Death and comedy - what's it really all about?

Many a comedian will comment, in a serious moment, about their fear of a 'death on the stage'. Though history records the actual death of performers in such circumstances, comedians know it as the moment when a joke or a line 'bombs'; when they lose the audience. 

The Guardian UK newspaper has been following the story of Philip Nitschke and his foray into comedy at the upcoming Edinburgh Comedy Fringe Festival in Scotland. Journalist, Jenny Kleeman, recently compiled a series of interviews into a short video preview (available on the Guardian website).

Much of the background vision for this video story is from a 'workshop' in London where Nitschke is 'road testing' the show in front of an audience of Exit members ahead of its opening later this month.

Kleeman's comments are telling: "Is Philip about to change the way we view the 'right-to-die' of is he about to 'die on his feet'?" An allusion to the 'death on stage', no doubt. Time will tell.

Watching in these scenes the 'Exit crowd' I found myself thinking of 'the four Ws' as many in the disability community would say. Indeed, the audience was 'White, Well, Well off and Worried'. One participant interviewed parroted the Exit sales pitch: "I get some satisfaction that I'm in control of a situation that might otherwise be out of control." Sounds convincing but, in reality, it is not about control but avoidance.

From what I saw of Nitschke's 'performance', it seemed a little flat; the lines a little forced. This surprised me. On the occasions when we have met in debate he has been incredibly funny. Maybe it's not a good look for the 'No' side of the debate to be laughing along with the 'opposition', but more than once I found myself holding my side in laughter. Perhaps there's a difference between incidental humour and pitching a gag, I don't know.

Maybe the 'eleventh hour' withdrawal of British Comedian, Mel Moon from Nitschke's show is to blame. For mine, this is the real story.

Mel Moon contracted an incurable disease in 2010 after the birth of her second child. She was diagnosed with an endocrine disorder in 2013 at the age of 35. In her own words 'an incurable disease that could kill me; any minute, any where, any day!' Moon has endured significant suffering and loss made worse, no doubt, by the fact that the drugs she needs to assist her were not available on the British NHS and are, therefore, very expensive.

In January, in an ABC (Australia) story announcing her double act with Nitschke, Moon was incredibly frank about her situation:

"There was seemingly no positive outcome just more of the same until one day I'd die," Mel Moon told the ABC.

"Quality of life had gone, my relationship was almost over, I couldn't even hold my children as it hurt too much.

"I just thought one day, enough! I wanted to take back control so I contacted Exit (UK branch) to look at options, read his book and contacted him directly."

Ms Moon described her illness as "rare and complex, an endocrine disorder that means my body can't support itself anymore".

"It causes pain, extreme fatigue, emotional disturbance, visual disturbance, temperature extremities and cognitive function loss. You can't cope with anything, even the common cold places you at risk.

"The worst thing it took were my memories. I don't remember my babies' first smiles, steps and words and that cripples me some days."

She said without the advice of Mr Nitschke, who she described as "the world's most criticised doctor", she would have taken her own life, but he encouraged her to keep going.

"(He) told me to keep going and try everything I could... when they offered me a non-FDA approved drug to try as a last resort; I said yes.

"Thankfully it's working for me and, though the old me is long gone I'm starting to grow affectionate towards the new me, even though I need a stupid amount of naps per day."

Nitschke's encouragement to Moon is worthy of applause; but her recovering brought a change of heart about the whole idea of sharing a show in Edinburgh as she told Kleeman for The Guardian story:

"I really wanted to work with Philip, but we are very different people. I was a very poorly person at one point; and, even though I'm not fully recovered, I'm a hell of a lot better than I ever was.

"I want to live now and I want to talk about living.

"And it was a real conflict of interest because obviously their message is about the 'right-to-die' and 'ways to die' and I could see the makings of a workshop and Philip has clearly said it would resemble (a workshop) and I really didn't want to be a part of a workshop."

Mel Moon's solo show is called 'Sick Girl'. In her project fundraising blurb she comments again about her illness and her renewed zest for life:

"I don't know why it happened to me but I do know that at one point the suffering my family and I felt was considered by me to be too great and so I contacted a leading Euthanasia organisation to help me die. At 35 with two small children I was deemed selfish, irresponsible and weak and maybe I was all three but in this show I'll be as honest as I can be in explaining what a person like me must have faced to want to check out early. Thankfully though, I didn't die! (Unless I did in which case the afterlife is a bit of a let down!) I was offered a lifetime and I took it! And I still wake each day so grateful I was and did and very rarely think about how long I have because that question can never be answered can it? But the one question that can be is; if it got too bad, if you couldn't stand it anymore, would you opt out or wait until nature takes its course? Maybe this show will see you question that answer, maybe it won't! But it will make you laugh. Why? Because comedy and tragedy are the best of friends - oh and I'm a comedian, so that helps!"

It would be wrong to speculate about whether Moon's change of heart will remain her driving force, particularly if her condition ever worsens. She doesn't comment on that at all. I hope her show goes well and we wish her a long and fulfilling life.

What really interests me about The Guardian video, however, is the juxtaposition between a sick young mother and her wish to live and the well-elderly Nitschke devotees and their fascination with their own death and avoiding the kind of difficulties that Moon describes.

Isn't this really all about attitude and conscious choices? The worried well are from a generation that has experienced the greatest period of wealth and well-being in history; but along the way they've become sold on the zeitgeist message that total control is theirs - that autonomy is the highest prize possible. It drives them beyond real 'choice' because they don't see any alternative. And they worry.

Moon's generation and those that have followed seem to be increasingly more cynical and less inclined to grasp desperately to the idiosyncrasies of the 'Me' generation. Theirs is a far more healthy approach.

It is Mel Moon's generation that, hopefully can regain a healthier attitude to death. Moon comes from a great tradition of British 'Black Humour' epitomised in the Monty Python 'Grim Reaper' sketch.

There is hope, always. Maybe we can all learn to laugh again at death along the lines of Woody Allen's 'It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.' Or perhaps, more appropriately, in agreement with George Bernard Shaw:

"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."

If you're in Edinburgh in August, why not support Mel Moon and visit her show!

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