Travis Irvine helps fellow comic Ed Larson explore how America killed his mother

In a new documentary, the filmmaker and Columbus native explores the confluence of factors that could have accelerated the death of Larson’s mom

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
A photograph of Ed Larson and his late mother, Kathy

The first time filmmaker and comedian Travis Irvine met Ed Larson more than 10 years ago, Larson was screaming and covered in blood.

At the time, Larson was performing with the New York City-based sketch comedy troupe Murderfist, which Irvine said was known to start its shows by streaking through the audience in various stages of undress, oftentimes smeared in fake blood. “So my first impression of Ed was, ‘Oh, my god, he’s terrifying,’” Irvine said recently by phone from Los Angeles, where he moved in February following a pandemic year spent largely in Columbus. 

As Irvine got to better know Larson, however, a gentler side started to emerge — “Really everyone in the comedy community has a soft heart,” Irvine said — particularly in the weeks and months that followed the 2016 death of Larson’s mother, Kathy. This tragedy inspired Irvine’s most recent documentary, “How America Killed My Mother,” which premiered in 2020 and screens at Studio 35 at 11 p.m. on Friday, July 2, followed by an audience Q&A with Irvine and Larson, who will be joined in conversation by former congressional hopeful Morgan Harper

The 40-minute documentary, which begins in the weeks that immediately followed Kathy’s death due to complications from gestational diabetes, finds Ed trying to bring accountability to those people and institutions that he believed played a role in her passing, including the U.S. healthcare system, the country’s predatory banking system and even his own father, who largely abandoned the family, increasing the stresses placed on Kathy.

Ed Larson, right, in a scene from "America Killed My Mother"

Throughout, Larson’s big personality comes through, particularly as he cracks jokes about his status as the largest baby born in New Jersey (he weighed nearly 15 pounds at birth). But the film allows ample space for quieter moments, too, such as the instance that the comedian falls abruptly silent before breaking into tears while giving a tour of his mom’s bedroom

“That was one of those moments where, comedians, ah, they have an off switch sometimes, and that was one of those moments where we were like, ‘OK, folks, this is a big, happy man who’s very sad right now.’” said Irvine, whose previous documentaries traced his own run for the mayor of Bexley (“American Mayor”) and Ben Kissel’s campaign to become Brooklyn Borough President (“Hail Yourself, America!”). “I let that moment hit in real time and then sit. For a film crew — it was just me, a sound guy and a camera guy — you’re kind of just elongations of the equipment at that point. … When Ed wanted to feel sad, man, that’s grief.”

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Coming into filming, Irvine and Larson had an idea of the kinds of points they wanted to address, beginning with the failure of the healthcare system. The documentary notes that Kathy’s blood sugar monitor was covered by her previous insurance but not Medicare, robbing her of a tool that had become essential to monitoring and controlling her illness. Interviews with U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and Gary Johnson, former Libertarian Party presidential nominee, present different solutions to the crisis, but share common ground in the acknowledgment that some part of the system is inherently broken.

Often, though, these onscreen moments unfolded differently in real time than the pair expected entering into filming. This was particularly true of a series of hidden camera scenes in which Larson confronted the banks and casinos that he believed had operated in a predatory manner toward his mother, aiding her spiral into debt. In these scenes, rather than the expected confrontational shouting matches, Larson is generally met with layers of bureaucracy and redirection, confronted with people who appear just as helpless working within the system as his mother was in navigating it.

Similarly unexpected is a movie-ending visit to Reno, Nevada, where Larson confronts his father only to be disarmed by the elder’s sincere apologies and expressions of regret. The scene ends with the two sharing a hug.

At one point in the film, Larson expresses that “being poor in America shouldn’t be a death sentence." But while the filmmakers present a compelling case that everything from access to health care to stresses compounded by debts could have played a role in accelerating Kathy’s death, there are no easy answers to be found, only an acknowledgment that engaging in the conversation is a needed first step.

“We kind of just kept looking for answers, right? Go to D.C. Go to Reno. Go to Atlantic City,” Irvine said, each stop coming up relatively empty. “And so then it became, well, let’s keep the conversation to things we can change so this doesn’t keep happening to millions of moms all over the country. … It’s about raising those points so we can all start to ask ourselves the same questions.”