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.
Where to get help:
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 – this service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
Healthline – 0800 611 116
For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email email@example.com
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.