Comic Will Martin wants to make you laugh at death, after you’ve squirmed a bit
Will Martin begins his show, “Total Loss,” by getting the audience to chant, happily, “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” It’s an unusual start for a comedy show, but then comes his statement of premise. “Here’s what happened,” he says. “My friend died, and a few months later, my brother died. And if that seems like a lot to put on you all at once, I know how you feel.”
What follows is an hour of joyous, transgressive, and beautiful comedy dedicated to the memory of Martin’s comedian friend Nick, who committed suicide, and Martin’s brother Caleb, who was killed in a car accident during a spring break road trip. The laughs have an emotional resonance remarkable for a comedian who has been doing stand-up for only four years. Martin will perform “Total Loss” for local audiences one last time Saturday at The Rockwell in Somerville before he takes it on tour and moves to Los Angeles.
Onstage, the 26-year-old Franklin native explains it’s not a sad show, but it is about death. Since Martin was on his own road trip when Nick died, he describes going to Nick’s hometown in Butte, Mont., and attending a memorial. He talks about the inappropriate songs — like the The Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” — that he asked a music therapist to play while Caleb was in a coma.
At different points in the show, Martin reads from Nick’s joke books and Caleb’s journal. “You get to see their personality that’s not so warped by your own memory and recapturing of that memory,” he says. It also helps to keep the focus on Nick and Caleb, rather than his own grief. “I’m a character in the show, but I want it to be as much of them as possible,” he says. “Their personality, their energy and story.”
A day after Caleb’s funeral, he started talking about his brother’s death onstage, but the material was too jarring, tonally, for small chunks in a club set. So he began to build a show. The Rockwell edition will be his 12th performance of “Total Loss.” “I would say it was painful like the first eight times I did it,” he says. “It feels less painful now. There are moments in the show that I don’t like to practice — when I’m talking about the moments of death and the valleys after death.”
“Total Loss” is a monument to Martin’s loved ones rather than a form of therapy for him, he says. For that, he has seen an actual therapist, and that has allowed him to talk more openly onstage.
It also helps that Martin is a naturally upbeat person. It’s rare to see him without a smile in public, and he has a very “Yes, and” personality, an improv-comedy philosophy he started to hone at Gordon College in a group called “Sweaty-Toothed Mad Men” and has continued to study at ImprovBoston. “Even through these deaths, I have a very fortunately happy brain,” he says. “I don’t think it’s been that hard. It’s still so much more enjoyable to be positive.”
There were moments when he’d be by himself and the tears would start to flow. Martin found humor even in that, not in the pain but in the expression of it, and would tease himself, tweeting about it every time he would cry. “I cry less now,” he says. “But crying is so silly. It’s so good but it’s so silly.”
When he tells the story of Caleb’s death, Martin shows the audience a slide of what the car looked like after the crash, and then says he’s going to show them a police sketch of the accident. “If you’re squeamish, look away,” he warns, “but I think it’s important to see.” He then shows the same slide of the crumpled car, but on it he’s drawn a blue stick figure trying to leap out of the window. It gets a big laugh, but Martin admits to the audience, “For sure the most tasteless joke of the show.”
Making people uncomfortable is a high-wire act, and it requires some patience from both Martin and his audience. He remembers doing “Total Loss” in Maine for a group he believes wasn’t expecting a one-man show about death. He thought he was going to have to abandon it after the first five minutes and shift into stand-up mode. “After every dark death joke, people were like, ‘Awwww,’ ” he says. “And I was like, ‘Oh no! This is a nightmare!’ But I just kept going, I just kept telling the story, and that show ended better than any of the shows.”
Martin would love to be able to make people open up and laugh about death, to take some of the stigma out of it. “When people say, after a show, that they’ve lost people and they could laugh because of that loss and not in spite of it, that’s, I think, my favorite thing to hear,” he says. “I want people to laugh. That’s the first goal. And if it’s a cathartic laugh, that’s wonderful.”
Once this tour ends, Martin has no certain plans to perform the show again. He’ll be starting over as a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles, and he’s not sure what that will look like. But he knows the experience has challenged him and made him work harder at his craft. “Will I be able to write another show like this?” he says. “Not sure. But I love the comic that I am in this show.”
Total Loss: A Comedy Show About Death
Performed by Will Martin. At the Rockwell, 255 Elm St., Somerville, June 15 at 9 p.m.
Tickets $15, 617-684-5335, www.therockwell.org