This first-person essay by Shawn Cuthand, a comedian based in Saskatoon, is part of CBC’s Opinion section.
I had been pursuing stand-up comedy for over three years when the COVID-19 pandemic brought that to a halt, at least in a traditional sense.
Us comedians have had to get creative in reaching audiences this past year. I found myself performing in backyards, a buddy’s shop, on Zoom — but even I couldn’t have predicted doing a tight five at a family funeral.
In June, I lost my outspoken, Pepsi-loving aunty, who was an influential person in my young adult life.
My dad and I drove across the country to Cornwall Island, Ont., to meet with my mom in her home reserve of Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. Once there, we had to prepare for a COVID-style funeral restricted to close friends and family.
In the midst of all the planning, no one had written a eulogy. I agreed to do it faster than I have for any corporate gig.
My aunty’s voice had always been like an Obi-Wan Kenobi in the back of my head when it came to performing stand-up, because years ago, when I did the eulogy at my brother’s funeral, she told me that I could be a public speaker one day. Those words carried a lot of weight with me.
My aunty was hilarious, so I already had a couple of jokes involving her I had been working on previous to the pandemic. And just like that, this eulogy became a seven-minute set. My aunty was also an outspoken person, so I felt it would be fitting to use comedy. Would my family feel the same way?
I gave it a shot, beginning by telling a story of when I walked into the kitchen one night to hear weird sexual noises. I started re-enacting the scene, which certainly got the attention of my other aunties. Their disapproving eyes told me they were wondering where I was going with this story and that I had better be careful with my next words. The story revealed that it was my late aunty drinking — and voraciously enjoying — some Pepsi … in the dark. That had everyone laughing.
That moment of uncertainty with the crowd is what comedians crave, and here I was pulling it off at my aunty’s memorial.
A few months later, I found myself performing at a fundraiser for a dearly departed friend. When she had passed away, COVID-19 restrictions were so tight that only a small funeral was possible, so this event was supposed to be closure for me.
This time when I tried to laugh in the face of death, it bombed worse than an Ellen Degeneres tweet.
Upon reflection, I realized that my life had been so consumed with comedy, that it became the Band-Aid to deal with these two losses. – Shawn Cuthand
We were heckled, ignored and talked over. Mid-set, as I was finally gaining a bit of momentum, the greatest techs in the biz dragged a ladder to the middle of the floor and began adjusting the spotlight. I watch too much WWE and was right triggered. I was thinking of more ways to take them out with that ladder than the ladder had steps.
I diva-ed down and waited patiently. But as I resumed my set, a drunk woman yelled “white power” in the middle of a joke. I had planned to share a personal anecdote about my friend, but the way things went, I no longer had the energy for it.
Upon reflection, I realized that my life had been so consumed with comedy, that it became the Band-Aid to deal with these two losses. The situations were completely different: one was a controlled environment and the other was an uncontrolled petri dish of unsavoury-ness.
The pandemic has brought grief to everyone. It was surreal for me that I was dealing with two big losses using laughter — that I’m out here experimenting with humour like some mad scientist — but maybe that is what this topsy-turvy period calls for, at times.
If you’re going to use laughter as medicine, you better make sure it has a punch. You don’t want to lead your loved ones on to something that bombs.
And as comedians are adapting and finding new ways to make money during these times, hit me up for my new eulogy writing service. Who knows how many sleepless nights I have had thinking of my own loved ones’ eulogies, might as well put it to use. Call it “Cuthand Cries 4 U.”
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