Iâ€™ve heard the story a million times.
Dad is driving my brother and I back to Momâ€™s house, and Audrey, my dadâ€™s girlfriend, sits in the passengerâ€™s seat fiddling with the radio, back and forth between two oldies stations. Iâ€™m six years old, wearing a pair of rockinâ€™ ass sunglasses. I know I look super-cool.
Audrey stops the radio on a Beatles song. From the backseat, I ask whoâ€™s playing, and Audrey tells me that back in the 60s, music actually meant something. â€œThose were good times,â€ she says. â€œPeace and love.â€
â€œYeah,â€ I say. â€œPeace, love, and bad taste.â€
My dad cracks up laughing, his eyes twinkling in the rearview. Itâ€™s my very first sarcastic comment.
â€œWe have a verdict on your comedy cd,â€ my dad tells me a couple months ago. He lives in Boston, so we communicate about once a week through phone calls. Iâ€™m driving to the Loony Bin, so I figure I can multi-task and knock out our weekly conversation during the car ride. â€œOne person liked it,â€ Dad says, â€œand one person didnâ€™t like it.â€
â€œI bet I can guess who didnâ€™t like it,â€ I say.
â€œI said, â€˜I bet I can guess who didnâ€™t like it.â€™â€
â€œWell,â€ he says. â€œAudrey didnâ€™t really care for it.â€
â€œIâ€™m not surprised,â€ I say.
Audrey has been with my dad since I was four. Theyâ€™re not married, but sheâ€™s basically my step-mom. I know from experience that my dad has the phone turned up loud enough so that Audrey can hear every word I say. Not only does she eavesdrop on all our conversations, but she also contributes.
Right on cue, her familiar muffled yell interrupts, wicked Boston accent and all: â€œGawd, yah language!â€
â€œShe thinks you use too much bad language,â€ Dad says.
I laugh. â€œYeah, well, thatâ€™s just how I talk. Iâ€™m not gonna apologize for that.â€
â€œWell, you shouldnâ€™t.â€
â€œSo what did you think, Dad?â€
â€œWhat did you think of my cd?â€
â€œI canâ€™t hear you.â€
â€œWhat did you think?â€ I yell. â€œDid you like it?â€
â€œOh,â€ he says. â€œWell, mumble, mumble, mumble.â€
â€œDad, are you putting the phone on your chin again? I canâ€™t understand what youâ€™re saying.â€
â€œHold on,â€ Dad says, and then I spend a few seconds listening to bickering.
(Audrey: â€œHold it down in front of your mouth. God, John!â€
Dad: â€œI got it. Take it easy.â€)
Donâ€™t get frustrated, I tell myself. I have to tell myself that every time I talk to my dad on the phone. Different factors like his hearing loss, his out-of-date cordless phone, which heâ€™s had since the early 90s, and his habit of holding the receiver down on his chin really trip up our ability to effectively communicate. Our conversations often deteriorate into screaming generic phrases at each other.
â€œCan you hear me?â€ Dad asks.
â€œYeah, now I can.â€
â€œI wanted to tell you that I think you have an impeccable sense of timing.â€
â€œThank you,â€ I say. â€œIâ€™ve been working on that.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve gotten a lot better since the last time I heard you.â€
â€œGod, I hope so. That was years ago.â€
â€œMy thing is,â€ he says, â€œI just donâ€™t care for the subject matter.â€
â€œYeah, well, thatâ€™s okay. I thought you might say that.â€ My comedy album, Megatron Story 3000: Can I Call It That?, doesnâ€™t contain the most family-friendly material, especially if youâ€™re half-responsible for creating me. In it, I tell stories about drinking, smoking pot, and my experience catering to a crackhead. To top it all off, I pepper in graphic references and a few choice phrases, the kinds of things most people might get slapped for saying in front of their parents.
I didnâ€™t send my dad the album to try to give him a heart attackâ€”he asked to hear it, despite my 700 warnings about its content. â€œYou know, Dad,â€ I had said, â€œyouâ€™re not gonna like the things I talk about.â€ But he wanted it anyway, so I sent it as part of his Christmas present.
The year before, Iâ€™d sent him an album of his favorite comedian, Steven Wright, along with an album from one of my favorite dead comedians, Mitch Hedberg. These comics have similar delivery styles, but my dad, true to tradition, loved the Wright album and hated poor dead Mitch with the fire of 1,000 suns.
See, to me, Mitch Hedberg was Steven Wright Version 2.0, just a newer form of an old dependable product. My dad just doesnâ€™t see the similarities between the two.
â€œI did like one of your jokes,â€ Dad says. â€œCan you guess which one?â€
â€œIâ€™m gonna guess itâ€™s the joke about you.â€
â€œYeah, you got it! That was the funniest one on there.â€
â€œWell, thatâ€™s too bad,â€ I say. â€œIt didnâ€™t really get the best reaction.â€
I sigh. â€œI said, â€˜No one else thought that joke was funny.â€™â€
â€œReally? That surprises me.â€
â€œTell her ta stick ta writinâ€™,â€ Audrey says. â€œSheâ€™s not funny.â€
â€œWell,â€ I say, â€œyou are the judge of funny.â€
â€œHey now,â€ Dad says, playing mediator. Then, to me: â€œYou working?â€
â€œYeah, I work in the diner still, Dad.â€
â€œIn the diner.â€
I have to move the phone away from my mouth, cover up the receiver, and scream for a minute before returning to the conversation. This is why I hate calling my dad.
Think Iâ€™m a selfish jerk? Well, maybe. But I challenge you to try and explain over all the static on the phone line to your hard-of-hearing dad why, after receiving your second Masterâ€™s degree, you work in a diner, all the while fielding heckles from a crazy lady in the background. Do that, and then tell me you wouldnâ€™t get frustrated.
Itâ€™s just a terrible connection.
Let me get this out in the open: my dad is a super-cool guy, but I donâ€™t see him a whole lot. When I was 11, my mom moved us halfway across the country to Oklahoma. I went to visit Dad for a few weeks every year, but ever since the move, our relationship has kind of stuck in a weird time bubble where nothing changes. The problem is, in that time bubble, Iâ€™m still 11.
Iâ€™m not surprised that my dad is leery of some of the jokes I tell. My references to rape and my description of barfing up a tequila shot-slash-Zoloft cocktail are certainly a far cry from my dadâ€™s version of funny. Heâ€™s more of a pun kind of guy. Once, when Dad was driving us to a restaurant called the Corrib, I asked him, â€œDad, whatâ€™s the Cor-rib?â€
Without missing a beat, he said, â€œItâ€™s the place where you put the buh-baby.â€
I donâ€™t care who you are or how many rape jokes you tell on stage, that is fucking hilarious.
My dad also loves musical humor, but not in a song parody kind of wayâ€”no, he likes to make up melodies for everyday sentences that people say to him. The most memorable instance of this happened when I was five, when my brother, Neil, had to get all dressed up for my grandpaâ€™s wedding, but for some reason, I didnâ€™t have to put my dress on yet. My brother, annoyed, walked up to my dad and demanded, â€œIs Leah gonna wear those clothes to the wedding?â€
My dad rubbed his chin as if contemplating a very involved answer before he looked my brother dead in the eye and sang, Is Leah gonna wear those clothes to the wed-diiiiiiing? Is Leah gonna wear those clothes to the wedding?
For ten minutes, my dad walked around the house singing that call-and-response song, and I giggled the entire time. He still sings that song. Sometimes heâ€™ll call me on the phone and say, â€œHey Leah, do you remember that song â€˜Is Leah Gonna Wear Those Clothes to the Wedding?â€™â€
Because I know it cracks him up, Iâ€™ll say, â€œYeah, Dad, I remember the song â€˜Is Leah Gonna Wear Those Clothes to the Wedding?â€™ I just canâ€™t remember any of the words.â€
And to this day, I have a weird habit of singing sentences at people. When Iâ€™m onstage facing a tough crowd, sometimes I sing my thoughts. The other night, I sang, Iâ€™m a stupid cunt in the audience/and I wonâ€™t shut up because Iâ€™m an asshole. Some of those words, my dad would never say, but the fact that I chose to sing them, well, I get that from him.
Iâ€™m eight years old and staying at my dadâ€™s for the weekend. Weâ€™re sitting side by side on the couch, my three favorite stuffed animals, Booboo, Cubby, and Felicia, wedged between us. Weâ€™re staring at the television, waiting for Audrey to finish making breakfast.
â€œOh, nice Booboo,â€ Dad says. â€œCome here, my little friend.â€ Dad pulls Booboo, a large white bear with a red bowtie, onto his lap and starts petting his head.
He hugs the bear closer. â€œI love you, Booboo.â€ Then he punches Booboo in the face, knocking him across the living room in one swift hit.
â€œDaa-aad!â€ I yell, laughing.
â€œOh, Iâ€™m sorry,â€ Dad says.
I scramble off the couch and retrieve my bear.
â€œAw, come here, Booboo.â€ Dad reaches for my bear again. â€œIâ€™m so sorry, Booboo.â€ He pats Boobooâ€™s head, pulling him onto his lap. â€œNice bear.â€
He puts his hands around Boobooâ€™s neck and starts strangling him, then he throws him on the floor and repeatedly stomps on his head.
After that, I make my Dad beat up my stuffed animals one by one: first Booboo, then Cubby, then Felicia. Dad puts Booboo in a headlock. He pulls Cubbyâ€™s ears and body slams him. He does the olâ€™ Three Stooges two-fingers-to-the-eyes move on Felicia.
And I laugh and laugh and laugh until breakfast, screaming, â€œDo it again, Dad!â€
The last time my dad watched a clip of my comedy, he saw me tell a joke about punching a toddler. â€œOh, God,â€ he said.
â€œYeah,â€ I said. â€œSometimes people get really offended by that.â€
â€œWell, it probably just scares people that you think things like that are funny. They probably think youâ€™re a weirdo.â€
â€œProbably,â€ I said, but in the back of my mind all I could think was, Dad, what do you expect? You used to fake-murder my teddy bears.
My dad is an extension of the rest of our family, the Kayajanian clan, and his sense of humor stems from them, a bunch of loud, easy-laughing Armenian people who like to make fun of each other. The members of my family know how to play off each other like witty talk show hosts, and they know how to crack each other up. Theyâ€™re wiseasses, theyâ€™re ridiculous, they eat an obscene amount of food, and theyâ€™re unpredictable.
When Iâ€™m around them, though, I donâ€™t say too much because Iâ€™d rather just sit and take in the chaos that happens when weâ€™re together. I wouldnâ€™t say Iâ€™m shy, but I donâ€™t like to try and talk over all the noise.
When I was little, my family used to rent a van that held all 15 of us and drive it up to a cabin in New Hampshire. We must have made the trek two or three times, but each time rolls into a single memory, so I canâ€™t separate one vacation from another.
I remember on one trip to New Hampshire, my family had packed 56 lemejeunes, a type of Armenian food (thin, pizza-like pies topped with lamb and dried tomatoes) to snack on at the cabin. By the end of the four-hour road trip, we had already eaten every single one.
I remember the time the adults couldnâ€™t find the booze they had packed, so they offered a five-dollar reward to any of us kids that could find them. My cousin Nishan found the bottles underneath some blankets, and my Uncle Harry held a jug of wine over his head as he marched through the cabin, one hand on his sonâ€™s shoulder. â€œEverythingâ€™s okay!â€ he yelled. â€œNishan found the booze!â€
And there was the time Aunt Lucy played the board game Sorry with me, Neil, and my cousins. We all took a break in the game to grab some dessert, and while we were gone Aunt Lucy stacked the Sorry deck in her favor and proceeded to kick our asses around the board while the four of us kids helplessly accused her of cheating.
My dad loves to tell one particular story about a trip to New Hampshire: the time my cousin Kimâ€™s suitcase malfunctioned, and she couldnâ€™t open it.
Hereâ€™s how Dad tells it:
â€œThe whole Kayajanian family has gathered around the suitcase. Charlotte pulls at the latches while Kim tries to yank it open. Everybodyâ€™s yelling out suggestions.
â€˜Maybe itâ€™s stuck,â€™ Lucy says. â€˜Push down on it!â€™
â€˜Maybe if you use a screwdriver,â€™ Nishan says. â€˜You could prop it open.â€™
Comments from the peanut gallery, right? But no oneâ€™s really helping.
Just then, Harry walks into the room like a knight in shining armor. He clears his throat. â€˜Back up!â€™ he says. â€˜Back up! Give me room!â€™ And then he parts the Kayajanian crowd. â€˜I got this!â€™
Everybody moves back and makes way for Harry to come through. He approaches with a look of purpose on his face. He investigates the suitcase, one hand rubbing his beard. The room full of our family is, for once, completely silent. Weâ€™re all looking at each other as if to say, Whatâ€™s he gonna do?
Then, honest to God, Harry takes off his right shoe, pulls it back over his head, and just starts whacking the suitcase with it.â€ (Pause, where he and my family inevitably crack up laughing.) â€œThat was his big plan. His goddamn shoe!â€
Itâ€™s June of 1996, just before I turn 14. Iâ€™ve lived in Oklahoma for almost three years. My stepdad drives me to the orthodontist, and when we get home, he finds my brother dead. Neil shot himself. He didnâ€™t leave any explanation for doing it, but he was autistic, so the world never really fit him right. I guess he just made an executive decision to go right ahead and take himself out of it.
The Kayajanian half of my family flies in from Boston for the funeral, and they take me out for dinner at a steak restaurant called the Rusty Barrel after the service. At the restaurant, rather than sit in silence, my family does what they do best and gets loud, boisterous even. They take turns telling stories about my brother.
â€œOne time,â€ my dad says, â€œLeah and Neil were playing fish in the living room, and Audrey and I were in the kitchen. I turned to Audrey and said, â€˜You have to come listen to this game.â€™ So we hid behind the counter and listened to the kids.â€
He points at me. â€œAnd you, you were always very serious about winning, so you were into the game. And youâ€™d say, â€˜Neil.â€™ And heâ€™d say, â€˜What?â€™ Like you were annoying the shit out of him. â€˜Do you have any twos?â€™ Then heâ€™d sigh and hand you a card. But his irritation never fazed you, and youâ€™d just go on. â€˜Neil?â€™ â€˜What?!â€™ Just like that, like you were putting him out every time, over and over again.â€
â€œHe was so funny,â€ Lucy says. â€œRemember when he packed a suitcase and walked upstairs to Momâ€™s door? How old was he? Three?â€
Our server, Pam, approaches our table. (Note: her name probably isnâ€™t Pam, but in my mind, she seems like a Pam, so she shall be forever.) Now, my family is good with wait staff. They bring Pam into our conversation whenever possible. They joke around with her, saying theyâ€™re just a loud bunch of a-holes from Massachusetts, and by the end of our meal, Pam loves us. As she drops the check, she says, â€œYou guys have been so much fun. What brings you all the way to Oklahoma?â€
The table gets very quiet. My Uncle Harry clears his throat and speaks for us. â€œActually,â€ he says, â€œitâ€™s a very sad occasion that brings us together here. We lost one of our own.â€
Pam gasps and clutches her chest. â€œWell, my goodness, Iâ€™m so sorry! I had no idea. You guys have been laughing so hard, it seemed like you were having a good time.â€
My uncle smiles. â€œThatâ€™s just how we get through things.â€
On Megatron Story 3000, I took a different approach than on most comedy albums. Instead of telling jokes, I told stories about my closest friends, who have essentially been my family for the last ten years. Theyâ€™re loud, like the Kayajanians. They make fun of each other, and they eat a lot. They play off each other like witty talk show hosts, and when weâ€™re all together, I just sit and absorb them. I donâ€™t say too much.
Iâ€™m not shy, but I donâ€™t like to try and talk over all the noise.
Itâ€™s like when I talk to my dad on the phone: itâ€™s so loud with other sounds, I never get to say what I really want to say. Over our bad connection, I only tell him tiny pieces of my life. Sometimes I tell him about the weather. Sometimes we spend fifteen minutes going back and forth with â€œWhat?â€ and â€œHuh?â€ and â€œDad, I canâ€™t hear you.â€
I never get the chance to tell him this: â€œI try to be a good person. I try to make people laugh so I can make them feel a little more comfortable. I try to tell stories about the people I love. I try to be like you.â€
I never get to tell him that I am just a newer form of an old dependable product. I am Kayajanian, Version 2.0. My dad just doesnâ€™t see the similarities between us.
I blame it on the bad connection.