On Inauguration Day 2017, New York-based comedian Ben Wassermanʼs father died—the first in what would turn out to be a series of deaths in his life over the next three years, including his grandfather, his uncle, and four friends. Wasserman, whose past comedic work included a segment for MTV where he painted with his butt, takes a deep dive into grief in Live After Death, an interactive comedic solo show he developed in part through performances in an actual funeral home. (At one point, Wasserman juggles balls representing the people he’s lost while an audience member reads prompts about other things going on in his life, including his grandmother’s dementia and his battle with kidney stones.) He’s now touring the show and will be performing December 13 at Lincoln Lodge. Maggie Winters, a Reader Best of Chicago 2021 winner for “best comedian (non stand-up)” opens.
I talked to Wasserman about what it’s been like for him to perform what he called “the last show I’d ever wanna have to do.”
Kerry Reid: You hadn’t really leaned into autobiographical material prior to doing this show, correct?
Ben Wasserman: I, for the most part, was always just sort of like your standard-issue goofy weirdo guy who would go up with some sort of high concept. I’ve got bits where I’m like a meditation coach and the whole joke is just that I’m an angry guy trying to make people meditate. Or I would be Britain’s number one insult comedy duo, and then it would only be me, and I’d get an audience member to help me insult the rest of the crowd in a British accent. Really untethered, goofy, stupid stuff. And then I started losing people, and I could not help but talk about it. And I happened to be on stage, and so it sort of just bled into my comedy.
How much of your previous performing persona is still present in Live After Death?
Oh, it’s all there. This sounds gross to say out loud. But I would say I’m firing on all cylinders in terms of who I am, my comedic voice. And I’m also meeting people with material that’s a little bit more approachable, maybe. The whole goofy sensibility and fun persona kind of thing is still thoroughly there. It’s just now mitigated by, you know, more somber topics.
Live After DeathTue 12/13 8:30 PM, Lincoln Lodge, 2040 N. Milwaukee, 773-251-1539, thelincolnlodge.com, $15
Your mom was at one of the shows I saw on a clip you sent. How has she reacted to your doing this personal material in front of audiences?
She’s been wholly supportive. There’s never been a moment where I was thinking, “I should probably run this by her or something,” only because ultimately this is my truth. So she has no say, but there were a couple things within the show that at first I was a bit hesitant about her seeing. Just in terms of, “Is this gonna trigger her?” I was worried that there’s one moment in the show that’s pretty vulnerable in exposing our shared loss and our experience with it. [The grandfather and uncle that Wasserman lost were his mother’s father and brother.] I was worried that she would break down crying in the middle of the show, but then she was just cracking up the whole time. That was nice.
Was developing it at a funeral home a deliberate choice? Did you just call up the funeral home director and say, “Hey, I’m a comedian, and I’m doing a show about death?”
I’ve done it in a funeral home. I have it lined up next year for a couple more funeral homes and cemeteries and a casket factory. It’s very purposeful. My friend is a funeral director and was, at the time, the funeral director of Sparrow Funeral Home [in Brooklyn]. We were at a party, and I was telling her that I had this new show that I’m gonna start workshopping, and she was like, “Oh, you should do it at the funeral home.” Then a few months later, I did the first one at the funeral home and it sold out. Then we were like, “Hey, let’s do this every month.”
Were people more accepting of the premise since it was outside the realm of a usual comedy venue?
I’ve done the show in regular comedy venues, bars, jazz clubs, record stores, and funeral homes. And I would say that people come to the show at the funeral home with a bit more—it’s hard to say if it’s more openness, but definitely there is, like, an extra something in the air. The funeral home shows were always really special. The vibe in the room was one of, “Oh, we’ve all lost people, we’re all in community together based on that.” And now we’re sharing in this wacky, chaotic show experience kind of thing. I don’t love thinking of comedy as an art, but I would say that this show in the funeral home or in a cemetery or something like that does do something along the lines of creating a more special environment for people to approach the material and to open up. Because a lot of the show is interactive, I think it engenders a little bit of vulnerability and openness and just sort of, like, gets death on the mind in a way that a regular comedy venue might not necessarily.
It feels cliche to say “COVID changed everything,” but what’s it like doing this show in light of the pandemic?
Before all the shutdowns in 2020, I had finally decided, “OK, here’s a full-length solo show I can do about grief and loss, and I’m gonna hit the road.” The tour was slated for the last week of March 2020. Obviously that wound up being canceled. And then I spent the next almost two years just watching everyone deal with loss. And it sort of shifted my perspective on what this show could be or should be. Before COVID hit, the show was very much about my loss and my experience with grief and super autobiographical and yada yada yada. And then once it was, like, obvious that everyone was in some way grieving, and quite robustly, I was like, “It would be more interesting to kind of engage with others about their loss.”
I had an extra two years to kind of—not get over it, but get more accustomed to my grief, and know that life continues. The initial emotional balance of the material wasn’t hitting as much for me personally anymore. And so I thought it would be more interesting and probably more conducive to the vibe of the show if I shifted from it being exclusively about my losses and more kind of just creating a conversation about everyone in the room’s experience with loss and grief and deaths and mortality.