DETROIT – To measure the footprints of Jack Kevorkian on the cultural landscape, consider a scene from “Grey’s Anatomy.”
In the first episode of the ABC medical saga, a frustrated Meredith says of a difficult patient, “If I hadn’t taken the Hippocratic oath, I would Kevorkian her with my bare hands.”
Not many public figures have a name that doubles as a verb. But Kevorkian, released from a Michigan prison Friday, has long filled a large and rather strange role as a cultural icon.
Over the years, the man who’s famous for helping people die has inspired band names (the Detroit punk band the Suicide Machines, originally called Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines) and song lyrics (Public Enemy’s “Kevorkian”).
A 1999 Kurt Vonnegut book, “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian,” has the legendary author talking to people like William Shakespeare and serving as a correspondent on the great beyond, with a little help from you-know-who.
But Kevorkian seems to pop up most frequently as a punchline in sitcoms, movies and late-night monologues. Dr. Death as a comedy staple? It’s a reflection of his controversial past and the uneasiness stirred by the topics of death and assisted suicide.
“The real Jack Kevorkian unquestionably advanced the public discussion of euthanasia,” says Stephen Rachman, associate professor of English and American studies at Michigan State University. But the icon of Kevorkian “became, right away, that figure of the mad scientist.”
Ever since the heyday of his fame in the 1990s, Kevorkian has been referenced by comedians for laughs – sometimes for silly chuckles, other times to make more complicated points.
In the irreverent 2001 Comedy Central sitcom “That’s My Bush,” a goofy President Bush springs Kevorkian from prison so he can euthanize his elderly cat. The look-alike actor who plays Kevorkian wears an argyle sweater and a Dracula-like cape.
A 2006 episode of “The Simpsons” has Grandpa Abe consulting a Dr. Egoyan for a session with a diePod, a suicide machine that provides users with comforting music and images for their final journey. Abe, who chooses Glenn Miller tunes and footage of cops beating hippies, is saved when Chief Wiggum bursts in to announce the overturning of an assisted-suicide law.
And a glance at the online archives of David Letterman’s Top 10 lists turns up a number of references to Kevorkian.
Coming in at No. 2 on the Top 10 Kevorkian pickup lines: “Your place, or my van where I help people die?” He also appears in the Top 10 least favorite Snapple flavors (No. 2: Kevorkian colada), the Top 10 new slogans for the tobacco industry (No. 8: Recommended by four out of five doctors named Kevorkian) and more.
Rachman, who recalls dressing up as Kevorkian for a Halloween party a decade ago, says there are several explanations for the comedy connection.
For one thing, Kevorkian’s intense personality and wiry, bespectacled appearance make him easy to parody. Whether in horror or humor, the mad scientist character is usually tightly wound and geeky.
There’s also the fact that comedians find material in the unexpected, like the inherent twist in a physician who helps people die instead of live.
Above all, gallows humor is one way to cope with the enormity of death.