Colorado's Comedy Community Unites in Mourning Ailis Kennedy

Remembering Ailis Kennedy, 1985-2019.
Remembering Ailis Kennedy, 1985-2019. Phinnius Packaderm
"First off, I have to say I’m sorry for what I will do," wrote local comedian Ailis Kennedy, confirming on Facebook the darkest fears of her loved ones. "Second, please do not blame my parents I love them so deeply. They never were able to see me for who I am. [How] could they? It was too much to ask of them. Third, I love you guys all. Learn to love yourselves, it’s a hard thing to do. I do love you all and will miss our times together."

Many of Kennedy's friends and fellow comedians watched with helpless shock as the tragedy unfolded on Facebook, their frantic updates algorithmically sorted among pet photos and targeted ads. When their pleading phone calls, urgent text messages and supportive social-media exhortations went unanswered, they notified the police, checked in with the management at her apartment building, and coordinated unofficial search parties in a desperate effort to intervene, to counter Kennedy's fatal determination with love and acceptance.

It's impossible to say whether Kennedy was aware of the outpouring of support — her behavior certainly seemed to indicate that she'd shut off her phone — and she succumbed to her despair. Her body was discovered near Livermore on Monday, June 10.

Born on April 14, 1985, in Laramie, Wyoming, Kennedy spent most of her life trying to reconcile with the ill-fitting form of her biological gender and birth name. After untold years of private struggle and contemplation, she boldly declared who she'd always been and began answering to the name "Ailis" in lieu of her given name.  Kennedy began her comedy career before coming out, and her transition process took shape in the unforgiving scrutiny of the spotlight. Embracing your true gender identity is an act of unfathomable courage in its own right, but braving it in the spirit-crushing, semi-public sphere of a small comedy scene deserves a medal of valor.

By all accounts, Kennedy was an indefatigable mic-hound whose jokes improved as her self-actualization blossomed. It's a profoundly indicative confirmation of the power of truth that prior to announcing who she truly was, Kennedy performed in the guise of an outsized character — one who heightened her innate awkwardness for comedic effect — yet she evolved into a sharper and more authentic joke writer once she came to terms with being Ailis. Everyone in the Colorado comedy community, comics and crowds alike, will suffer from the loss of her singular voice and miss out on the unknowable triumphs of her thwarted potential. 

The pall of sadness hanging over Kennedy's peers in the Fort Collins comedy scene has only deepened and darkened over the past week. "She would take the high road when most wouldn’t, and would try to see the best in people," remembers fellow comic Chris Muñoz. "She was a good friend. We are all better for having known her, and we are very sad that she is gone."

Still living in Laramie when she decided to dip her toes into the pond of Colorado comedy, Kennedy took an hour-long commute to the Choice City several times a week, becoming firmly ensconced in its tightly knit community over the years and eventually settling in nearby Loveland. She secured a day job as an aesthetician at Ulta Beauty, solidifying her female identity and providing a forum to express her universally acclaimed makeup application skills. In comedy, meanwhile, Kennedy found catharsis on stage and friendship off stage.

click to enlarge SELFIE BY AILIS KENNEDY
Selfie by Ailis Kennedy

"It was immensely therapeutic to chuckle together at the slow-motion humiliation that was our comedy careers," reflects Ryan Nowell, adding that Kennedy was perpetually available to commiserate with him over the "daily ups and downs" of living life from one mic to the next. Asked what acquaintances might not know about her, Nowell notes that Kennedy "was a huge history buff. Majored in it. Wrote her undergrad thesis on Meiji-era Japan. She adored board games, and had played just about everything old and new. She was extremely generous with that expertise, always wanted everyone to be having a good time more than anything, more than winning, more than showing off. I think she approached all her interests, whether it was an arcane PC strategy game or the correct application of mascara, with the same thoroughness. She didn’t want to just know, she wanted to be an expert, and was in a great many things. I think she was embarrassed by her intelligence, was always very reticent to share it."

What he'll mourn most, however, is "the unremarkable friend shit you don’t treasure until it’s all in retrospect."

The emotional devastation of the loss of Kennedy is especially poignant during Pride month, issuing a somber reminder of the actual life-and-death stakes at play in the struggle for equal rights. Suicidal ideations and actions afflict the transgender community at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. According to a recent study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately half of the transgender youths participating in its survey had made attempts to take their own lives. While the full spectrum of mental health cannot be reduced to sociological influences, forging a society where trans people aren't harassed in public or on dating apps, aren't penalized by the government and aren't ostracized by their families would certainly reduce these morbid statistics. Yet rather than showing Ailis Kennedy one final act of courtesy, the Laramie Boomerang mis-gendered her in its official obituary. The only recourse Kennedy's friends have now is to endeavor to honor her memory.

One rare element of heartening news in the heartbreaking aftermath of Kennedy's death has been the outpouring of support from the comedy community. In an effort to assuage its collective grief, comedians have raised and donated thousands of dollars — far exceeding their initial fundraising goals — for the benefit of Trans Lifeline, an organization dedicated to fighting the LGBTQ+ suicide epidemic. Ailis Kennedy may be tragically beyond saving now, but she will remain an indelible source of love, laughter and inspiration for everyone who cared about her.

It's a testament to Kennedy's innate generosity that even in her most desperate hour, she encouraged everyone to "learn to love yourselves," because, as she knew all too well, "it’s a hard thing to do." Even as they mourn her passing, Ailis Kennedy's friends, family and colleagues can find some sense and solace in the forgiveness, wisdom and kindness of her final words.

Family services have yet to be announced, but Kennedy's comedy friends can commune at a memorial gathering, along with a bit of comedy, from 7 to 11 p.m. on Monday, July 15, at Hodi's Half Note, 167 North College Avenue in Fort Collins.
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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham