Summit Hill author Dennis Kelly’s new novel, A Comedian Walks into a Funeral Home, may sound like the opening line of a joke or perhaps the premise of an episode of a television show that blends Seinfeld with Six Feet Under.

But the newly published book offers more than a punch line, and it is not simply about death and dying. In the novel, Kelly proves that death and humor can be surprisingly good dance partners—in the literary sense.

Readers will enjoy some laughs, but the story goes deeper than that. With ruminations on life and death, the book offers “a deeper array of thoughtful considerations,” said Kelly, a semiretired marketing professional.

Dennis Kelly
Summit Hill writer Dennis Kelly is pictured looking out from the Smith Avenue High Bridge, one of the local places of interest he references in his new novel. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Kelly said he worked on the book for about four years, including rewrites. “As a writer, you run down a few dead ends,” he said. “And I’m the kind of writer where if I have a concept I just get into the work and to some degree it writes itself.”

   

The hero of the book is Vince Locker, a failed standup comic. Locker lives with his bipolar brother and is estranged from his wife. His life is a wreck, and after a particularly disastrous comedy gig, he contemplates jumping off the Smith Avenue High Bridge.

On the bridge, he has a chance encounter with a struggling mortician named Truss. With help from Truss and the mortician’s faithful employee, Winona, Locker discovers he can make a buck by eulogizing the deceased with deadpan humor. For good measure, Kelly weaves a compelling murder mystery into the narrative.

The unusual premise of A Comedian Walks into a Funeral Home stems in part from Kelly’s own experiences of saying a few words about the deceased at memorial services.

 

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“I’ve been writing fiction for quite some time, whether it’s a previous novel or short stories,” Kelly said. “The driver behind this one is that I’ve done quite a few eulogies in the past. I seem to be the go-to guy for friends and family.”

Kelly noted that giving eulogies is not particularly easy. He alluded to the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about the frightful experience of public speaking—that more people are afraid of that than dying. As the joke goes, people would rather be the guy in the casket than the one having to talk.

For his part, Kelly said he tends to mix humor in his eulogies to “humanize things,” and that seems to go over well.  

“At the end of the tributes it seemed like, when people came up and chatted with me, the thing that stuck with them was the anecdotal stories. A laugh or two was generated, and that would relieve the tension and the weight of loss,” Kelly said.

At the same time, he noted, people are changing the way they mourn the death of a loved one. In some cases, for example, “new age celebrations” or “green burials” are replacing more traditional services.

“These are the things that make us human—and that’s oftentimes what people love about us,” Kelly said. “You know, it’s not the list of 50 things that we did. It’s some of the wrong turns, some of the silly stuff and some of the errors we’ve made.

“The combination of looking at the market and my background with eulogies and I guess a propensity for some humor, it seemed like a nice launching point,” he said.

Born and raised in Saint Paul, Kelly includes some local city landmarks and other places of interest in his book, including the aforementioned High Bridge, Keenan’s Bar and Grill on West Seventh Street, and the Palace Theatre in downtown.

Kelly attended Saint Thomas Academy and earned a marketing degree at Metropolitan State University. He honed his writing skills at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

A Comedian Walks into a Funeral Home is Kelly’s second published novel. His first one, BlizzardBall, was published in 2011. Set during a frigid Minnesota winter, that novel drew on Kelly’s experience in developing sweepstakes and contests for Fortune 500 companies. Fans of the book included the late CNN talk show host Larry King, who called it a “rip-roaring ride on the roller coaster of luck…smart, wacky, criminally entertaining—winner.”

A Comedian Walks into a Funeral Home has also garnered positive reviews. Jeff Gerbino, sometimes described as a “founding father of Minnesota comedy,” writes on the book’s Amazon page, “I can attest that behind the curtain comedians are an unsettled group and Kelly nails it. Sit back, relax, turn off the TV and social media and enjoy the shadowy world of those who lust for success and find themselves unrequited.”

Kelly said the new novel attempts to drive home the point that, among other things, we are often remembered not just for our accomplishments, but for our “foibles” and “harebrained schemes.”

“These are the things that make us human—and that’s oftentimes what people love about us,” Kelly said. “You know, it’s not the list of 50 things that we did. It’s some of the wrong turns, some of the silly stuff and some of the errors we’ve made.

“People love us for being a punch line,” he added. “Humor is really a healing emotion for oneself and for other people, so to the degree that we can bring that into the relationship, it helps everyone’s well-being.”

Kelly hopes to announce a series of book signings and speaking engagements for A Comedian Walks into a Funeral Home in the near future. He plans to donate all sale proceeds to Second Harvest Heartland and the Sanneh Foundation.

— Brian Johnson

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