A house fire is a tragic thing to live through, and comedian Jacy Catlin would agree – he’s done it. But in his new short film, “Everything I Learned When My House Burned Down,” he also proves that tragedy + time = comedy.
In February 2021, Catlin’s family was at their home outside of Osseo, Wisconsin on the coldest night of the year. He’d fired up the seldom-used wood stove in the basement to help keep his family warm.
“Then all of a sudden I thought, ‘You know, that’s smelling kind of strong,'” Catlin recalled. “So I got up, and all of the sudden, I heard my kids screaming. By the time, I got into the living room, there were already flames shooting up through the floor.”
While his family grabbed the pets and evacuated, he managed to briefly put the fire out with one of his fire extinguishers. But as he went to grab another from the garage, the fire reignited and quickly grew.
“So I just called 911 and ran away thinking the propane tank is going to explode or something,” admitted Catlin. “You just want to get away from the house because it was already totally engulfed in flames.”
Luckily, everyone made it out safely and managed to stay warm, even the hamster.
“When you come walking out with the hamster cage and put it in the back of the car, you know it’s bad,” Catlin joked.
A couple days later, Catlin went back to the home to survey the scene. He took some video and posted it to YouTube.
In the video, Catlin was amazed by the stalactites and stalagmites of ice that formed inside the house during the firefight. He even joked that his house had become a cave. The water from the firefighters’ hoses froze to the ceiling from the extreme cold, melted from the heat of the fire, and then re-froze on tables, counters and floors.
“Which was oddly beautiful,” Catlin said. “But also when it’s your own house, it’s just kind of like … it’s pretty heavy imagery.”
Considering how tragic the fire was, the YouTube video was actually kind of funny in places. Catlin said he wasn’t really going for humor, but it got him thinking. And that’s where his friend Joe Pickett comes in.
Pickett is a fellow comedian and curator of The Found Footage Festival. And since both men make a living off of humor, it was natural for the two to find some in Catlin’s recent tragedy.
“Takes the edge off, you know?” Catlin suggested. “Sometimes it’s necessary to get through these things any way you can.”
“I think laughing at tragedy is a uniquely Wisconsin thing,” Pickett added. “For this film, we’re really trying to strike the balance between like, yeah, this is a tragic thing and we shouldn’t just be laughing at it. But then it’s also how we deal with it.”
So, they filmed Catlin inside the burned house like he was still living there.
“That’s the conceit of the short, is that we wanted Jacy to go about his normal day-to-day routine in the burnt out house,” Pickett explained. “He’s vacuuming. He’s listening to extremely warped records that don’t play on a record player anymore.”
In the film, Catlin said that things get better, but sometimes it’s hard to notice. Two years later, he’s still dealing with it.
“Going through and remembering, ‘Oh, we don’t have a grapefruit spoon. We’ve got to buy a grapefruit spoon,'” he explained. “Every single day, there’s just something that you don’t have that you used to have. You assume it’s somewhere because you used to have one. Oh, no, no, no. It burned in the fire. So that still goes on all the time.”
Editor’s Note: “Everything I Learned When My House Burned Down: A Comedy” is screening at The Wisconsin Film Festival on Saturday, April 18, 2023.