people?
SW: “I feel sorry for ya. You can’t get any amount of pleasure in this life because it’s gonna be painful no matter what, and you’re gonna have to experience this side of life no matter what.”
I think that as we get older it’s not that we get more emotionally mature, we just get better at laughing things off. And if you’re unable to laugh off the situation of someone giving me a Japanese scroll of my dead brother’s face, I don’t understand what it takes to make you go, “This is ridiculous.”
“If your trip to the funeral involves a stop over at Hobby Lobby, fuck off.” - Dead & Gone
There needs to be a limit and I don’t think that people always want to admit that, they just want to say, ‘No, I’ll never touch it with a ten foot pole.’ But if you listen, I don’t even say their names. I keep all the specifics to myself and I talk about how other people see it and how other people act around it. I don’t actually say anything personal. Some people notice it and that’s why they’re able to detach themselves from it because it’s not a personal thing. But some people, whenever you talk about the subject, they immediately clam up.
AF: I think it’s really interesting that you don’t make it personal and it can still offend people. Do you feel like there’s anything that’s off limits?
SW: I’ve definitely taken it too far sometimes. Before we were doing the recording, I had jokes about my brother-in-law doing a lot of crazy stuff when people were dying, and I made jokes about him to get it off my chest, but I’m not going to put it on the album because I gain nothing from that. I am just beating someone down for doing ridiculous behavior, but that’s how they dealt with things. There’s always some way that we can relate, all of us together, instead of saying “Fuck some other guy.”
AF: I was going to ask: What is it that people relate to even if they haven’t had a death in their family? What makes this something that anyone can relate to or should talk about? What makes the discussion about death important?
SW: I remove the details to show how universal it is. I don’t remember who said it a long time ago: “When comedians talk the whole point is so that people can use their ears to see their life different when they leave.” And the whole way of making this relatable is removing yourself and anyone that it’s at the expense of, and instead of talking about how you feel, you talk about how people see things. I’m talking about society, not an individual, which helps people relate to it more. And hopefully if they can relate to that, I can make up for my innate lack of likeability.