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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When her mom was dying of covid-19, ‘Conan’ writer Laurie Kilmartin turned tragedy into comedy. It’s what she does.

Comedian Laurie Kilmartin outside her home in Burbank, Calif. (Peter Bohler for the Washington Post)

Laurie Kilmartin doesn’t flinch from brutal truths while sitting before a small screen. She began the summer by monitoring her mother’s medical status on an iPad. Now, on a recent Friday night in front of her computer, her bright eyes stare squarely at her virtual audience.

“I’ve had a pretty interesting pandemic,” Kilmartin, a stand-up comic, tells her Zoom room. “My mother actually died of covid about five weeks ago.” (“Awww,” some sympathetic listeners reply.)

“Thank you very much,” Kilmartin says without missing a beat. “She was a Trump supporter who got covid, so the coroner ruled her death a suicide.” (“Ooooh,” some listeners wince.) “The actual cause of death just said: ‘her vote.’ ” (Ooohs, then laughter.)

Every punchline is landing because Kilmartin — a writer for TBS’s “Conan” since 2010 and a comedian for three decades — is gifted at turning her personal pain into public laughter.

She’s been developing this emotional material through online performances like this six-comic showcase, organized by the digital presenter KO Comedy, ever since she live-tweeted her 82-year-old mother’s death in June. She was interviewed by her boss, Conan O’Brien, about her experience for a video posted July 8.

“A lot of people were really drawn to your very precise way of expressing pain but also making it funny at the same time, and very human,” O’Brien says to Kilmartin in the video, which has been viewed more than 100,000 times. “Nobody does that quite like you."

Striking a balance between dark comedy and real-time grief over a loved one is hardly new to her; in 2014, she live-tweeted the death of her father — an experience that spawned a book (“Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed”) and a 2016 comedy special.

But the roots of this dynamic really go back decades. She embraces catharsis through comedy because for Kilmartin, 55, humor has long been a life preserver.

Kilmartin’s first urge to make people laugh came while growing up in the Bay Area. Her mother, JoAnn, would smile watching “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS. That “was the thing that made me go: ‘Oh, I want to try that’ — being in the room where Carol was killing,” Kilmartin says by phone from her home in Burbank, Calif., within walking distance of the “Conan” studio. Yet she is an introvert, and it was years before she felt moved to take the stage.

Kilmartin, a competitive swimmer as a teenager, says she also went through a period where she “had to put myself back together again” after a molestation attempt by a youth coach — an event that “emotionally hit me when I was at UCLA.” (He was eventually imprisoned in 2009 for sexually abusing female athletes.) She decided to leave school and live with her parents in Walnut Creek, Calif., while suffering depression and eating disorders. In her 20s, though, something about performing in Bay Area comedy clubs felt like a healing experience. The appeal of stand-up, she says, was: “Grab onto this and you’ll be pulled to shore.”

Kilmartin developed her comedic voice and soon moved to regional tours and festivals and spent a decade based in New York. She blended performing with writing for TV shows starring Craig Ferguson, Bonnie Hunt and Colin Quinn, and became a top-10 finalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing."

She also co-wrote the 2012 bestseller “Sh*tty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us." She didn’t plan on getting pregnant at age 41, but she says her son has changed her life for the better. “I needed to have a kid before I could feel compassion for a lot of other people. I was single-minded and selfish prior to that.”

But that was all before her comedy began to steer toward deep family grief.

Kilmartin’s father, a politically conservative war veteran of Irish lineage, wasn’t one to talk about his emotions. But for her, jokes became therapy — “a great way to identify feelings.” So when her father was dying of lung cancer in February 2014, she began tweeting about the experience, she said at the time, to treat it “with love and sarcasm.”

“Can’t bear to see cancer devour my Dad,” she tweeted. “Gonna give him a heart attack instead by showing him how much $$$ I’ve donated to MoveOn.org.” She also wrote: “First 2 days of Dad’s hospice, I wouldn’t leave the room w/o telling him ‘I love you.’ Now we’re into day 5, I just say, ‘We’re cool, right?’ “

Out of the experience, she wrote “Dead People Suck," the humor guide with how-to chapter titles such as “Dying People Can Hear Every Word You Say,” “Cremation: Hire a Professional or DIY?” and “The Cemetery: Who Will Ignore Your Mother’s Grave When You’re Gone?”

“When I’m in a great amount of pain, part of me is going: ‘Well, what is this and how can I make it a punchline and then get rid of the feeling?’ “ Kilmartin says. “It’s a way to send that feeling on its merry way ... and then when it comes back, you know what it is.”

Ronald F. Kilmartin died after 10 days in hospice. “In retrospect, it was a great death,” his daughter says. “His entire family was home with him, he was in a place he felt comfortable, friends came by and he wasn’t contagious. At the point he couldn’t take friends anymore, my mother, sister and I just surrounded him and got to say our last I-love-you’s.”

“I just left a one-star Yelp review of the skilled nursing facility where Mom caught covid-19,” the comedian tweeted June 15, less than a week after JoAnn Kilmartin was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital and tested positive for the virus.

Her mother lived with Kilmartin and her 13-year-old son in Burbank for several years. But in late spring, her mother became so frail that she was placed in a nursing facility to regain her strength, and Kilmartin thinks that’s where she caught the virus. “She was quite afraid” about coronavirus for months, the comedian says, never believing the political spin that it was a hoax.

While living together, mother and daughter had quarreled about JoAnn’s conservative views. “She was very lonely after my dad died and she was comforted by the voices of the right wing, so Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck — the way they speak made her feel safe about the world,” says Kilmartin, adding: “She was just an old lady who needed to hear old men talking, and I didn’t need to get all mixed up in that. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time getting angry at her for what she believed.”

Within two days of entering hospice, JoAnn Kilmartin couldn’t communicate verbally. At one point, the mother lifted her head and fluttered her eyes, apparently trying to communicate. “It looked like the greatest effort I’d ever seen a person make,” Kilmartin says.

So much about the experience was sudden and traumatic and foreign. For days, Kilmartin and her sister Eileen, a psychiatrist, tracked their mother’s condition from a distance by digital tablet. When they were allowed to see her, there was no skin-to-skin contact, touching only through double gloves. And because their mother was breathing through her mouth, doctors told the sisters that “you’re basically walking into covid right now,” says Kilmartin, noting: “It freaks you out.”

The comedian tweeted poignant emotions about her mother (“I love her with my whole heart”) laced with one-liners (“It’s my dear dad who needs your thoughts and prayers. I’m sure he thought he’d get a few more years to himself”). She followed the social media feedback from her 100,000-plus followers, “to make sure I wasn’t bombing.”

Yet she also tweeted because she was furious. “I really wanted to get the word out about how awful a covid death is," she says. As the U.S. death toll passes 150,000, she says her mother “died in this sterile, lonely way and she didn’t deserve it — none of these people deserve it.”

JoAnn Kilmartin died June 18. “She couldn’t even say her last words,” Laurie Kilmartin says. The comedian will always think about the fact she chose the nursing facility from two options she was given. “My mom was kind of a complainer — she complained about the nursing home when she was in it. I was like, ‘Ugh, she hates everything and nothing’s good enough for her.’ But this time, she was right.”

When O’Brien interviewed Kilmartin virtually last month, he was clearly impressed with her humane comedy during her mother’s demise. “Laurie is an enormously gifted writer and performer,” the TBS host tells The Washington Post via email. “She has the uncanny ability to find humor in the darkest situations without sacrificing her empathy. I’ve known some very funny people in my life, but I don’t know if any of them are as brave as Laurie.”

Kilmartin, though, isn’t sure how much longer she will mine family grief for humor. “I don’t want to be the sad comic,” she says. “I have lots more to talk about than dead parents, and I don’t have any more parents, so that’s a done thing now.”

Kilmartin misses live stand-up — she hasn’t performed before an in-person audience since just before St. Patrick’s Day — as well as working at the “Conan” offices. Staffers meet by Zoom to create the show, which is on hiatus for several weeks.

“We’re all pretty lonely,” she says. She used to look forward to hanging out with O’Brien an hour a day to talk about current events, as they crafted the monologue. Still, she relishes creating the show’s emphasis on silly humor over informational comedy.

“There’s plenty of absurdity in how people have handled the coronavirus and quarantine,” “Conan” head writer Matt O’Brien says via email. “We try to focus on that.”

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But Kilmartin isn’t ready to move on from her personal views about the virus. She just ordered a custom flag that reads: “R.I.P. to my mom and all those who have died in this preventable pandemic.” “I’m going to hang it outside my house because I do feel like if you’ve had a covid death, you should be considered some kind of a Gold Star parent.”

“There should be some way to announce it to the world to let people know: Covid came here and it took someone who lived here,” she says. “And if you’re walking by this window without a mask, you contributed to this.”

She also had a couple of custom ones made. They read: “My mom died from covid and all I got was this stupid mask.”

Kilmartin says she will be as funny about covid-19 death as she needs to be, with one goal: “So people will take it seriously.”

Read more:

‘The fires were everywhere’: A son’s testimony on losing his mother to coronavirus

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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