The Unwilling Stage Assistant
I made my baby giggle, and now she’s doing stand-up and making everyone laugh – with stories about me
21 February 2020
I remember becoming aware of my sense of humor. I was about eight years old and had just come home from school. Using my whole body, I was telling my Mom a story and imitating a rooster in a cartoon who was thinking hard about something.
How do you act out an invisible action like thinking? In the classic cartoon fashion: by clasping your hands behind your back, leaning forward and pacing furiously back and forth with a very intense look on your face.
As soon as I launched into this imitation, my mother burst out laughing, filling the kitchen with her notoriously loud guffaws. Holding her stomach, bending over and gasping for breath, she announced that I absolutely had to do a repeat performance for my father that evening.
I beamed. My chest, my whole body, swelled with pride and I was filled with a warm, fuzzy feeling. “I’m funny,” I thought. “My Mom likes my jokes. She likes them so much that she even thinks they’re worth repeating.”
I’m funny, dammit!
When my father came home from work that evening, my mother immediately ran to get me, imploring me to “show Dad how to think.” Thrilled to be in such high demand, I again clasped my hands behind my back and paced back and forth with the required fury – maybe with even just a tad more enthusiasm this time. My father, too, threw his head back and bellowed into the room. I felt absolutely hilarious. If Jerry Seinfeld had been born at the time, I would have said that I felt just like him.
Encouraging me and my four siblings this way during our childhood molded the entire family into amateur comedians. Our dinner conversations revolved around who had the best joke or could tell the best story. We spent as much time laughing and talking as we did eating our dinner, or perhaps even more. Malcolm Gladwell claims that an average of 10,000 hours is required to become a true master in a subject. We way overshot that goal.
It only stands to reason that I would pass this humor on to my own children. Jokes lend themselves to all but the direst situations, so why not apply this to child-rearing as well? It works like a charm and makes it easier on everyone. I started teasing my kids very early and was shocked to discover just how early children grasp the concept of a joke.
One day I walked past my husband on the couch, holding our two-month old daughter Natasha in my arms.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Oh, off to the diapering table,” I said.
“Didn’t you just change her?” I had in fact just changed her diaper 30 minutes earlier.
“Yes, but she just THHHHPPP again!” I said, making a blubbering noise with my lips.
To my utter surprise, my tiny daughter giggled. Natasha giggled! My two-month old baby had gotten the joke.
My husband and I exchanged glances, flabbergasted. She had no idea what we were talking about, but she recognized instantly that the noise coming out of Mommy’s mouth was weird. She was nowhere near being able to speak, but she already understood that those noises that Mom was making were not ordinary ones.
They were funny.
When my kids were toddlers I created some games to get them to do That Of Which One Must Not Speak: to eat their vegetables. Little kids often get bored eating; I decided to liven it up a bit.
“This food is magic! If you eat a bite it will make you meow!” I claimed one day.
Even a two-year-old realizes this is a ridiculous statement, which is precisely the point. The would-be vegetable eater would get a glint in her eye, open wide for the next bite and – meow at me.
“Amazing!” I would say. “It really is magic! Now watch this. The next bite will make you bark.”
Sure enough, the “magic” worked again and she would bark. We would exchange knowing looks. Gosh, this magic thing was something!
This worked perfectly, at least until Natasha wised up and spilled the beans to her younger sister Lisa. As soon as I began my meow-or-bark spiel, Natasha butted in and said “Don’t listen to Mom! She just wants to get you to eat!”
Thanks a lot, kiddo. I never did figure out how to get Lisa to eat her veggies. This was worse than telling her that Santa Claus didn’t exist (which Natasha also did later on, by the way. Thanks Natasha!).
When my kids were old enough to help around the house, I also inserted a bit of hyperbolic drama to drive home the basic wisdom that nobody likes to do chores, but they must be done anyway.
“I hate taking down the garbage!” I would hear, accompanied by much groaning and feet-dragging.
Enter the drama queen. That would be me.
“Not me. I just LOVE it! I could take the garbage down all day it’s so much FUN! Gar-bage, gar-bage, bring on the gar-bage!” I would chant back in response.
I would reap much eye-rolling and huffing in return, but I’m pretty sure I got my point across.
Not once did I imagine that nurturing wittiness would ever have any kind of drawback. What could possibly be wrong with that? Everybody appreciates a subtle wisecrack or verbal jab in the ribs in all but the most serious situations.
I was wrong.
Twenty years on, Natasha has started doing stand-up comedy. Unwittingly, I have been delivering material to her pretty much my entire life.
Where I come from in the Midwest, it’s polite to walk up to people, introduce yourself and give a hearty pump of a handshake with a big smile. It’s how I was brought up, and old habits die hard. The way I figure it, most people also appreciate a nice gesture like that. Yep. So I was a bit rattled at the responses I got when I arrived in Bavaria. I remember my first “Guten Morgen!” that I smiled at someone as I jogged past them. As I recall, they stopped in their tracks and watched me pass by, their mouth agape in surprise. I soon learned that one does not greet people on the street here, and you can outright scare them if you do.
This explains why it is excruciating for my kids to be in my presence whenever we go into a store, bakery, train station – OK, I admit it, just about anywhere – and I chat up a stranger. Their English may be flawless, but they were born and bred right here in the Old Country.
This cultural difference was driven home to me with rather painfully blazing clarity on the night of Natasha’s first stand-up performance. Or rather, the first one I was allowed to attend. She had worked hard on her material, timed herself to be sure to stay within her slot and tested it for quality on the only person she could really trust. No, not me of course, her sister Lisa. It’s not like I’d taught her that shit in the first place or anything.
Sitting in a room of about 200 people, I was relieved that the crowd was so large. Nobody knew I was Natasha’s mother, which is a good thing, for in the very first line of her routine she claimed:
“My mother wanted to come tonight, but unfortunately, she couldn’t make it. Because I wouldn’t let her.” Everyone started to snicker.
Uh-oh. This did not bode well. I knew what was coming, and it made me slightly nauseous. The next joke was going to be at my expense.
It goes without saying that Natasha did not look in my direction. Instead she swept her eyes above the heads of the crowd, just like they tell you to do when you’re giving one of those PowerPoint presentations.
There was a very good reason she didn’t want to meet my eye.
“If my mother were here, she’d march over to the comedians sitting here and say (in an exaggerated Midwestern twang):
‘Hi, I’m Natasha’s mother, SO nice to MEET you!’ (she pumps an imaginary person’s hand vigorously while saying this).
‘I’m so glad my daughter has finally found a hobby and made some nice new comedian friends! And honey, I wasn’t sure if they served any food here, so I made you a sandwich – here you go sweetie!’ she twanged, handing over an imaginary Tupperware box with an imaginary sandwich inside.
The crowd roared. I smiled feebly.
So this was my reward for two decades of mothering? This was how I was being repaid for years of diaper-changing, cooking, feeding, playgroups, playdates, bedtime stories and nonstop cleaning and troubleshooting? This is what I get for scraping squished, rotten bananas out of the bottom of her schoolbag, trying to get obstinate teachers to be more understanding and for putting up with her snarky remarks?
Sass begets sass, and I begot a lot.
Listening to my daughter entertain the crowd with jokes about me, the family, and anything else that can be made fun of, I watched her strut across the stage, microphone in hand, the consummate comedienne, delivering perfectly timed one-liners. She looked out, surveying the scene, waiting for the right moment to lash out with her next joke.
I surveyed the crowd around me. They were smiling and laughing and having a great time.
Once again my chest, my whole body, swelled with pride. I felt a warm glow. She’s funny! She’s funny!
And she’s my daughter.
By Brenda Arnold