John Vlismas doesn't care if his comedy about death kills the room

John Vlismas' favourite type of humour is what he calls 'horror's neighbour'. And you can expect plenty of it in 'The End', his one-man show about death

17 March 2019 - 00:05
John Vlismas says all you can do with death is pull a big finger as it comes.
John Vlismas says all you can do with death is pull a big finger as it comes.
Image: Alon Skuy

"Maybe I've done wrong to call it a comedy," says John Vlismas, "but I think it's funny. Death has to be a comedy. What else could it be?" He is talking about The End, his new one-man show, an absurdist reflection on death but also his way of saying goodbye to his father, Spiro, who died in October.

"All you can do with death is pull a big finger as it comes," says John. "You're not going to stop it or beat it, but why can't you go out in a magnificent blaze of glory?"

Much of the material for the show has been drawn from the Vlismas family's experience during Spiro's illness. John is writing it in collaboration with actress Liesl Coppin, a friend and former classmate from Durban Technikon, who has been through her own times of trauma and who shares the same dark sense of humour.

"We were both trying to see how deeply inappropriate we could be at these worst times. There was a moment when dad was in the last days of cardiac arrest, he was winding down, doing these mechanical gasps, he was pretty much gone, and I looked at my mum and she looked at me and I could see this devastation - 50 years of partnership, it was like a part of herself was dying - and she looked up at me and all I could say was ... 'Mum, I think it's a bit soon for Tinder'."

John's favourite type of comedy is what he calls "horror's neighbour" because it is in darkness that humour is most needed. "You have to go there," he says. "You've got to show no fear."

He has been trying some of the material in clubs and shocking some punters. "People don't want me to say that my dad died. It kills the room. It's so intensely personal and it's so recent, but I'm like, it's my dad, not yours. He would laugh at this."

Being at his father's side while he died slowly of congestive heart failure was "unavoidably horrific, but also a privilege. We had that time for us to be able to say the things we'd always wanted to say to dad, and for him to hear us."

Funeral homes are both horrific and unavoidable. "These are the people who choose to camp at the very last outpost," says John. "They're basically the visa office. We had the most awful cremation, because there's only one way to do it. You get a bunch of people standing around; you don't really know what the fuck to do until 9.30 when the chute opens and it's your oven slot, and then you burn your loved one ... It's so odd, but that's what people do because that's the way it's done, it's the standard thing."

Stripping away the artifice of the standard thing is a hallmark of John's comedy, but The End cuts even deeper.

"I've been thinking, what's the hardest thing you can do in comedy? I almost gave up while I was writing The Good Racist [which had rave reviews and long stage runs] because I thought it wasn't funny - at one point it felt like it was just a talk about how badly behaved white people are, but in the end it was fine.

If 'The End' turns out to be my last show, well that's kind of fitting
John Vlismas

"This one about death, some people will get it. I'm not really interested in the commercially acceptable stuff anymore. I don't know if it's going to work professionally but if The End turns out to be my last show, well that's kind of fitting."

Death is not the only type of ending he interrogates in the show; he also attacks so-called happy endings in films.

"We are such cowards, we don't acknowledge the fact that there's no such thing as a happy ending. There's a freeze frame, it's not the end. The guy gets the girl or the girl gets the girl or the guy gets the money or whatever it might be, but that was Wednesday, bro. What happens next Monday? What about the cardiac disease after the wedding feast? What about the erectile dysfunction or the halitosis?

"We are cowardly when it comes to the end and that's the thing I'm trying to challenge. I'm not doing a clichéd show about death. I'm going to talk about the creepy funeral home and those things, but I really want to put in the more interesting concepts around endings."

Death, like life, has its lighter moments too, such as when the Vlismas family scattered Spiro's ashes near Victoria Falls.

"It was so much more us than the cremation," John says. "We didn't have a plan, we didn't get permission. We went into the forest hiding dad's ashes in his favourite jersey that my daughter has kept. Mum could hardly walk and tourists kept wandering across, so we basically stealth-scattered him and then we carried on.

"But I'd dropped the little paper tube in the bin and then I realised, oh shit, his name is on it. So I ran back and scraped the name off, but then I felt bad that I threw dad's final container in the bin. And then I thought, no, it's not him, and threw it back. Then my sister was like, 'Ooh I don't know, shall we take it out?' And then she was also, 'No, it's not him'. So we threw it in the bin again. And then we left."

• 'The End, a comedy by John Vlismas, will be at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Johannesburg, from April 24 to June 2.