2023 Is the Year of Traumedy
In the most recent entry of Jason Zinoman’s “On Comedy” column, titled “That’s the Funny Thing About Grief,” the prolific New York Times comedy critic dissected the modern movement within American stand-up comedy to process loss, trauma, abuse — process every traditionally unfunny topic through a medium typically known for things like “jokes” and “levity.”
This trend is plainly apparent to anyone who has watched a Netflix special released in the last few years – Zinoman describes the subgenre by quoting Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan’s descriptor of “traumedy,” a class of comedy that threatens to devolve into a therapy session wherein the patient is the one who gets paid handsomely by a theater full of captive counselors. Zinoman argues that, while some online critics complain that “navel-gazers” like Hannah Gadsby who use comedy specials as a crutch in the healing process shouldn’t even count as comedians, “This policing of genre boundaries does comedy no favors. A flexible, broad art form is a healthy one.”
To be clear, comedy intermingling with tragedy is not a new concept in stand-up — George Carlin, Richard Pryor and many other greats have mined their most horrific experiences for artistic value. As Sam Morrison quipped in his heartbreaking breakthrough show Sugar Daddy, “What is trauma but unmonetized content?” However, the new generation of so-called “broken toys” has brought about a shift in focus toward the dismally intimate that demands examination, as Zinoman has done diligently.
Here are some of the most depressingly personal contemporary comics and comedy specials cited in “That’s the Funny Thing About Grief”…
Tig Notaro, ‘Live’
An iconic and personal performance engraved in comedy history, Zinoman identifies Tig Notaro’s 2012 special Live as a catalyst for the budding traumedy movement. Notaro lost her mother and received a cancer diagnosis in short succession, leading to one of the most emotionally impactful comedy sets in stand-up history. Notaro started the set with the legendary line, “Hello, I have cancer! How are you? Is everybody having a good time?”
Liz Glazer, ‘A Very Particular Experience’
Writer, comic and former law professor Liz Glazer released A Very Particular Experience, her debut stand-up album about the death of her stillborn daughter, earlier this month. Described as “a comedy show meets shiva,” Glazer’s hour opens unflinchingly with, “I hope you like stillbirth.”
Michael Cruz Kayne, ‘Sorry for Your Loss’
Michael Cruz Kayne’s one-man show explores the death of his infant son over 10 years and the difficulty grieving parents have in discussing an indescribable loss. Currently playing in Greenwich Village, Kayne warns the audience of Sorry for Your Loss that the show will make them cry — and, “If you don’t, that’s rude.”
Hannah Gadsby, ‘Nanette’
Needing little introduction for anyone familiar with traumedy, Gadsby’s 2018 post-comedy special dissected the dangers of self-deprecation and the emotionally stunting power of a punchline. As awarded as it was criticized, Nanette earned Gadsby an Emmy, a Peabody and a GLAAD award — as well as the ire of Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle and most male comedy fans on the internet.
Ali Siddiq, ‘The Domino Effect 2’
Ali Siddiq spent six years in prison for trafficking cocaine, losing friends, family and his freedom to the drug trade. While behind bars, Siddiq discovered his gift for storytelling and comedy, and, upon his release, he would spend the next 25 years on the outside building a comedy career culminating in last month's The Domino Effect 2, a raw, real and engrossing exploration of loss and redemption.