October 18, 2006
Death — now that's funny. Humor writers throughout time have debated how to address inherently sad and tragic events without appearing tasteless or disrespectful. Since not many of us have shot our friends while hunting it may be easy to laugh at the Dick Cheney jokes. Yet each of us faces mortality, so laughing in the face of death is a different story. Contrary to popular opinion, humor, when it works, is not making light of something — just the opposite — it is the connection to the depth of the experience that brings the belly laugh. As one theatrical shop owner put it, the tragedy and comedy masks are only sold as a set.
One pundit said comedy was tragedy with time. While it did take him nine years to tell his own story, writer/director Steve Stockman believes that comedy is more aptly defined as tragedy without fear. In his feature film, Two Weeks, premiering at the Hamptons International Film Festival, he bravely chronicles a group of siblings who rally to their mother's side as she is dying of cancer, punctuating the sadness with laugh out loud moments. "If we took care of the comedy," Stockman said, "we figured the tragedy would take care of itself."
Often humor is defined as the unexpected or incongruous and Stockman uses this juxtaposition to give a fresh look at the family dynamic in crisis. He describes a moment from his own life when the mortuary attendant rolled his mother's body into a van and drove away. He noticed it was still a beautiful day with the paperboy delivering the daily news, and he thought, "This must happen all the time. But no one talks about it."
There is something to the notion that if it is your tragedy you have the right to make fun of it — sort of like it's okay to tell Jewish jokes if you're Jewish. Gallows humor is traditionally made by the person affected. It isn't so much that Stockman, because of his personal experience, has the right to make a comedy about death but that he infuses the film with so many real moments.
As someone who has had to deal with a cornucopia of leftover drugs after a parent's death or tried to fulfill a last wish which involves spare ribs, I applaud Stockman for getting it so right. Aided by his gifted comedic cast which includes Sally Field, Ben Chaplin, Tom Cavanagh and Julianne Nicholson, he gets to the truth. And that is ultimately heartbreaking and hilarious.
Different theories abound about dark humor such as that people laugh as a release after being frightened or use it as a defense mechanism to survive stressful situations. Even concentration camp victims joked about their own dire situation. Medical studies confirm that humor is good for your health, even increasing immune systems in cancer patients. With baby boomers living long lives, many may not have faced the death of an immediate loved one and feel unprepared or filled with apprehension. Stockman refers to this as the "demographic death gap."
What a gift we would give to society if we opened the dialogue and demystified the discussion of death to erase the taboo helping not only the person who is dying but those they will leave behind. I am grateful that I am blessed with a family who has a well developed, if irreverent, sense of humor as that has been the saving grace to get us through the death of a father and a beloved dog. I have no doubt that they are both looking down at their ashes labeled with post-it notes so no one mistakes them for breakfast tea and thinking, "You guys are hilarious."
Two Weeks will also be hitting the theaters in regular release at the beginning of next year.
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