Is OK to Spoof the Dead? Comedy Writer Jim Earl's Book Mourning Remembrance Tries It
It is said that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead. No proverb, however, seems to proscribe writing about the dead with a dark, cutting sense of humor and a jaundiced appraisal of their worldly accomplishments.
Mourning Remembrance: A Collection of Mocking Obituaries Ripped From the Deadlines is the work of former Daily Show writer and current Echo Park resident Jim Earl, and in it Earl diligently skewers the obituaries of such real notables, icons and semi-luminaries as bundt cake pan creator H. David Dalquist, security firm founder George Wackenhut and ant farm creator Milton Levine.
"Milton Levine, creator of the popular Ant Farm that gave countless children a personal look into the underground lives of insects, is now giving countless ants a personal look into his gallbladder," he writes.
Mourning Remembrance offers a generous bounty of humorous tidbits, with obits accompanied by the occasional caricature from artist Nathan Smith.
"When you read someone's obit," says Earl, "they usually follow the same thread: when and how they died, why they were famous, some personal anecdotes from their lives, and how they're going to be disposed of. A treasure trove of joke opportunities! Basically, it's very hard to read an obituary without thinking about all the funny parts."
Earl actually started writing his reconstructed, comedic obituaries back during his tenure on The Daily Show but the pace increased when he moved over to Marc Maron's Air America Radio show, Morning Sedition, where Earl would read them live on air every week. Having nearly eight years worth of the "disrespectful" bits -- his own term -- he decided to cram them all into a nice coffee table/reference book that would make for light yet slightly morbid reading.
"I just wait around for good people to die." Earl declares. "Obviously, they can't be just anybody. It has to be someone like Charles Walgreen or John DeLorean. Or the guy who founded Taco Bell, the guy who owned the Segway company, or the inventors of the neutron bomb, the TV dinner and the TV remote."
He notes that the man who owned the Segway company -- James Heselden -- died from falling over a 30-foot cliff while on his Segway. "'Scooter plus '30-foot ravine' equals 'humiliating obituary,'" he adds.
A UC Berkeley graduate who got involved, post-college, in the scrappy, irreverent San Francisco comedy scene centered around the legendary club Holy City Zoo, Earl performed in the duo "Lank & Earl" with his old high school friend Barry Lank for 10 years before getting onto The Daily Show. He then continued on to Air America as a writer and performer, where he worked with Maron, who wrote the book's foreword. The afterword is by Rachel Maddow.
While Earl still writes and performs sketches with many who are on the creatively "left" side of the comedic spectrum, his primal influences tend toward historic legends.
"I think W.C. Fields was a subversive genius. Buster Keaton as well. And early Bob Hope," he says. "But Bob & Ray and Franken & Davis are my favorites. They're very subtle and smart, and their comedy is never dated."
He then relates a story of "sort of" working with Al Franken when they were both at Air America, and by that he means when he saw Franken the first day, the now-U.S. senator was none too talkative, and they never saw him again.
But back to the matter of influences -- Earl mentions his love of serious, often dense and heady literature. "I love Russian and Soviet authors like Bulgakov, Zamyatin and Gogol, and picaresque writers like Grimmelshausen. He had a really funny take on the Thirty Years' War, not that the Thirty Years' War wasn't hilarious to begin with."
Given the subject matter of his funny obits, have there ever been adverse reactions?
"After all the live performances and published obits over the years, I've only gotten two complaints," he says. "One guy complained about a joke I wrote about Ronald Reagan's brain. The other person didn't like me saying the founder of the group Bread was now 'toast.'"
Besides the humor, this book serves as a sort of bizarro Cliff's Notes of strange but true facts for grown-ups. Jammed with the names and deeds of Americans who achieved something great (or, in a few cases, horrible) enough to warrant a top-billing, bold-font obituary in a major newspaper, absorbing the pages will enable any reader to become more weirdly impressive in cocktail party conversation and perhaps teach a community college course entitled Offbeat Modern American History 102. While a few odd cases (brutal mob hitman, political mass murderer, etc.) deserve the reader's judgmental scorn and a genuine disapproving hiss, the overwhelming majority were reasonably decent folk following the American dream of industriousness, ambition and notable achievement. Whether Horace Hagedorn, founder of Miracle-Gro plant food, Flora Jacobs, the world's foremost authority on dollhouses, or celebrity dwarf John Rice, most all of the deceased in Mourning Remembrance deserve to be recognized, honored and perhaps chuckled at... respectfully.
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