Jewish comedian Michael Cruz Kayne explains death and grief in the simplest, yet most effective terms I’ve ever heard. According to him, losing a loved one, particularly when it’s a premature loss, is like the (unbelievably correct) equation .999… = 1.
Stay with me.
The sum of fractions 2/3 and 1/3 is equal to 1. But the sum of .666… (the decimal equivalent of 2/3) and .333… (the decimal equivalent of 1/3) isn’t 1 — it’s actually .999… In other words, after a huge loss, a griever’s perception of the world shifts. “You thought that life was one way. But it is actually, also, this other way. And those two ways are the same,” Cruz Kayne explained in a 2022 episode of his podcast “A Good Cry.”
It’s also in these terms that Cruz Kayne grounds his latest project, “Sorry for Your Loss,” a stand-up comedy show about the 2009 death of his 34-day-old son, Fisher, and his life since.
While math and death seem like a punishing combination in any context, let alone a comedy show, I promise that, in this case, it’s not.
Michael, a staff writer for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” is an adept storyteller. While “Sorry For Your Loss” is certainly heavy at times, Michael perfectly weaves personal tragedy through lighter stories about parenting his other children, Truman and Willa, his wife Carrie’s decision to become a pediatric nurse and his Filipino-Jewish identity — allowing the audience to both laugh and cry with him. He does this not to make the show more “palatable,” but rather to give a fuller, more authentic picture of his life as both a human being who has experienced loss and as a bearer of Fisher’s memory.
Michael recently chatted with Kveller about his stand-up show “Sorry For Your Loss” and the viral tweet that started it all.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you tell me about your Jewish identity and background?
My dad is Jewish, my mom is something else. (Jokingly) We won’t even talk about her. I was sort of culturally Jewish my entire childhood, and then around the age of 13, my grandmother was like, “Oh, shoot. This kid hasn’t done enough Judaism stuff.” So we went to Israel, and I was bar mitzvahed on top of Masada. We really went all the way, for that period of time, in terms of religiosity. That was an amazing and formative experience.
I will admit that my religions of all kinds have not had the greatest sticking power. But I do definitely identify as Jewish. And my son’s close friends are Israeli — we spend a lot of time over there and celebrate all the Jewish holidays together. I’ve always felt a beautiful tie to that part of my ancestry, even though I’m not practicing. (Other than, on the holidays, being with friends or family who recite the prayers that were also prayed by some family members thousands of years ago, which is pretty fucking cool.
Do your kids feel a connection to Jewishness at all?
I think they do in the same way that I do. We have not tried to impress upon them Judaism writ large. But again, because of their surroundings, their friends and their family, they’re exposed to it a lot. We have huge Passovers with the whole family or with friends and celebrate Hanukkah, etc. So, it’s Judaism light, I guess. Or what I think of as American Judaism, but I’m sure there are other American Jews who would say actually not.
So, in 2019, a tweet of yours about Fisher went viral. Was that when you decided to turn the story into a show?
When that happened, it wasn’t really something that was on my mind at all. And because the tweet became so popular, the Washington Post reached out to me, a producer of The Today Show wrote me up on their website and someone reached out about doing a podcast on the subject of grief. So I started my podcast, which is called “A Good Cry.” That’s sort of the beginning of this. It was like, “I don’t know if you’re going to want to listen to this. But let’s try.” And we started doing it. The reception was pretty good. Stephen Colbert, who’s my boss, was one of the first guests on the podcast, which I think really helped. It was very generous of him to participate in it. All the episodes are special to me in their own way. But Stephen’s episode… he’s brilliant and set the table for a high level of discussion.
And at the same time, having this one side of me that was doing what I would call “straight” comedy, just telling jokes, and this other side of me that was delving into the worst thing that ever happened to me… it felt unavoidable for those two things to merge. It became hard to get on stage after having a conversation with someone about their brother drowning in a jacuzzi and then being like, “OK, now I’m going to do 15 minutes on airplane food.” It felt like, I don’t know what I’m doing this for. I think that’s where the idea came from. It was like, OK, well, I have to get this off my chest, because it’s all I’m thinking about. So how can I put these things together in a way that I would like to say is useful to other people, but really, really is useful to me? I didn’t know how to move forward without doing this.
Would you say that blending trauma and humor comes from a Jewish place for you?
I would say that it does only insofar as it’s hard to say that it doesn’t. My understanding of Judaism, and the Jewish half of my family, is that the tragedy is kind of baked into the identity. And I say that with the most love and humor that that can be said with. There’s a fondness for that part of my ancestry and family which has a uniquely comedic way of approaching even the most horrible stuff. And I am not afraid of that at all.
When did you start writing the show?
I believe it was right before the pandemic. So, March of 2020, or something like that. And then, I just sort of did as much as possible. I was doing [the show] over Zoom, which was kind of a nightmare because I was doing a half-hour-long stand-up show about grief over Zoom where no one was laughing because all their microphones were turned off. It was lovely for the people who gave me that opportunity. But it was excruciating to do.
Oh my God. Did you get any good feedback from that process?
Honestly, no. Well, the hard thing about doing this, among many hard things, is that almost nobody is going to tell you, “I didn’t think that part was good” — because the thing is so personal. It’s very difficult for someone to feel like they have permission to say, “This show that you’re writing about your dead son really could use some notes.” The feedback that I got was my own feedback. And I was very lucky that people gave me the opportunity to say the wrong thing a lot so I could get to where I am now, which is something that I feel, at least, not ashamed of.
I had the pleasure of seeing it with your parents in the audience. What does your family think of the show?
So far? Pretty good. I think they, more than anyone, have no ability to criticize it. I mean, they love me. It’s hard to unbake that from the recipe. But their response has been really great. My wife and kids saw the final dress rehearsal. And that, for me, was the really stressful one, because a lot of it is about them. I want them to leave the show feeling connected to it and uplifted by it and honored — not honored that I did a show about them, but honored that I’ve tried to do something that respects them. And I think it worked so far. It’s hard because my kids are pretty young. So, I don’t think they even know how they feel about it. They’ll find out how they feel about it in therapy in like 20 years. Right? And what, I ask you, could be more Jewish than that?
How have Jewish ideas around death or spirituality affected your grief, if at all?
Some parts of being detached religiously from everything, including Judaism, are cool because you’re finding your way through it. Basically, my wife and I had to find our way through it instinctively. And there’s something cool about that. But what is terrifying is the lack of protocol and ritual that something like sitting shiva can provide. And we didn’t [sit shiva] because I didn’t have any relationship to that at all. We had a funeral, but afterward, we were free-floating. Having spoken with other people who have lost someone — children, siblings, parents, whatever — I find myself a little bit envious of the structure that their faith imposed on them after those losses. The structure seems awesome. But then there’s also the times where you feel like it’s not working for you and you’re like, “Oh shit, am I a bad Jew because I’m not doing that correctly?” So, I’m sure [ritual] has its own pitfalls. But I do the idea of taking space with a ritual of some kind to be like, “OK, we’re going to pause our lives right now and just acknowledge that something has happened.” I think shiva is a beautiful way of doing that, and it might have helped us in some way during that time.
For me, the show felt, in a way, like a shiva for Fisher.
Oh, shit, I didn’t think about that.
Has doing the show impacted your healing?
It has. I think the number one thing about [the show] is that, for better or worse, it has forced me to articulate the things that I believe and want to believe. That is helpful. The trickiest part about doing this show is that it somewhat codifies everything, so what I say about my grief feels permanent, in a way. But one thing that I really like about this experience is that I’m trying not to do it as a “play.” In other words, you could come back to see the show every single night, but from night to night, it’s always a little bit different. There will be times where I’m just like, “That thing that I said yesterday, I felt it and believed that yesterday, and today, I feel something just a little bit different. And I’m gonna say that.” That’s the great thing about having [the show] be a living piece, and that shifts it into the stand-up world a little bit.
Your son Truman, Fisher’s twin brother, is now 13, which is a big age in Judaism. Has that brought up any emotions for you about Fisher?
It hasn’t specifically. I can only say that every milestone for [Truman] does bring up a feeling of his brother. The way that I think about it is: I don’t think I could possibly love anybody more than I love this person. There’s no way. But I was supposed to have two of these people. I’m supposed to have infinity. And instead, I have half of infinity — which is still infinity. There’s a weird sense that I must have capacity for extra love or something. And every milestone, it’s like, “Man, wouldn’t it be fucking wild if his brother were also alive?” It’s a paradox because I can’t imagine anything better than this. I wish that he had lived, obviously, but it’s not like I constantly feel a sense of disappointment. Just imagine I won a trillion dollars, but I was supposed to get 2 trillion.
What advice would you give to parents explaining death and loss to their children?
I would preface this by saying I am not an expert. It’s just something that happened to me. But I think it would be to try to answer the questions the best that you know how and not avoid them. Because kids are smart, and they know. It’s like, the second you crumple up a piece of paper and then uncrumple it, you’re like, “Oh shit, this will never be flat again.” From that moment, you know that death is a thing in the world. And so I think you have to respect their curiosity and try to answer those questions without terrifying them. Just speak from your heart.
“Sorry For Your Loss” is playing at the Minetta Lane Theater through June 10, 2023.