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Two Funny Funerals

Dying parents, fart jokes, and everything in between in ‘One Mississippi’ and ‘Other People’

Amazon/Vertical Entertainment
Amazon/Vertical Entertainment

Two setups, no punch lines: In One Mississippi, a comedian returns home to deal with the death of her mother. In Other People, a comedian returns home to prepare for the death of his. No joke.

In different combinations, Tig Notaro’s Amazon series and Chris Kelly’s debut feature cancer, queerness, emotionally withholding father figures, semi-estranged siblings, and a hefty dose of autobiography. But what really ties them together is a theme: While we take it for granted that children are an extension of their parents, the reverse is often true — and losing a parent therefore means losing a part of yourself.

One Mississippi is not the first time Notaro has told this story. Four years ago, she took the stage for her regular slot at Los Angeles’s Largo venue and announced she had cancer. The resulting half hour was eventually distributed, under the name Live, by Louis C.K., now an executive producer on One Mississippi. It’s an exorcism of a calamitous year: Notaro almost died from an intestinal bacteria known as C. diff, lost her mother, and broke up with her long-term girlfriend, only to face the possibility of dying yet again. “It’s weird, because the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy,” she told the audience. “I’m just at tragedy right now.” By 2016, Notaro has had time. Netflix documented both Live and its fallout in Tig, released in April; a few months later, Notaro bared her mastectomy scars in the phenomenal HBO special Boyish Girl Interrupted. She’s worked through her actual trauma and moved on to other subjects in her work, applying her signature deadpan to mundanities as well as catastrophes.

And yet as One Mississippi proves, Notaro hasn’t exhausted the artistic possibilities of her own experience. The beauty of Live comes from the immediacy of hearing someone talk themselves through the impossible in real time. The beauty of One Mississippi comes from its carefully crafted remove — the distance that allows Notaro to channel real life into a condensed, though by no means clean, fictional narrative. To begin with, the sequence of events has been lightly scrambled. By the time Tig-the-character arrives in the small Gulf Coast town she grew up in, she’s already had cancer (it’d be hard to pretend otherwise, given the aforementioned mastectomy scars) and is still suffering from C. diff. The direction is mostly static and unfussy — and C.K.’s influence makes itself felt with abrupt bouts of surrealism, during which Tig imagines a Looney Tunes–style surgery or a graveside sleepover.

One Mississippi shows that grieving means taking stock of your own life, which takes on extra weight when the deceased is a parent. The secrets she learns about Caroline, a Southern-fried free spirit whose apparition she squares off with, Nate Fisher–style, are intimately connected to Tig’s mixed feelings about her childhood. For all the beat-for-beat echoes of Live, One Mississippi’s most compelling material centers on a trauma new to Tig-the-character: years of molestation by her grandfather. Caroline’s death forces Tig to revisit her pain and come face-to-face with its lasting effects. It opens old wounds — and inflicts new ones.

And we see how Tig goes about healing them. Ultimately, this is what One Mississippi has that Live doesn’t: enough perspective to fictionalize the recovery as well as the tragedy. Here, Notaro is a radio host, not a stand-up comedian (though real-life Notaro has made appearances on This American Life), delivering weekly monologues about the goings-on in her life. These scenes are more than a modified version of the stand-up interstitials from Seinfeld or Louie — they’re a collection of mini-Lives. We’re watching the character Tig go through the same reflection the real Tig did, ordering her chaotic life while keeping its humor intact.

Other People, too, renders a personal crisis into only slightly less personal art. Written and directed by Chris Kelly, SNL’s new co–head writer, the film is based on a similarly misery-dense period in its creator’s life: the year Kelly spent caring for his mother in his native Sacramento before she died of cancer. But where One Mississippi is quiet and contemplative — Notaro finds anticlimax at the end of the world — Other People lunges for the heartstrings. We’re there to witness a tragedy, not just sort through its aftermath.

And like all tragedies, we know how Other People ends: It opens on a deathbed, then flashes back to a more hopeful time before Joanne (Molly Shannon) gave up treatment and her family began preparing for the inevitable. As with Notaro, the parallels between Kelly and his onscreen avatar, David (Jesse Plemons), are so blatant as to squash all “Is this autobiographical?” questions with a definitive “Duh.” Like Kelly, David is a television writer, openly gay (a fact his father, Norman, still hasn’t made his peace with), and forced by his mother’s illness into uncomfortably close quarters with his family — and their unresolved issues.

Other People takes on a balancing act that One Mississippi never has to: Though we’re experiencing her decline through David’s eyes, Joanne is a living, breathing person, not a figment of her mourning child’s imagination. She’s neither a passive patient nor an upbeat cancer warrior; she’s self-deprecating and sharp even as she sometimes collapses under the weight of what she’s going through. We see a woman in pain. We also see her son’s crumbling support system. Joanne keeps her family in equilibrium: brokering the peace between David and his father (played by Bradley Whitford), and drawing together three siblings who don’t clash so much as simply fail to connect. And because David has returned to his native exurbia, he’s forced to watch that equilibrium dissolve in real time. He’s losing an emotional buffer as well as a parent, a fact Other People explores without ever minimizing Joanne’s humanity.

Other People is as much about returning home as it is about what happens there, focusing on the angst of revisiting the environment you’ve built an entire adult life opposing. Token SNL comedian movie cameo John Early shines as David’s childhood best friend, another disaffected gay kid who got the hell out. On top of being a child in your parents’ domain, there’s a powerlessness to being pushed halfway back into the closet. Early acts as a sounding board for that frustration, which traps David in a Catch-22: suppressing his feelings in order to take care of Joanne only makes them worse, because it’s taking care of Joanne that brings them out.

Grief and the customs that come with it put us in close quarters with all kinds of things we’d rather not confront. Death is just the beginning: Mourning is claustrophobic, trapping us with our families, our histories, and the wide-open chasm the deceased leaves behind. One Mississippi and Other People show this with tragicomedy that’s admirably close to life — the lessons Notaro and Kelly have learned from their own lives, and the way fart jokes can coexist with dying parents generally. It’s hard to separate the banal from the earthshaking. “The good is in the past, too,” Tig tells her stepfather during a rare confrontation. “You can’t pick and choose.”