Tragicomedia with comedy writer, Joe Janes on truthful memorialization

comedy writer, Joe Janes Joe tickled by Mom stoically eating his tofurkey. Mom openly guzzling “horrible things” like caffeine-free diet coke in front of her vegan son. Honoring these mischievous moments and more when Tragicomedia’s Nancy Gershman talks with Joe Janes,  a Chicago-based Emmy award-winning comedy writer. Joe teaches comedy writing at The Second City and Columbia College and offers an improvisational writing workshop, “3 Plays. 3 Days. An Intense Writing Intensive.” Joe writes regularly for WNEP Theater and Robot vs. Dinosaur. Visit Joe on his website,

Cracking up at a funeral is good for you 
How to pick a person to sit with the dying  
Bright church lighting connects a community of mourners
Don’t overthink the interior design of a grave
The comfort of whimsical, animated objects at the gravesite
Pressing each other’s buttons are precious comedic moments 
Your To Do List

Cracking up at a funeral is ok because expressing emotions is good for you

“Cracking up at funerals is most probably a defense mechanism with me, where I’m trying to distance myself from the tragedy. But sometimes it’s because the mortuary work is so ludicrous. I went to my grandmother, Lavina Janes’ funeral and she had glasses on in the casket. But I don’t remember her ever wearing glasses even at the nursing home! It just looked like some funeral director found her a pair of reading glasses, closed her eyes and left no reading material with her.”

How to pick a person to sit with the dying

“This friend from college, Melissa or “Mel” as we liked to call her, passed away from ovarian cancer. She was a member of our Generic Comedy Troupe. In ’99, we thought she was on the rebound and so we organized a reunion. Our friend Brad brought her because she was supposedly getting better but she looked really frail. Anyway, on that weekend she had a downturn and we had to take her to the hospital. As I said, Mel had thought things were turning around and was saying out loud, “Why is this happening to me?” But there was no answer to that.

Some of us by nature are more nurturing than others. So we sent Tommy in to her hospital room. He’s very empathetic, kind, and he’ll listen to you and really be there for you. So he was holding her hand, letting her know we all love her.

Mel was an amazing actress with a gift of wonderful comedic timing. But she also could be grounded and serious. If it were the 1930s, she’d be Katherine Hepburn– hanging with the guys, smoking cigars and putting people in her place. Next minute she’d be looking at you like you just did the dumbest thing on the planet and she’d get a good laugh out of it.

Most importantly, on a bare stage with just some tables and chairs, she could make magic happen. Maybe that’s why it was fitting that at Mel’s funeral over Thanksgiving, her church was very modern, unlike any Catholic church I ever attended. We called it “Our Lady of The Feng Shui” because it was so open: a sort of huge modern triangle, with the congregation sitting in a semi-circle.”

Bright lighting at a funeral service connects you to a community of mourners

“On a good level, the church where we held Mel’s funeral was not only very open but super well lit, and you could see everyone. I think that bright lighting was why I felt so connected with the other mourners around me.

Compare Mel’s funeral to my mom’s funeral, which took place in a banquet room with theatrical style seating and soft lighting. The minister officiating didn’t know my mom but delivered the funeral she wanted: a formal, Christian service with no real eulogy. I made the suggestion that I could read something, and the minister said, “Oh yeah, great.” Still, I kind of felt alone in the room – so closed off – and only connected to my dad sitting who was sitting right next to me. The only sense of the life my mom had was a slide show set to cheesy music.

I feel funerals have a real potential to be a celebration of the person. That’s why I think it’s better for a funeral to make a connection to a community of people who love the deceased, rather than a handful of family members at a small, closed service. I’m using the word “community” here much in the same way we do in theater. A funeral is no different from the process of putting together a show and presenting it to the audience … our community. At a funeral, you should feel in touch with the human being who’s being celebrated. And you do that by having lots of conversation with family and friends, but also with people you’ve never met before who knew the departed.

Mel’s cemetery service was, if anything, overcrowded. At some point there was no way to even get in.”

Don’t over-think the interior design of a grave

“I’ve never really thought much about the dead and how they’re buried in the ground because that’s not them.  I prefer telling stories about the dead, and keeping their memory alive that way.

But I remember being interested in how things work at my mom’s gravesite; the mechanics of everything at the cemetery. The casket was raised above the hole in the ground and off to the side there was a little pick-up truck with a crane in the back. In the ground was this big plastic flowerpot-type thing, the size of a bathtub. I said to the funeral director, “Excuse me, but what is that?” Apparently, a lot of states require these things in case of flooding, and to keeps animals out. To me it still looked like a cheap but industrial strength flowerpot. And then they lay down The Slab, which seemed so, in a way, unnecessarily finite.

I couldn’t resist. “Is that in case she turns into a zombie and won’t be able to get out”? I asked the funeral director. He leans into me and says, “That’s exactly right.””

The comfort of whimsical, animated objects at the gravesite

“I visited Mom’s grave three years later, and was surprised when suddenly I got all choked up.  It was a spur-of-the-moment-cry. Something had shifted on her gravestone. I fixed it and then noticed somebody had planted a pinwheel on her grave and the pinwheel started turning. I didn’t feel like, oh my, mom’s here. It was more like this whimsical thing which helped make me feel connected to her body.”

You loved pressing each other’s buttons. Now honor those comedic moments

“A picture of the deceased smiling – that’s always good. But how often do people include pictures of the deceased letting down their guard? We all know that those smiling studio shots are not the only way you know somebody. Thinking about the slide show at Mom’s funeral, I now wish I had thrown in a picture of her looking perturbed doing her oh, Joseph, mock-sour face. While she was alive, I’d always find ways to make her do that face… that is, push her buttons. That’s what you do when you’re family.

Like, I’m a vegetarian and Mom was not. I remember bringing a tofurkey to the Thanksgiving table one year just to hear that oh, Joseph!  I remember we cooked it up; she ate it – but very reluctantly. “That’s very nice” was all she could say, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t like it all.

I also like the idea of love-hate mementos. In other words, I love Mom but I also hated how much she loved her Tab and caffeine-free Diet Cokes. What a horrible thing to put in your body! But it was a staple in her diet. If I were to make some kind of memory picture, I would definitely include her soda cans.”

Your To Do List

1.  Have you ever “pressed the buttons” of someone you loved who has since died … solely because it put one or both of you in a good humor?  Write down:

  • Who this person was ; their relationship to you and your relative ages
  • the exact nature of the button-pressing (example: Joe the vegan making his mom eat the tofurkey)
  • What did you eagerly anticipate? (example: An adored facial expression of annoyance?  A scream of horror and a mad run out of the room?)
  • Who enjoyed it more? And was the delight (secretly) mutual?

2. Do you have any photographs documenting that moment of unadulterated glee? If not, consider consulting a memory artist to recreate the scene for you digitally out of family photos you might have, plus any other photos that could be found through photo research. With the right questions, she should be able to tease out all the historical details needed to make a surprisingly good facsimile of that memory.