No laughing matter: Stand-up comics and the parent trap

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.
No laughing matter: Stand-up comics and the parent trap

By JASON ZINOMAN

NEW YORK: 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 marvelling 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 downtown, he confessed that he once hated when his favourite comics became parents, comparing the shift in their work to 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 over-sharing 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 CK 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.

They try to exploit the sappiness by juxtaposing it with something crass or trivial. But it’s too little, too late, after the maudlin emotionalism of their vision of new fatherhood. They both incorporate having children into narratives of their own growth.

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.

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