Dicing With Dr Death: A Show About The Lighter Side Of The End Of Life

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Philip Nitschke is famous for a lot of things, but comedy is not one of them. He’s hoping all that will change in Melbourne soon.

When I announced that I would be premiering my new comedy show ‘Dicing with Dr Death’ at the Edinburgh Fringe last August, where I would run suicide courses, the boys at the MET said ‘You can’t do that’.

After a cup of tea and a cautioned chat they said ‘Okay, if you have to’. The show could go on but ‘don’t mention the ’N’ word’.

When I said last month that I’d bring the same show to Australia for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, it was the Medical Board who said ‘You can’t do that’.

‘Suicide,’ they said, ‘is no laughing matter.’ But, do they have a point?

As a euthanasia activist and communicator, I’ve been around death long enough to know that you can get your message across much better when there is laughter involved. For the past 15 years, at Exit workshops I’ve tried hard to make my audiences laugh. To set a lighter tone. To make us all feel more comfortable with this most uncomfortable of topics.

In Edinburgh, the Police and the medical profession tried all manner of approaches to close the show down. I was relieved when the CEO of the Fringe came to my defence on TV saying that “censorship has no place on the comedy stage”. I was ecstatic when The Times editorialised that the show “is what the Edinburgh Fringe is all about”.

But now we’re in Melbourne. Will Australia’s so-called culture capital agree?

So far, so good. The MICF director has been smart enough to take her lead from the Scots. But that was before the release last week of the national suicide statistics from the ABS. Before the nation went into panic mode. Before we all knew that it is elderly men who are choosing to end their lives at the highest frequency.

We are told that old men suicide because they are lonely, isolated and depressed. Headlines across the country have screamed about the national suicide scourge gripping the nation.

Bugger! This is perhaps not the best time to run the show after all.

Philip-Nitschke-dicing-with-death

But beyond the statistics is the increasing number of deaths of old men (and women) who are electively choosing to go. They are reasoning that now is the time.

To them, choosing the time and place of their passing is a cause for celebration, a time for ritual, perhaps even a reason to laugh.

My suicide show is not about irrational suicide. By this I mean the one that sees young Aboriginal men and women hang themselves in their jail cells.

The suicide I’m talking about is that considered by the elderly who are at the end of a life well lived.

The type of suicide committed by the likes of high-profile Melbourne couple, Peter and Pat Shaw in Brighton late last year.

Prior to dying, Peter Shaw came to one of my meetings. I know this because he sat in the front row. He laughed along at how, in the good old days, you could get Nembutal over the counter in a full pint bottle. He was especially amused at the Women’s Weekly’s willingness to advertise this fact.

Ah, but they were the good ol’ days.

Now it seems that the mere mention of the word is enough to cause moral panic and social censure. Just ask the MET boys. Just ask the Medical Board of Australia. Just ask Jeff Kennett.

All will warn that the moment you tell your audience about drugs, they’ll be wanting it, swilling it down and dropping like flies in Collins St. You know how Melburnians love a drink.

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They think the corpses will pile up outside the Athenaeum, and the Festival will be ruined.

There are some things you just can’t talk about, let alone laugh along with.

As someone entering his 69th year, I am especially aware that the older you get, the more willing you are to laugh at yourself and your foibles. And the less tolerant you are of an increasingly younger society that tells you can’t, you shouldn’t, and you won’t.

The extraordinary lengths people will go to in their quest for information for a peaceful and reliable rational suicide cannot but help lend itself to a good laugh.

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Philip Nitschke

Philip Nitschke is a former medical doctor and wanna be comedian.

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