‘It might blow up in my face’: Sarah Harpur on joking about death in Dead Dads Club – The Spinoff
Dead Dads Club is not a title you’d expect for a Comedy Festival show, but then Sarah Harpur specialises in unexpected comedy. Sam Brooks talks with her about black comedy, the hilarity of grief and the repressed Western approach to death.
Content warning: this interview discusses suicide and the experience of grief.
Sam Brooks: So why this topic and this show?
Sarah Harpur: OK! So my dad like committed suicide when I was 15. So obviously, obviously, a comedic premise. But you know, it’s one of those things where it was so long ago that it changes you.
It absolutely does.
It turns you into one of those people that finds dark shit quite funny.
Do you have like… I mean, are you in the club or…?
Yeah, I have a dead mum.
So it’s the same thing where it…
It makes everything dark kind of that much funnier.
So most people have experienced loss in some way to various degrees. But the people who have experienced this kind of loss, I find that you meet them and you have this little connection, so you can have a laugh about it because you both know that it doesn’t mean you actually find it funny. It just means that’s how you cope.
Exactly. You cope through the laughter.
It’s a really essential part of the healing process. And so obviously I am totally over this now. Like I am out the other side. It’s 20 years ago.
Throughout most of my life I’ve had a dead dad so that’s a huge part of my identity really. I started doing little bits like this Dead Dads Club song in my comedy shows and it’s like one of those things that… Some people would freak out, you see their body language change, they cross their arms and they lean back. They’re petrified and they think that they’re witnessing you having a mental breakdown on stage. Like they freak out.
Then there’s other people who’ve been through similar stuff who are just fuckin’ pissing themselves laughing, and they absolutely love it because they can relate to that way of using humour to cope with stuff.
So I thought, what’s been happening is that it doesn’t go well when it’s sprung on people. They’re like “[sing-song voice] oh I’m just going out to a comedy show… escape from reality… then BOOM!”
Exactly! That’s when it doesn’t go well.
This is a huge risk, like I’m fuckin’ terrified. Like I’m doubting myself daily. But then I’m going, if I completely own it and I say this is what the show’s about and this is what subject we’re covering, the only people who come to this show are going to be people who are down with that.
And it’s like a risk, right? Ten people might come to my show but those ten people are going to be on board and we’re going to have a really good time.
So that’s what I’m hoping. It’s about the right type of audience rather than trying to trick everyone to come into your show. As I said, it’s a huge risk but hopefully people come along. The thing is – lots of people, when I tell them I’m doing the show they think that I’m insane.
Really? That’s so odd to me. It seems like it’s a really fruitful place…
Yeah! That’s what I think!
…for, like, art! And for life, even!
Yeah totally. I don’t even think it’s dark!
No! It’s normal.
Totally. It’s not a show about suicide at all. It’s a show about grief and the grieving process which I think is just riddled with humour.
Yeah it is the most bizarre thing. It is bleak as shit but grief is also hilarious! Like, ‘how am I still hung up on small things from like ages ago?’ which is funny.
Yeah, I think it is. I think that’s what it’s kind of about. When you go through shit, it changes you. But I really like the person it’s changed me into!
Really? How so? That’s really fascinating. I haven’t heard that before but that sounds spot-on.
When you’ve been through something like that, you feel really resilient. You’re like ‘fuck I can handle anything!” I’ve already been through one of the hardest things in life years ago! I feel like I can take on shit. I don’t have that fear of bad things happening to me because I know I can handle it.
And I think lots of people don’t realise that they can handle these things. I dunno, I am weird. For fun I watch lectures on YouTube on different cultures’ approaches to death and dying because I find that fascinating.
Whose was the strangest?
Honestly? In Western culture we’ve got this really repressed attitude towards grief.
“I will not have any feelings or show any feelings.”
Yep. It’s almost like this outsourcing of grief where if you can pay someone else to do everything for you…
Yeah! That is so true and bleak.
I think it’s like, there’s only one way through grief and that is by embracing it. Death is part of life and you don’t have to like it, at all, but it is part of life.
When people are reminded of their own mortality it freaks them out. Responses can range from anger to fear and all that sort of stuff, but something strange happens when you go from that reminding someone of it to actually thinking about it and meditating on it and really dissecting what death is. It has the reverse effect; it makes people feel really calm and happy and have a huge appreciation for their life.
So it’s actually a very life-affirming thing. They call it ‘death-meditation’.
Yeah, it’s very life-affirming. It sounds like my show is really dark but it’s actually not. It’s bat-shit crazy. I’ve got this Creative Comedy Project Grant, so I’m working with a director, Emma Kinane. She’s super lovely. We’re taking it from being a normal stand-up show and making it something more theatrically dynamic, finding different ways to tell this story.
Like, there’s a bit where I dress up as my dad like ‘if my dead dad came to life for a day what would happen because he died in 1998?’ I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a lot of silliness there.
So how do you actually write all that stuff into a show?
It’s sort of fragmented into bits of storytelling and then bits of stuff that through research I’ve read about The Five Stages of Grief. The storyline is ‘this is how we navigate grief together’.
It’s basically how to navigate the minefield of grief. So it’s kind of a how-to, but at the end of the day it is saying that there is no formula for it. Everyone’s got their own way of coping and some people want to laugh about it and that’s actually OK, but if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to laugh about it that’s frickin’ OK too!
There’s no right response to it. I think people feel, when they’ve lost someone, they feel guilty when they feel OK. When you start feeling OK you’re like ‘Is this normal? Am I allow to not feel sad?’ and I think that can be more confronting to not feel sad and to laugh about it. If you’re having a joke about it people are like ‘What? What is wrong with you?’. But the people on the fringes who are in amongst it and like on the battlefield with you, they’re like having the same jokes. My cousin’s dad died around the same time as mine and that’s how we actually started the Dead Dads Club.
SH: Yeah because you just get so sick of people feeling sorry for you.
Absolutely. It’s so annoying.
Yeah it’s like ‘oh my gosh I’m so proud of you’ and you’re just like ‘fuck off, you’re not helping.’
I’ve got some graphs charting the rise and fall of sympathy. I’m trying to bring some maths into grief. I mean, any statistician would question my methods, but it makes sense to me.
The process of writing has been really difficult. I’ve been doing lots of workshopping and I’m finding a way now to handle the material because I find myself panicking on behalf of people when I don’t need to. Like I’m like ‘Ah! People are going to think I’m crazy!’ So I’ve tried out lots of different bits and now I feel like I’m finally getting a handle on the beast.
Because at the end of the day this is not an hour long therapy session. It’s meant to be really inclusive and it’s about connecting us rather than alienating people. I’m getting there I’m getting my handle on it but there have definitely been times where I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I make a show about puppies? People love puppies.’
You can book tickets to Dead Dads Club here.
Originally published on The Spinoff
DEAD DADS CLUB
Sarah Harpur jokes about suicide to disrupt the self-pitying mindset that we are encouraged to wallow in after the death of a loved one.
Capital Times (COVER STORY) – 21 April 2010- Dawn Tratt
SARAH Harpur’s dad committed suicide when she was 15.
She’s been fascinated with death ever since.
“[At school] I did my English project on the Bain murders,” she laughs, recalling how she re-enacted the murders with Barbie dolls with Bain family members’ faces stuck to their heads.
While studying at Film School, Harpur made a documentary on the Natural Burial Movement (an environmentally sustainable alternative to existing funeral practices).
“Death is the most inevitable and normal thing but people get uptight about it,” says Harpur, who features in First Laughs, which marks the launch of the NZ International Comedy Festival, this week.
The sneak preview will give the audience a taste of what to expect from her show Life. Death. Pets., which delves into the macabre topics of cat abortion, dog suicide, dead dads, and cannibalism.
“I’m not out to shock people but they are things that make me laugh, and that is what comes with being surrounded with all this death. It’s a coping mechanism.”
As well as dad, Harpur’s uncle and her mum’s uncle committed suicide, as did a number of men who lived close to their family farm in Dannevirke, where she grew up.
“Generally speaking I am more likely to die from suicide than cancer or heart disease but I like that because I can take control of that. You don’t have a choice with heart disease or cancer.”
Harpur’s new Facebook page “I Heart Dead Dads”, takes the Mickey out of people who feel uncomfortable talking about death, and aims to “provide therapy in the form of inappropriate comments – and relish in the stunned silence and awkward foot shuffling of those with fathers”.
The club encourages members to draw a picture of their dad in the state of decomposition they speculate he is in now.
“For example, my dad died 12 years ago, so I have depicted him as a mere skeleton with a few tufts of hair.”
An ironic theme song is also suggested, to honour the dead dad.
“My cousin’s dad died of a heart attack, so she chose My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion. My dad died of a suicide attempt that was very successful. His theme song is I Wanna Live by Good Charlotte.”
The Facebook idea stemmed from awkward conversations about her dad with strangers. She started feeling like a “buzz-kill” when people asked: “What do your parents do for a living?”
She says, often when she tried to steer the conversation away from her dad’s death, it would come up regardless.
“So after years of apologising and feeling bad, I found the best way to tackle these situations is with the spirit of the Dead Dads Club. The new scenario goes as follows: “What do your parents do?”
Answer: “Mum’s a cop, Dad committed suicide 12 years ago, but its OK, one of those things that was shit at the time, but funny in hindsight.”
“The beauty of the philosophy [is] simple, brutal, non-victimised honesty,” she says. “The goal of the Dead Dads Club is to disrupt the self-indulgent, self-pitying mindset that we are encouraged to wallow in after the death of a loved one.”
Harpur’s black sense of humour doesn’t stop with the subject of her father. Reading her blog (harpursbizarre.com) you’ll see she takes the piss out of just about anything, even her sister.
Sister Victoria, aka “The Shit Kid”, was a great support for Harpur when their father died. Harpur mocks Victoria for her “face-aids”, being painfully white, being lactose intolerant, and writing cliché-filled poetry about their dead father.
“Her poems sounded erotic. Like ‘I long to feel your touch’. It sounds like they were having a relationship. It was awful and hilarious,” laughs Harpur, who insists that mocking one another is a very Kiwi thing to do.
“That’s how we show each other we love one another. She gives me shit for being a pregnant teen.”
Harpur sat bursary six months pregnant, and passed. She also went to the school ball with “a gut full of arms and legs”.
Fortunately Seth, her nine year old son, doesn’t need to join the Dead Dads Club because he sees his dad often.
He is also very involved in Harpur’s comedy. He knows all of her show songs, which she will be performing next week, and enjoys singing along to the Dead Dads Club tunes.
First Laughs: 2010 NZ International Comedy Festival, Opera House, 7.30pm, April 25.
Life. Death. Pets. Fringe Bar, 7pm, April 27-May 1.
Capital Times (Cover Story) 17/02/2010
SARAH Harpur and Jim Stanton recommend wrapping your child’s head in gladwrap.
“I find it locks in essential moisture and keeps those nasty flies at bay. It is frowned upon in today’s society to have flyblown children with crow’s feet and liver spots,” says Harpur.
Don’t send in the lynch squad yet, however. Harpur and Stanton are The Comediettes, a female comedy duo with a sometimes ‘bizarre’ sense of humour.
Their latest act that features at the Fringe Festival, Better Living! provides a humorous stab at the tragic phenomena of home help infomercials.
“Traditional home-hints and good housekeeping are a great genre to subvert, as dangerous levels of cleanliness and forced smiles are tragi-comedy to begin with,” says Stanton.
Better Living! includes live ballads, hot tea, and handy hints including, “for the ultimate gingerbread man, try cooking a ginger man”.
It may also include inspiration from the things the ladies say they do to make their living better.
“I like to compete with my son. He’s only eight, so I can beat him at most things, and it makes me feel good about myself,” admits Harpur.
Stanton, on the other hand, constantly carries a tea bag in her wallet.
“I don’t want to meet a nice young man and take him home and then not have a decent cuppa on hand – how embarrassing,” she laughs. “If the kettle’s not on – it’s not on. Better Living!”
The duo agrees there has been a “boys club” attitude to comedy in the past, but say the scene is fast-changing.
“Female comics are regarded as being at the top of their game at the moment – UK’s Janey Godley, US’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Australia’s Hannah Gadsby…Oh, and I heard something about the Comediettes,” laughs Stanton.
Harpur says the pair fit right in anyway.
“I think it’s because I love eating steak and other forms of animal. Although, Jim is a vegetarian, but she has a boy’s name and does karate.”
Stanton says while smart and funny women are abound in the world, it takes a smart, funny and brave woman to become a comedienne. Neither of The Comediettes has a problem with dignity.
“I always had something to say, but as a quiet teenager I was a great observer rather than unleashing my thoughts. [That] resulted in some pretty overwrought folk songs,” laughs Stanton. “It turns out learning four chords came in handy for my Comediette uke playing – perhaps one day Paddocks Can’t Soak Up My Tears will be released on EP.”
The Comediettes’ Better Living! Fringe Bar, 17-20 February.