November 15, 2019 | Narrative
my parents don’t think i’m funny
this is a bigger crisis than you think
Let’s be clear. I’m a funny guy—one of the funniest out there—and this is not something you want to wrangle with me about. I’ve literally sat down with a therapist and traced the origin of all my self-confidence to a rapturously received AXE Body Spray joke I made in my sixth-grade English class. The emotional duress of performing stand-up as a NYU student was so intense that I developed a legitimate nicotine dependence. Really, I just need you to laugh at my jokes, and laugh hard, because the two most important people in my life never will.
At some early stage, I decided I was going to live life as a creative; of what sort, I didn’t—and in fact, still don’t—know. But no matter where I’ve chased my artistic impulse, it seems my wit has always led the way. And, frankly, I should be confident enough to follow it: My parents have repeatedly made it clear that their approval of my (legal, healthy) choices is unconditional (“Buy a dress for yourself, we don’t care!”—my father). Still, supporting my choices is different from enjoying them. Indeed, my parents have never once confirmed that I’m funny. Not when I performed my incredible John McCain impression throughout the 2008 election, not when I captained two improv teams in high school, and not even when a script I wrote got accepted into a comedy festival (it imagined the chaos that would unfold if Yale’s common app essay prompt asked, “What’s it like to eat a human face?”). If you were at my bar mitzvah, you might have seen my parents laugh along with the rest of the congregation when I compared my Uncle Joel to Moses. But don’t be fooled: I rehearsed that speech over and over in our living room, and they sat there stony faced each time.
I wish I could shrug it off, and maybe if they were assholes I could. But they’re not—it’s actually emblematic of their greatness that they refuse to bullshit me. I’ll never forget my mother’s response to my first college haircut, a street-style fade that my whole freshman hallway told me looked really good. “Aww,” she said, sadly picking for even a single graspable strand, “you’re gonna be ugly for so long now.” For better or worse, my parents’ approval is the purest, most undiluted affirmation I can hope for in this world. It’ll always mean something to me.
When I’m feeling down, I can at least remember the realstupidgarbage that actually makes my parents laugh. Consider the joke my mom makes every time a waiter returns to grab our empty plates and ask how the meal was: Smirking as though she were Truman Capote, she’ll wryly barb, “Oh, we hated it,” and lean back laughing like she just invented sarcasm. Meanwhile, my sober, no-nonsense father doesn’t even have his own material; instead, he keeps a Winston Churchill quote book in his pocket whenever he wants to take our cocktail parties to that next level. Honestly, if my parents did laugh at the jokes I make in my essays (yes, I send all my essays to my parents), I’d probably take the F and start selling them online.
Accordingly, I’ve long despised the one joke of mine they’ve ever truly enjoyed, my hatred only exacerbated by the fact that I was all of nine years old when I made it. My father sat down at the dinner table saying he had “important news,” and I—with impish brilliance—immediately retorted, “What!? You have another family in Baltimore?” At the time, their laughter meant everything to me; now, every time I come to the table with stronger material, my mother has been known to shrug. “Eh, it’s okay, but certainly no Baltimore.”
At least, Baltimore used to be the benchmark. Now, it’s “fuck you, dog.” See, last summer, something happened. I interpreted my failure to find employment in creative media as proof that I never would. Maybe working with children—something I’d enjoyed in the past—was an okay fallback career, so I spent the season leading rich, troubled teens on multi-night bike trips around Michigan. The cache of crazy tales I came home with was met by my parents with atypical laughter and glee. They especially enjoyed my story about Buster, the 15-year-old who randomly cussed out a sleeping guard dog—inspiring his owner to sic the creature on our group for two, long, terrifying miles. Even by the time I left for Providence, my parents were still giggling “fuck you, dog” at each other. When I got to school this semester, I dutifully looked for more jobs in education.
Predictably, my parents were ecstatic when I received an interview with Teach for America later that month. They coached me on my practice lesson, my wardrobe, the way I should brush my hair. They even fed me terrible lines to say in my one-on-one, which I naturally scoffed at. In retrospect, perhaps I should have used them; left to my own comedic devices, I may have told a joke about a sensitive topic. Can’t remember. Point is, I did not get the job. I Skyped my father the moment I got home, my face the picture of shame as I prepared to take in his wrath. Indeed, he looked me right in the eyes and said, “Julian, I think you failed that interview on purpose.” But then he said something unexpected. “I’m glad you did. You’re a creative; it’s who you are. Follow your dreams. If you want to make me happy, keep making terrible jokes.”
So, okay, I accept it. Whatever stage I mount in these next few years, no matter where I stand, I may never expect to hear my parents’ laughter. But that’s not what’s important to me anymore. Instead, I smile and remember—they’ll always be in the audience. Probably checking their watches the whole time, but I’ll take it.