Rima Parikh’s ‘Death Threat’ Goes Beyond the Trauma Plot

Parikh’s solo show about her cancer diagnosis—and the homicidal tendencies that emerge when dealing with corporate HR reps—is so tightly written and unexpected, it’s like watching someone land 10 backflips in a row without touching the ground.

Rima Parikh’s ‘Death Threat’ Goes Beyond the Trauma Plot

Is cancer funny? Veteran comedy fans will recognize this question, most likely from Tig Notaro’s 2012 set Live, where she walks onstage and introduces herself with: “Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer.” She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer four days prior, after a year of additional health struggles and personal tragedies. She had no plans to release that set as a special, but the owner of the Largo happened to record it. The Guardian called it “jaw-dropping,” Slate called it “instantly legendary,” and Entertainment Weekly named it the best comedy album of 2012. So it seems that yes, cancer can be funny. 

But you can still hear the hesitation, the deep uncertainty in the audience’s reaction to Notaro’s set: Should they be laughing at these horrible things she is saying? Should any of us? “Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Notaro said in her set. “I’m just at the tragedy right now.” 

All of this was on my mind when I showed up to Rima Parikh’s solo show, Death Threat: A Cancer Story at Caveat in the Lower East Side. In the middle of a broader cultural reckoning with the “trauma plot” and the power—or pointlessness—of confessional art, how does a comedian touch tragedy in a way that doesn’t feel corny, melodramatic, or self-indulgent on the one hand…or flippant, shallow, dismissive on the other? It feels like asking someone to do ten backflips in a row without touching the ground. And in Parikh’s case, they’re also recovering from fucking cancer.

Forgive me for pitting two cancer survivors against each other but I did wonder how Parikh would tell her own story of diagnosis, treatment, and remission without trying to emulate or live up to Notaro, or disappear into her long shadow. What’s more, my friend Aliza and I went to the show straight from a Washington Square Park protest in solidarity with Palestine. We were soaked to the bone with rain; our minds occupied by a raging genocide. I worried laughing at all would feel wrong.

But it turns out Parikh’s solo show was beyond comparison, beyond a reduction to any neat plot, trauma or otherwise, despite the fact that it does begin with a confession.  “In late 2023, I sent an email, that I now understand. That I now acknowledge. That I now recognize. Was construed as a ‘death threat.’”

These words played on the screen behind Parikh during her intro—a trick she pulled a few times throughout the show. Using the projector slides as a kind of inner monologue, she created a distance between the narrator and the truth, casting doubt on her own pure intentions, implicating herself even as she implicated the bureaucracy, cruelty, and inefficiency of the American healthcare system. 

The A-plot of her story is the titular “Death Threat”: an email she sent to a completely ineffectual H.R. contractor at the company she calls “Bird,” a thinly-veiled moniker for…well, you can Google it. And believe me, by the end of the show, you’ll want to send them death threats, too.  

The death threat she sent is the occasion for telling but it’s also a vehicle to explore her own death threat—a side door into the trauma at hand. Parikh was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2022 and spent the entirety of her four months of treatment in an infuriating email back-and-forth with “Bird” trying to wrangle her basic income while on medical leave. The interplay between these two stories gives her an incredible range—she goes from victim to villain in the span of a sentence, escaping the grip of tragedy to express anger, exasperation, pettiness, and even joy.

A true satirist with headlines at The Onion, Clickhole, and The New Yorker, Parikh seemed to understand that comedy is more than Notaro’s “tragedy plus time.” Her approach is something closer to Kant’s incongruity theory: “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” 

For example, before starting chemo, she made the decision to freeze embryos with her partner. The room tensed for what everyone expected to be a grand reflection on mortality, motherhood, or the current state of abortion rights.

“Some people think that frozen embryos are children,” Parikh started. “But I’m here to tell you guys: you take the egg, you take the sperm, you combine them and put them away for later. That’s not children, that’s meal prepping.” 

I’ve thought about that joke for months. Parikh’s show is so tightly written, so unexpected and real, that for most of the show, the audience didn’t even have time to think about whether it was right or wrong to laugh at her (sometimes tragic, sometimes comic) circumstances. We just fucking laughed.

“I started thinking to myself,” she said while talking about the side effects of chemo. “‘I’m not eating at all right now. Can I just clock in early for Ramadan?’ Chemo and prison are kind of the two easiest ways to get into Islam quick.”

The show answers that fraught question in the affirmative: yes, cancer can be funny. But mostly, Rima Parikh is funny. She lands the backflips and then some. 

Get your tickets for Rima Parikh’s Death Threat at Caveat on Sunday, May 5.

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