Stand-up comics and the parent trap
By Jason Zinoman
There are an endless variety of boring people, but none are more brazenly tedious than parents telling you about their kids.
Part of the reason, I’m convinced, is that it is taboo to tell them so. When there’s no possibility of criticism, people get lazy. I know I do, droning on about sleep schedules or marveling to some poor trapped soul about how my daughters have opposite personalities. Besotted parents often can’t see how dull we are, a blind spot that is benign unless you’re listening to one. Or are a stand-up comic with a new baby.
That population grew over the pandemic, particularly the number of dads. Mazel tov to Nick Kroll, Hasan Minhaj, Matt Braunger and Kurt Braunohler, all charming comics who in the past several weeks have released specials with jokes about becoming a parent. Daniel Sloss also procreated, and in a recent live show, he confessed that he once hated when his favorite comics became parents, comparing the shift in their work with that of a British soccer star moving to an American league. It’s always a step down.
Then Sloss did some mediocre material about having a child that just goes to show how powerful the temptation is to turn the stuff of Facebook oversharing into professional comedy.
Jokes about raising children make an easy connection with certain sleepy-eyed audiences, but that can be its own parent trap. This is well-trod ground. (Ophira Eisenberg just started a podcast, “Parenting Is a Joke,” in which she talks to comics about raising kids.) It’s hard to hear Kroll discuss the double standards we have for mothers and fathers without thinking about Ali Wong’s breakthrough work. That the most successful dad comics of all time are Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. haunts the category. They once seemed endearing, too. But the primary challenge of stand-up on this subject is that it risks cheap sentimentality. Nothing smothers comedy faster.
With their Netflix specials, Minhaj and Kroll lean into schmaltz. In “Little Big Boy,” Kroll describes watching his wife give birth as “majestic.” With glassy eyes, he says, “It’s like you’re seeing life, creation begin.”
Minhaj also seems to tear up describing this moment in “The King’s Jester” while baby photos are projected behind him. “I’m like, oh my God, I’ve never felt this before in my life,” he says. “I’ve only known you three days but I would do anything for you. I can’t believe how much I love you.”
I can. Parental love is a common if beautiful thing, and these are talented comedians. Kroll is a charismatic impressionist with a knack for surreal detail. The way Minhaj spoofs his own enjoyment of his righteous comedy going viral is one of the best bits I’ve seen about the wages of social media. But on the subject of children, they get deadly earnest, trite and sugary enough to make your teeth ache.
People like to say becoming a parent helped them become less self-involved, but making a smaller version of yourself can just as easily lead to a more insular, selfish life. It’s also possible to explore the subject without resorting to fairy-tale lessons and pat emotional arcs, but it requires some hardheaded decisions.
The female comics I’ve seen recently seem more likely to do that. In her new Peacock special, “Ladykiller,” a pregnant Jena Friedman makes clever jokes about America’s hatred of moms by pinpointing how one of our most popular curses refers to having sex with one. In the first minutes of the new season of her Paramount+ sketch show, Amy Schumer is in her kitchen when a girl playing her daughter brings in a picture of the family she drew with a crayon. “I’m really not seeing it,” Schumer says, before imperiously ordering her to do it again. That’s the last we see of the kid.
The specials of Braunohler and Braunger benefit from not only clearly being aware of the pitfalls of parenting comedy, but also actively crafting strategies to elude them. Braunger all but hides those jokes in his special “Doug” (available on demand), neither opening nor closing with them, and introducing them with this segue: “OK, I’ve talked about big penises, testicles, what next?” he said, putting his finger in the air. “Oh, I have a daughter.”
Braunger has an intense sarcastic delivery that builds up an impressive amount of deadpan comic energy. It reminds me a little of Brody Stevens. And while it slows when he describes his sadness at dropping off his daughter at day care, there’s something hilarious about this manic man as a parent. That is a good joke. By the time he pulls down his pants to show off his tattoo, you are convinced that becoming a father has not changed him.
By contrast, Braunohler has the sensible bespectacled gravity of a paternal figure, a point he underlines in his new special, “Perfectly Stupid” (on Moment), by saying, “My life has finally caught up with my looks.” His bashfulness in admitting he has a child is the first clue that he knows this is treacherous territory. Then he shakes his head when the crowd roars. He’s too smart to want that. It’s no accident that he ends his hour with a sarcastic “aww.”
His special smartly gets specific and eccentric, a good way to avoid cliche. “My daughter calls me ‘papa’ because we, as a society, ruined ‘daddy,’” he says. “No one ever said: ‘Choke me, papa.’”
Comics shouldn’t avoid joking about raising kids. It’s far too fertile territory, and the rewards of a new idea are considerable. Trust me: Parents could use a laugh. Even some sentimentality can complement humor if handled deftly.
Perhaps the solution is to consider jokes about diapers or the impossibility of getting a 4-year-old to eat dinner the same way other comics grapple with jokes about the Holocaust or racist police brutality, which is to say, carefully, with high standards. When it comes to the banal and the transgressive, only the best will do.