The best comedians make you feel like you’re not alone. They don’t just tell jokes; they exorcise their demons and tell you, “My life’s a mess, too.” You laugh out of recognition, and a warm wave of relief washes over you and the rest of the audience. This is the communal catharsis of comedy, which Michael Malone provides in his one-hour stand-up special, Laugh After Death, now streaming on Amazon.
Shot in beautiful black-and-white at the intimate, 60-seat Ice House Comedy Club in California, the special slowly builds up to serious subject matter, much like Malone did when he first started experimenting with the material.
After tales of weed, shoplifting and family pranks, Malone eases into the loss of his stepfather, Wayne, and his mother, Nancy, who died within a year-and-a-half of each other. He confesses to growing resentful of audiences while he was grieving. When he tells the Ice House crowd that he hated clubgoers like them, you can hear a pin drop. In this uncomfortable silence, the special’s heart starts to beat.
“Those gaps, those silences, that discomfort is where all the good stuff is,” Malone said.
For Malone, comedy is about much more than landing laughs. It’s about exploring the pain behind the punchlines. But it wasn’t until he tried to hide his grief that he realized how important it was to reveal on stage.
“Wayne had just passed, and I was back on tour doing stories about him, but I was still telling them in present tense,” he said. “I remember telling my girlfriend at the time that I felt like a fraud, like I was lying to the audience. It felt dirty. So the next night I talked about Wayne in past tense, and I even opened up a little and told the crowd about him recently passing. After the show, an older gentleman came up and hugged me, and I remember him smelling just like Wayne. In all my years I had never smelled anyone who wore the same cologne Wayne had until that moment. I took that as a sign.”
Shedding his armor and telling the truth made Malone feel like he was no longer “trapped on tour.”
“I started opening up more because I felt like it was helping people to hear that someone else was going through what they were,” he said. “Little did I know it was helping me as well. Those stories and hugs and moments I shared with audience members after my shows were unknowingly healing me. Those moments made me feel like I wasn’t alone, just like I was making them feel like they weren’t alone.”
Death isn’t exactly the funniest subject, but Malone inventively casts shades of humor on it. For example: After telling the audience that he lost Wayne, he says, “I hate that term. When somebody passes on and they say they lost them, it just sounds so irresponsible. We lost Grandpa. Do you remember the last place you had him? What jeans were you wearing that day?”
Laughter can be the best medicine. But what makes this special stand out is the fact that Malone isn’t concerned with being funny the whole time. Rather than racing toward the light at the end of the tunnel, he invites the audience to sit in the dark with him. By the end, you’ll be glad you did.