(finding parenthood painfully funny)
“She needs to do this on her own, without a net. Just like the rest of us stand-ups have to. And … she has to make the audience laugh.”
My 20-month-old daughter squeals, “Higher, Mommy! HIGHER!!!” Her voice becomes less playful and more authoritative as she picks up speed in the baby swing. The parents next to me, most likely a top Hollywood exec and family practice doctor (or an entertainment lawyer and a nutritionist, you pick), gently nudge their baby’s swing and avert their eyes, likely certain I’m giving my kid whiplash.
My daughter’s arms desperately reach forward on each upswing: “I’m going to touch the leaf on the top of that tree!” She barks, “HIGHER, MOMMY!!!” Her orders leave no room for negotiation. She’s been my sergeant for close to two years and I know the drill. My arms ache, hands raw from slapping the hard leather swing for the last forty-two minutes. Coffee is beginning to wear thin.
I watch her arms, still weighed down with baby rolls, desperately reach for that leaf. She’s a full fifteen feet away. “Honey, stop. You will never reach that leaf. It’s not physically possible.”
“Yes, I will!” she fires back.
“No. You will not.”
“Yes. I. Will.”
“Best for you to learn now, there are things you will never accomplish. No matter how hard you work, how much you deserve it, you will fail. And other people, lucky people who seem to get everything with no work, will get things you deserve. That’s life. And just like that leaf, no matter how high you get, or how long you try, you will fall short. You cannot touch the leaf. It is not possible. Do you understand?” My voice has taken on the quality my husband calls R.B.V. (Resting Bitch Voice). The parents next to me silently scoop their baby up and relocate to the sandbox.
“She barks, “Higher, Mommy!”
“I will touch that leaf.” She smiles at me, unfazed. “Because, Mommy, I will get out of this swing, get a ladder, and touch that leaf!” Her blue eyes dance with pride.
I mumble, teary. “Yes, you will. You will touch that leaf.” And in that moment I become the student. I realize my daughter (is clearly the next Tony Robbins and) will grow up and accomplish anything she wants to.
“I tell you what, from this moment forward, I vow to you that I will always hold the bottom of your ladder.”
“I tell you what,” I manage. “From this moment forward, I vow to you that I will always hold the bottom of your ladder.”
Fast-forward six years. She is a feisty eight-year-old who still challenges me daily. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Partially because I can’t wait to see her change the world, but more selfishly because I’m a stand-up comic, and she is definitely the top source of my material. She tells me to break a leg as I whisk off to a show. She loves hearing the jokes she inspired. I love bringing her up in a family that speaks the language of comedy. I love sharing with her the science of a joke, why something works or doesn’t work. I love showing her Saturday Night Live skits. (Relax, people, I show her the classic stuff, too.) She listens attentively and applies the knowledge. When she makes me laugh she beams with pride; it is her gold medal.
So I shouldn’t be surprised when she asks if she can headline her own stand-up comedy show. I respond like every good mother would: “Over my dead body.” She is crushed. To the core.
“But I want to be like you, Mommy.”
I want to tell her, no, no you do not want to be like me. Trust me. This is a life of terrible rejection. Night after night. Year after year. I stand up, alone, on a makeshift plywood stage at a sports bar on a Wednesday night, filled with millennials who have never done a load of laundry, and I tell jokes about parenting. I’m just an unwanted distraction to their Tinder (or Grindr) swipes, or whatever these kids do these days to avoid talking to each other, but end up in bed together. You don’t want to get good at telling dick jokes. You can grow up and climb an actual corporate ladder that leads beyond that leaf to concrete success. You can be someone. Someone successful. Unlike me.
She stares up at me, and a tear forms in the corner of those big blue eyes that she got when my husband’s German genes completely conquered my Jew genes (history repeats itself). “Fine. But you have to write your own five-minute set. When you do, I’ll book you a show.” She hands me a typed-out set list, filled with knock-knock jokes. I stare at the paper in disbelief. And promptly book her a show.
My goal, then, is to make this an experience she will feel good about. My biggest fear (after my fear that she grows up to be as pathetic and broken as me) is that she has a panic attack onstage. I don’t want this experience to scar her for life. She must know her material forward and backward. If she’s up there and blanks, I can’t run onstage and save her; that would be even more scarring. She needs to do this on her own, without a net. Just like the rest of us stand-ups have to. And … she has to make the audience laugh.
As the show gets closer, she turns down playdates and stays home to rehearse. I enjoy watching a mini version of myself practicing her set over and over and over. She begins to play with how she says the jokes, finding times to pause and emphasize a word. I watch a lightbulb go off one night. There’s a joke where she makes fun of me, and she begins to play with how she says it. She discovers the timing, pacing, and rhythm of the joke. She can tell where she needs to raise her voice and where she needs to whisper. She begins to use her body to accentuate her words. I topple over laughing when she perfectly hits the punch line. She beams. I beam. “Do it just like that when you’re onstage.” She nods.
Show night arrives. We get our hair done. I put mascara on her long lashes. We sit together backstage in the greenroom. Long past her bedtime. She looks up to me. I hold her sweaty little hands. I bring her in close and whisper in her ear, “You got this. I’m holding the bottom of your ladder.” She fishes into her pocket and hands me a giant green leaf, then confidently walks onstage. And kills.
“She fishes into her pocket and hands me a giant green leaf, then confidently walks onstage. And kills.”
For more information on Nicole Blaine or to see her perform stand-up: www.NicoleBlaine.com