The Joys of Letting Kids be Inappropriate

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Co-parenting under any circumstance has difficult moments, but in one household, even when parenting styles are misaligned, there is usually motivation by each parent to occasionally bend on at least some values in the name of preserving a semblance of a peaceful and united parenting front.

When marriages end, a parade of therapists, court system employees, attorneys, and others offer no shortage of advice for dealing with big rock decisions — how to divide parenting time, how to ensure children are financially supported, what school district is gonna be the “home” district, how do you divide holidays equitably? Those questions, while large in scope, at least typically come with a playbook negotiated through the court system. 

But what about the mundanity of day-to-day parenting decisions? There’s often no guide when parents who were previously coupled and made nearly all minor in-the-moment decisions in tandem are suddenly individuals in charge of their own households. That dynamic is simultaneously freeing and immensely complicated.

The mother of my children and I want what’s best for our kids, and have both created loving, comfortable environments that the kids feel safe in. We are largely in agreement about the “big issues.” But little things — like what we consider appropriate or inappropriate behaviors — often cause disagreements. When I got a text from her that said, “Isla is singing Baby Got Back pretty much word for word,” my natural instinct was to be proud. It’s a great song!

I soon learned, though, that moment wasn’t shared as a funny “kids are hilarious” situation, and instead was her probing for where our 6-year-old could’ve learned such a thing. I immediately panicked, realizing that there were probably a half dozen different ways my daughter could’ve learned Baby Got Back, with my encouragement, when she was with me.

I don’t want my kids to be rude or offensive. But I also don’t correct them much when they’re talking about gross things, especially my daughter. During an appearance on Pete Dominick’s podcast in 2019, comedian Nikki Glaser discussed the tired and easily disproved stereotype in comedy that “women aren’t funny.”

“People say that women aren’t funny,” Glaser said. “And there aren’t as many female comics, because you lay the groundwork for someone to become a comedian early on. Your brain has to be a comedic brain, and it has to be encouraged to be so. So when little boys are making jokes, what do you make jokes about? Farts and poop. And everyone goes, “tehehe, that’s silly, that’s funny.” When girls make jokes about farts and poop, because that’s what’s funny to a child, you get shamed for it. So, the thing that’s funny to a child inherently is not of access to you when you’re a young girl, because that’s gross. So you don’t develop a sense of humor, because all your jokes are taken from you.”

As someone who has flailed away at a standup comedy open mic night once, I wouldn’t say I’m trying to steer my daughter into that (or any) profession, unless she has a passion for it. But I do want her to continue developing a sense of humor, even a sometimes inappropriate one, and be as confident telling good or bad jokes as any boy is. There are immense benefits to laughing and making others laugh, and it takes trial and error to get good at those skills.

Dr. Ashley Soderlund, a child development psychologist, notes the importance of humor in a child’s ability to develop resilience and relieve or manage stress. 

Edutopia, a K-12 education foundation founded by George Lucas, points out that humor in kids stimulates goal-oriented motivation, helps students with retention, and helps build a sense of community in classrooms. 

A 2007 study published by researchers at UCLA discussed the positive impact humor can have on children dealing with pain and illness. Psychology Today notes that repeated laughter has benefits for circulation and lung and muscle health. 

So, as parents, how can we give our kids the freedom to develop their sense of humor without letting them go too far? Nemours Pediatric Health System has some helpful tips that include:

  • Model appropriate humor for them by telling funny jokes, laughing, and not getting worked up over small accidents like spilling a drink.
  • Encourage their humor by acknowledging and laughing at them when they’re funny, drawing silly pictures with them, or playing along with jokes they are making or funny stories they’re telling.
  • Point out when other people are funny, and encourage them to share their own funny observations, even with other adults. 
  • Create a “humor-rich environment” by having funny or creative books, comics, art, movies, or TV shows available.
  • Use boundaries to keep them from making mean-spirited or hurtful jokes or to point out appropriate times or places for certain jokes (like bathroom humor), but explain those boundaries in ways that are inclusive and respectful of their developing intellects.

Dr. Larry Kutner, a clinical psychologist, author, and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, notes that humor and jokes are important to kids developing language skills and learning and understanding cultural norms, including what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

My daughter, like many kids, often pretends to be a parrot and mimics every word I say to try and annoy me. My go-to move to win the game is saying something like, “my daddy is so cool and handsome!” — a line she would rather die than repeat. When she was playing it recently, I said my typically game-ending line and, without missing a beat (and staying in character in the weird monotone robot-parrot hybrid voice she does), Isla droned hilariously, “… I am not fully trained yet.” Her ability to talk conversationally and think improvisationally has clearly improved because she so often jokes around, experiments with words, and is figuring out how to appropriately interject her quirky sense of humor.

A few minutes later, I watched her pick her nose and eat it. Like all of us, she’s still a work in progress.

When Laughing is All You Have

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“… Are you funny?”

I’ve always loved standup comedy. I’ve also always been timid and risk averse, which has led to varying levels of regrets from every period of my life for things I’ve been interested in but talked myself out of trying. I’ve spent the better part of the last three years trying to reinvent my life after some seismic changes, and somewhere within that stretch, I began to question my strategy of always making the choices that seemed safest.

So when I slowly started confiding in friends that I wanted to try standup, the “are you even funny?” question was a pretty common one. The answer is … I dunno. But I have stories to tell.

In high school, I had a 10-disc CD changer installed in the trunk of my 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix. Two of the 10 discs that never left the rotation were Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock standup albums.

Don’t judge me here (I was a college white dude so I was the correct demographic) but one of my favorite comedy moments at Oakland University revolved around Dane Cook. One night, he was performing for free in the food court in front of about 80 people. I was walking through the building after a night class and stopped and listened to him. Less than two years later, he sold out Meadowbrook Hall on campus, with people driving from all over Michigan to see him.

I love stories. I love that standups can create something that resonates, find an audience, and have it grow relatively rapidly with the right combination of luck and tenacity. I love hearing about people’s fucked up experiences, especially when they can find humor through pain. And I now have plenty of fucked up, painful experiences of my own that laughter has helped pull me through. So I found an open mic and I did it.

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I made my standup debut on April 20 at The Independent Comedy Club at Planet Ant in Hamtramck (they have comedy shows every Friday and Saturday — they’re great, you should go!). There were two open mics to choose from — 8 p.m. or 11 p.m. I had friends who wanted to watch me embarrass myself. They couldn’t get there early, so I decided to wait until 11 p.m. to sign up.

The caveat — the 11 p.m. spot includes a comic on stage who heckles you throughout your set. Which I was totally prepared to handle the first time I’d ever done comedy and the second time I’d ever talked while trying to remember to hold a microphone near my mouth. Worst case scenario, I humiliate myself, which is still a pretty great story, so I rolled with it.

I watched the first open mic, and it made me much more confident. The performers had varying styles, some who were experienced and some who weren’t. Mostly, they were just casually and informally testing material. The audience at that point was … my friend Rhiannon and I. So it didn’t exactly seem intimidating. I could do this!

Thennnnnnnn … the actual show started. And the burlesque show that was going on next door ended, that audience came over, and all of the seats in the club filled. Then a couple dozen more people were standing in the back of the room. Then a couple of the people who were casual during the early open mic got up during the main show and did sets that were really polished. Then two professional comics who were headlining had killer sets and did NOT carry notebooks up there with them like I fully planned to do. Then they filmed a live episode of a podcast, and I’m not really sure what was going on but there was an Easter Bunny, a Spiderman abduction, and loud music and dancing that had the crowd really hyped. And a few people ready to fight Spiderman for crashing into them too aggressively as he ran through the audience.

Also, I’d written a five minute set, based on googling and reading that most open mic sets are about five minutes. I found out this one was three minutes. I kept trying to read my notebook in the dark, figuring out what I could cut on the fly (after three Jamesons). I lost my pen so I couldn’t make notes.

Oh, and it was 420. I’m not sure if the number of high people wandering around was a help or a hindrance for doing standup, honestly. But I, a moron, didn’t realize I chose the biggest pot holiday of the year to try to do standup for the first time.

So my relaxation dissipated and no less than four times I plotted how I could sprint out of there and not go through with it.

But the crowd thinned out after the main show ended, so it was slightly less intimidating. I was second on the signup sheet, and got called up by EJ Watson — the comic who was serving as the open mic heckler and who was really funny in his set earlier in the show.

I led with confessing it was my first time — I googled what to do at open mics relentlessly, and found something that said you should fess up to being new, so I took that as gospel and did it.

The premise of my set was app-based dating. Namely, being an old loser who hadn’t dated in 13 years trying to figure out how people date now and then realizing that it can be pretty easy when you realize a huge percentage of men are creepy scumbags. So it was a celebration of my averageness. I had to cut a joke I liked about craft beer being commonly listed as a hobby (and noting that not only is leading with alcoholism a weird choice, but also craft beer is just regular beer with varying amounts of coffee poured into it). My joke about women having collections of tiny penis trading cards on their phones based on the number of unsolicited dick pics they get seemed to get over.

The tiny penis trading cards line got callbacks during two other sets, so I feel confident that, if nothing else, I accomplished creating a new creepy man shaming tool. Seriously, if Instagram and Snapchat created a trading card filter, it would be so popular — slap the filter on the unwanted penis and post it to the internet with the sender’s personal info. Collect them all!

I also joked about my own lame hobby — loving professional wrestling. But I have to be honest — a professional wrestling tool helped me deal with EJ’s heckling. Anyone who has watched the WWE over the last 20 years knows about “WHAT?” chants. They started in 2001 because of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Essentially, whenever someone is talking on the mic, the crowd continuously cuts them off with “WHAT?” because Austin used to do it. Somehow, even though Austin is long retired and now hates the chants he started, they haven’t died.

The best performers in WWE overcome them by changing their cadence and eliminating their pauses, which makes it hard for the crowd to keep up the rhythm. So I stole that idea and tried to talk a little faster every time EJ interjected. He got his jokes in, but I didn’t get super thrown off. All those years of watching men roll around in their underwear finally paid off with practical advice.

I was worried time would drag when I got on stage, but the wrap it up light was on before I knew it. The setups I wrote to get to my main jokes were a little too long. And I didn’t rehearse as much as I could’ve, so I looked down at my notes too much rather than paying attention to how people in the audience were reacting. There were a couple of lines I didn’t deliver right, and one I didn’t like when I heard it out loud.

So am I funny? No clue. But I tried something, I didn’t make a complete fool of myself (YET!), and I am definitely going to do it again. I have waaaaaay more messed up topics to cover publicly.