We live in a weird moment for suicide humour, where it seems simultaneously omnipresent yet also impossible to find. Go on social media, and you’ll find an endless amount of jokes about wanting to die from millennials. Lots has been written about this tendency and how it acts as a form of catharsis for a generation with very little to look forward to in life. It’s a way to spit up a bit of the poison that we’ve spent our whole lives ingesting, a source of relief and even community, as we signal a shared anxiety about the future to other people and their likes, shares, retweets, comments, etc. signal to us that we’re not alone. Or so the theory goes anyway.
I’ve enjoyed and participated in this kind of absurdist suicide humour plenty. I sincerely believe the change.org petition to “let people drink the red liquid from the dark sarcophagus” should be studied as a defining work of millennial neo-Dadaism. Who else has spoken for their generation so succinctly as petition author and video game programmer Innes McKendrick when he wrote “we need to drink the red liquid from the cursed dark sarcophagus in the form of some sort of carbonated energy drink so we can assume its powers and finally die”?
But I’ve begun to have my doubts about “lol please kill me” as the dominant genre of suicide joke in our age. Because it’s not really about suicide, is it? It’s about suicidality, about the abstract feeling of wanting to die, not about suicide as it happens in the world. While it can gesture at a wider context – e.g. tweeting “just put a bullet in my brain now” in response to some horrible news stories – there is something self-centred about it. Not selfish, but literally centred on the self, on the individual and how they feel inside. It’s always “I want to die” and “please kill me” and “every night I pray that a burst of gamma radiation from space will incinerate the atmosphere and end my suffering”. And that’s fine as part of a diversity of comic approaches to suicide, but I have to ask: where are the jokes about a hanging gone wrong? Where are the jokes about other people’s indifference to your pain? (“I told my therapist I was gonna kill myself. He said I have to start paying in advance.”) Where are the funny scenes of attempted suicide in mainstream comedies? I get a kick out of the occasional funny tweet about wanting to die, but the genre isn’t hospitable to other kinds of jokes, particularly jokes with scenarios and characters where we’re looking at suicidal people, not being them. When just one style of humour has become this totalising and suffocating, it’s not enough. It’s overplayed and unsatisfying and dull.
It also dovetails unsettlingly well with the growing tendency to treat mental illness, and therefore suicide, as an issue of individual brains and their damage. Mark Fisher, the left-wing writer who took his own life in 2017, wrote in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism that treating mental illness as purely an issue of brain chemistry, or even of personal health, is necessarily comorbid with the depoliticisation of mental health. “It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin.” We may agitate for more funding for mental health treatment, but if we don’t also agitate to change the social conditions that lead to such high rates of mental illness in the first place, it’s little different than fighting for medical care for the children of Flint, Michigan, but not fighting to get them lead-free water.
I’m not laying the responsibility to build a revolution at the feet of the mummy juice petition or any other similar jokes, obviously, but I am curious about the way these tendencies seem to have come of age together and how the first generation raised to think of mental illness and suicide this way is also (1) extremely mentally-ill and suicidal and (2) constantly joking about it in this particular style. I love suicide jokes, to a degree others often find unsettling, especially if they know I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking obsessively about murdering myself. I’m not here to shut down the party by any means, but Christ does it need some shaking up. We need more yucks from guns misfiring and melodramatic motivations.
We need Jack Lemmon.
Jack Lemmon, the greatest comedy actor of all time, starred in three films in the 60s that get laughs from his character wanting, trying and failing to kill himself. In The Apartment (1960), C.C Baxter (Lemmon) recounts a failed suicide attempt to his love interest, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) while nursing her back to health after an overdose spurred by the mistreatment of Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), her lover and their mutual boss. All three lead characters in Luv (1967) attempt suicide at least once in the first act. The Odd Couple (1968) opens with Felix Unger (Lemmon) renting a room in a cheap hotel just to jump out the window. None of these movies offer deep insight into the nature of suicide – Luv in particular treats it quite flippantly – and they’re hardly what you might call forward-thinking depictions of the topic. But in revisiting them all this year, I was surprised how refreshing they were.
Notably, none of them treat suicide as a mental health issue. Most are instigated by romantic angst – a breakup, a cheating partner, a stale marriage. Fran certainly has an air of despair about her that’s separate from, albeit not unrelated to, Sheldrake’s neglect, but it’s not depression exactly. It’s more like the ambient loneliness and hopelessness of life in the big city has curdled inside her, a reaction to the aimless feeling of her life. (You might say that kind of sounds like depression, but that goes to Fisher’s point about the medicalisation of emotional anguish.) Her suicide attempt, though, is driven by heartache and so was Baxter’s – he tells her about being in love with his best friend’s wife and, realising he could never be with her, buying a handgun and driving to a park in Cincinnati to shoot himself. (He pauses to ask her if she knows the area. She doesn’t.) He tells her about being unsure where to put the bullet, then tells her he ultimately shot himself in the knee: while trying to decide, a cop pulled up because he was illegally parked and he hid the gun under his seat and it went off. Frans laughs and winces at the same time. “Oh, that’s terrible”. He tells her he couldn’t bend his knee for a year, but he got over the girl in three weeks. It’s a lovely scene, shot in a single take, that deepens the bond between Baxter and Fran – and between Baxter and the audience. I’ve written before about how slapstick can “bind our sympathies to characters…even as we laugh at their misfortune”:
When down-on-their-luck characters like Chaplin’s Tramp fall over, we laugh at the physical event, but feel a twinge of guilt because of our sympathy for him, which we redouble to salve our guilt… Later, we’ll find it even funnier when the policeman trying to lock him up for loitering gets smacked in the face, because our sympathy lies with the Tramp.
The Apartment does something similar with Baxter’s suicide attempt. There are lots of little jokes in how he tells the story – asking Fran mid-spiel if she knows Cincinnati gets me every time – and even some physical comedy, as when Baxter matter-of-factly mimes shooting himself in the head, mouth and heart. But the punchline is that the big galoot got flustered by a traffic cop and shot himself in the knee and you feel a little awful for laughing, like Fran seems to, but it’s just funny, you can’t help it. You crack up and say “aw, poor Baxter” at the same time, so you’re all the more invested in Fran picking him over Sheldrake at the end. She runs through the streets of New York on New Year’s Eve, back to the titular apartment, and as she’s climbing the stairs, a shot rings out. Your heart drops just as hers does. She sprints to the door and starts pounding on it, screaming his name. When he finally answers – freshly-opened champagne bottle in hand – her relief is your relief. You couldn’t be happier these people found each other.
Lots of the best suicide humour does this work of binding us to characters. Brian’s revelation in The Breakfast Club that he got detention for bringing a gun to school to kill himself, except it was a flare gun and it went off in his locker. (“It’s not funny,” he insists, when Andrew starts laughing. But soon he’s laughing too and he concedes it is, actually, pretty funny.) Swiss Army Man, the truly unique and bizarrely uplifting black comedy about the friendship between a sad man called Hank and a farting corpse called Manny, opens with Hank preparing to hang himself after no one rescued him from the island where he’s marooned. It’s quite tragic, until he sees someone else washed up on the shore and he calls out to them. Hope at last! But then he slips and the noose is around his neck and he’s choking, he’s fading, but then the noose breaks and he sprints to the beach. Except it’s not a person, it’s a dead body, and he’s just wasted his one opportunity to kill himself on a corpse. And then the corpse farts! It’s an extraordinary sequence, and the way it zigs and zags and twists back and turns over itself, milking all the sadness and humour out of Hank’s predicament leaves you wincing at your own laughter.
The Odd Couple does something similar – albeit less absurd – with its opening scene. It makes such a meal out of Felix paying for the room in the hotel, asking for a higher room, walking to the room and putting his valuables in an envelope for his family, only for him to find the window is bolted shut. (He throws his back out trying to open it.) The sympathy bonding is particularly important in this movie, because we’re supposed to be on Felix’s side when he moves in with his slovenly best friend Oscar (Walter Matthau) following his divorce, and gradually get driven mad along with Oscar by Felix’s anal cleaning habits and excessive organisation.
But The Odd Couple also takes a more satirical look at suicide in one of its two famous poker scenes. Felix’s friends are playing a hand in Oscar’s disgusting apartment, squabbling and bantering and wondering where he is, when one of them gets a call from his wife to say Felix is missing. Oscar calls Felix’s wife and finds out they’re separating and that Felix has gone to kill himself. (“He left her a note?” “No, he sent her a telegram.”) They start debating if Felix will follow through on the threat (“He’s too nervous to kill himself. He wears a seatbelt at a drive-in movie.”) and then, when he arrives at the poker game, arguing over whether to tell Felix they know or play it cool. They choose to play it cool because, well, they’re men and men don’t talk about their feelings, even if one of them is imminently suicidal. It’s one of my favourite gags about men being emotionally closed-off. Vinny, who answers the door, tries so hard to be nonchalant that he almost closes the door in Felix’s face. They tell him, as he sits there visibly defeated and crestfallen, that nobody has called for him. They’re so uncomfortable with emotional honesty they just pretend they don’t know what’s going on as he makes foreboding comments (“I just don’t feel much like playing right now.” “What do you feel like doing?” “I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”) and stares out the eleventh-storey window.
It’s a perfect scene, never more so than when Felix goes to the bathroom and the whole table gets up to listen in at the door and argue more about whether he’s gonna do it. (Oscar: “That’s the kids’ bathroom. The worst he could do is brush his teeth to death.”) They hear him crying and remark on how awful it is, then sprint back to the table when they hear him getting up. Until the exact moment Felix breaks down weeping in front of them, they refuse to let on anything’s amiss, even at the risk of increasing his despair or enabling his death. It’s hilarious how repressed they are. The film makes them look like complete tools.
The Odd Couple and The Apartment are two of the best comedy films ever, and they way they use suicide humour is specific and purposeful. Both bind our sympathies to characters, both pay off in the final act, and The Odd Couple’s lampooning of repressed masculinity still feels, if not fresh, then depressingly relevant. A modernisation could change nothing at all about the poker scene without stretching credulity. But there’s a trap in only reaching for examples that justify the use of suicide jokes, as if they can’t just be funny for their own sake. Luv shows they can.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote in a contemporaneous review that “If your whim is for absolute nonsense, you should enjoy ‘Luv.’” I could hardly agree more. Trashed on release and forgotten since, Luv may well be trying to say something about life that got lost in translation from its award-winning stage production to its big flop on the screen, but I don’t care. I like it because it’s very funny, with lots of weird, silly gags and a truly demented lead performance from Jack Lemmon as Harry Berlin. Luv also opens with its lead preparing to jump to his death, from the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, only to be interrupted by a passer-by who turns out to be his old pal from college, Milt Manville (Peter Falk). Milt startles Harry, who grasps the lamppost he was leaning on, and shakes Harry’s hand even as he’s still standing on the ledge, seemingly oblivious to the fact he’s just stopped him killing himself. It’s not until the next scene, when Harry lies under a front loader at a construction site (it misses him) that Milt realises and takes him to a bar to get him a stiff drink. (Harry asks for two-thirds water, one-third milk.) Lest we find our sympathies bound to him, the film has Harry give the silliest reason ever for wanting to kill himself, a lifelong despair triggered by an incident shortly after graduation:
HARRY: Sunday afternoon. Hot! Lazy Sunday afternoon. I was sitting in the park, just thinking of the future. Daydreaming. Suddenly, I looked up and there in front of me was—how am I gonna put it in words, Milt? It was a dog. A fox terrier. Swear it was a fox terr—I think it was a fox terrier, you can’t tell with those little dogs…
MILT: Harry, let’s just say it was a dog.
HARRY: It was a dog, Milt.
MILT: A dog. Right. Good.
HARRY: And it was there in front of me, just sitting on its hind legs. The thing of it was, Milt, he was laughing. As loud and as clear as I’m talking to you right now, he was laughing! I couldn’t believe what was…then he got up. And he came up to me. When he got up to me, Milt, he raised his leg and…
HARRY: All over my gabardine pants! Then he just turned around and walked away. All so unreal and senseless. Why me? Out of all of the people, hundreds and thousands of people! Why me? Can you give me a reason? Huh? That started it.
Harry is not a sympathetic character and his death wish is portrayed as very silly just for the sake of the gags. There might be a little satire in his third attempt: Milt shows Harry his small suburban back garden and Harry asks if this is the reward for diligence, self-confidence and perseverance. Milt says it is and Harry immediately tries to hang himself from a tiny tree. But the movie isn’t a satire on the American Dream and mostly what’s funny about it is the visual of Harry trying to hoist himself up on a wisp of a tree that still has a post holding it straight. Milt and his wife, Ellen (Elaine May), will both try to stab themselves in the heart before the first act is done, Milt because Ellen won’t divorce him and Ellen because Milt is obviously cheating on her. And again, it’s treated as very silly: both try to use comically-large knives to do it and both almost stab Harry when he tries to stop him. Suicide in Luv is just there as a setup for gags and it’s marvellous.
I’ve been scratching my head for a while now trying to figure out why, in a time when a certain kind of suicide joke is extremely common online, when suicide jokes in aggregate must surely be far more common than ever before in history, it’s just this one genre. None of these Jack Lemmon movies are outside the norm for their time in using suicide humour fairly casually. Elaine May’s directorial debut A New Leaf (1971) has a scene where a newly-bankrupt ex-millionaire struggling to choose whether to kill himself or marry for money synthesises the two into a plot to marry and murder a rich woman. The same year, Harold and Maude featured numerous extremely funny fake suicides by its death-obsessed male lead, including hanging, drowning and seppuku. The Apartment, Luv and The Odd Couple are all tonally quite different, and use suicide humour in sometimes similar but mostly divergent ways. But what struck me about all of them is that they don’t make a big hullabaloo about a topic that’s usually treated with more reverence nowadays.
I appreciate that might seem like a weird complaint, that people take suicide too seriously to write jokes about it now, especially since I’m on record stressing how seriously we need to take suicide on this very website. But I don’t think they’re contradictory opinions, I think they’re actually two sides of the same coin.
Back in 2010, the veteran Irish journalist Vincent Browne joked on TV that the then-leader of the opposition Enda Kenny should go into a dark room with a gun and a bottle of whiskey given his political prospects. You may well find that tasteless. I certainly did at the time, as did many others. A complaint was lodged, Browne apologised a few days later, and it mostly blew over. I remember that a lot of the criticism towards Browne referenced the high rate of suicide in the country at the time: it had been falling for a while but spiked after the financial crisis. The suggestion, presumably, was that it was especially uncouth to make such a frivolous remark about suicide when so many people were killing themselves every week. Just six months later, Kenny became Taoiseach, the head of the Irish government, and went on to oversee one of the most ruthless austerity regimes in Europe, one that would be held up as a model of fiscal responsibility even as it stopped gains in Irish life expectancy dead in their tracks and increased the suicide rate.
When I talk about a misplaced reverence for suicide, this is what I mean. The majority of complaints towards Browne came from Kenny’s constituency and it seems reasonable to assume many, if not most, were from his supporters. They were shocked – shocked, I tell you! – that anyone would make light of suicide and then elected someone whose policies caused actual suicides. And you can’t even say “well, he hadn’t done that yet”, because they re-elected him in 2016. He’s still their TD now! We talk a lot about the silence surrounding mental health and suicide as a result of stigma and people, particularly men, not feeling they can be open about their struggles. It’s very common nowadays to see people at least performatively speak out in an attempt to break that silence. Celebrities open up about their depression. People put up Facebook statuses about how they’re always there if you need to talk and some of them are probably even sincere. Everyone wants to make a big show of just how seriously they take these issues, but, at least from where I’m standing, it does kind of seem like it’s mostly just show, not action. It’s a seriousness almost exclusively about how we talk about suicide, not about suicide itself.
Whenever another young person in my area takes their own life – and it is a regular event here, a predictable feature of life like the coming and going of the seasons – it’s always discussed in a very particular way, almost like a script: “Come here, did you hear about that young wan down in Carrick? Ah, it’s awful isn’t it. Do they know why or was it just…? Terrible, terrible. Come here, was it pills or did she…? Ah right. Shocking, isn’t it?” And that’s the entire conversation, at least until the next time it happens. They’re not talking about it in the meantime and they’re certainly not doing anything to stop it.
How is it we spend so much time talking about how we’re not talking about suicide and so little time talking about suicide, let alone organising to transform our society into one where people don’t kill themselves constantly? There are lots of reasons, obviously, but part of it is that reverence brings its own kind of silence. You can see this with how people talk, or don’t talk, about other things. 9/11 in the US is an obvious example. It’s almost exclusively spoken of with a respect and solemnity typically reserved for the sacred, to the extent that it’s often quite difficult in the US to talk with any kind of nuance about how 9/11 was used as an impetus for the unjust and illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and a psychotic expansion of both the president’s executive authority and state surveillance apparatus.
A less dramatic example I think of often is Irish writer Hugh Travers’ idea for a sitcom set during the Irish Famine, a script for which was commissioned by British broadcaster Channel 4 but never even went into development due to outcry from, frankly, a bunch of humourless farts who publicly wet themselves over the mere idea of an idea for a sitcom. I take the Famine very seriously, so much so that it weirds out people in my life, but the notion it’s too sacred of a cow to find humour in it, when it’s not so sacred a cow that we’ve learned enough from it to oppose laissez-faire capitalism, abolish landlords or make sure no one ever goes hungry on this island ever again, is ludicrous. I see the same reverence around suicide and I feel the silence snarl back when I crack a joke about suicide, or even mention one I like.
If the silence around suicide kills – and it obviously plays its part, even though the larger structural reasons why people become suicidal are more important – then it doesn’t matter whether it’s born of stigma or solemnity. It suffocates all the same. I watch the suicide comedies of Jack Lemmon (or at least these three – I’m not in a rush to watch Buddy, Buddy) and I feel a weight lifted off my chest. It’s such a relief to be free of the shallow seriousness that says some things can’t be joked about. The truth is I just like suicide jokes. It was hilarious when Elton John said Brian McFadden’s song “Irish Son” was so bad he had to turn it off in case he killed himself. The protagonists of Heathers staging their first murder to look like a suicide pact between closeted gay jocks, leading to one of their fathers wailing “I love my dead gay son” over his corpse, is possibly the funniest joke in any teen movie ever. I love suicide jokes in part because they help me process my darkness, sure. But mostly I love them because I love jokes and that’s all the reason I need. Sometimes, suicide is funny.