I’ve heard the story a million times.
Dad is driving my brother and I back to Mom’s house, and Audrey, my dad’s girlfriend, sits in the passenger’s seat fiddling with the radio, back and forth between two oldies stations. I’m six years old, wearing a pair of rockin’ ass sunglasses. I know I look super-cool.
Audrey stops the radio on a Beatles song. From the backseat, I ask who’s playing, and Audrey tells me that back in the 60s, music actually meant something. “Those were good times,” she says. “Peace and love.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Peace, love, and bad taste.”
My dad cracks up laughing, his eyes twinkling in the rearview. It’s my very first sarcastic comment.
“We have a verdict on your comedy cd,” my dad tells me a couple months ago. He lives in Boston, so we communicate about once a week through phone calls. I’m driving to the Loony Bin, so I figure I can multi-task and knock out our weekly conversation during the car ride. “One person liked it,” Dad says, “and one person didn’t like it.”
“I bet I can guess who didn’t like it,” I say.
“I said, ‘I bet I can guess who didn’t like it.’”
“Well,” he says. “Audrey didn’t really care for it.”
“I’m not surprised,” I say.
Audrey has been with my dad since I was four. They’re not married, but she’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: “Gawd, yah language!”
“She thinks you use too much bad language,” Dad says.
I laugh. “Yeah, well, that’s just how I talk. I’m not gonna apologize for that.”
“Well, you shouldn’t.”
“So what did you think, Dad?”
“What did you think of my cd?”
“I can’t hear you.”
“What did you think?” I yell. “Did you like it?”
“Oh,” he says. “Well, mumble, mumble, mumble.”
“Dad, are you putting the phone on your chin again? I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Hold on,” Dad says, and then I spend a few seconds listening to bickering.
(Audrey: “Hold it down in front of your mouth. God, John!”
Dad: “I got it. Take it easy.”)
Don’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 Different factors like his hearing loss, his out-of-date cordless phone, which he’s had since the early 90s, and his habit of holding the receiver down on his chin really trip up our ability to effectively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.
“Can you hear me?” Dad asks.
“Yeah, now I can.”
“I wanted to tell you that I think you have an impeccable sense of timing.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I’ve been working on that.”
“You’ve gotten a lot better since the last time I heard you.”
“God, I hope so. That was years ago.”
“My thing is,” he says, “I just don’t care for the subject matter.”
“Yeah, well, that’s okay. I thought you might say that.” My comedy album, Megatron Story 3000: Can I Call It That?, doesn’t contain the most family-friendly material, especially if you’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 didn’t send my dad the album to try to give him a heart attack—he asked to hear it, despite my 700 warnings about its content. “You know, Dad,” I had said, “you’re not gonna like the things I talk about.” But he wanted it anyway, so I sent it as part of his Christmas present.
The year before, I’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 doesn’t see the similarities between the two.
“I did like one of your jokes,” Dad says. “Can you guess which one?”
“I’m gonna guess it’s the joke about you.”
“Yeah, you got it! That was the funniest one on there.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” I say. “It didn’t really get the best reaction.”
I sigh. “I said, ‘No one else thought that joke was funny.’”
“Really? That surprises me.”
“Tell her ta stick ta writin’,” Audrey says. “She’s not funny.”
“Well,” I say, “you are the judge of funny.”
“Hey now,” Dad says, playing mediator. Then, to me: “You working?”
“Yeah, I work in the diner still, Dad.”
“In the diner.”
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 I’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 Master’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 wouldn’t get frustrated.
It’s just a terrible connection.
Let me get this out in the open: my dad is a super-cool guy, but I don’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, I’m still 11.
I’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 dad’s version of funny. He’s more of a pun kind of guy. Once, when Dad was driving us to a restaurant called the Corrib, I asked him, “Dad, what’s the Cor-rib?”
Without missing a beat, he said, “It’s the place where you put the buh-baby.”
I don’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 way—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 grandpa’s wedding, but for some reason, I didn’t have to put my dress on yet. My brother, annoyed, walked up to my dad and demanded, “Is Leah gonna wear those clothes to the wedding?”
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 he’ll call me on the phone and say, “Hey Leah, do you remember that song ‘Is Leah Gonna Wear Those Clothes to the Wedding?’”
Because I know it cracks him up, I’ll say, “Yeah, Dad, I remember the song ‘Is Leah Gonna Wear Those Clothes to the Wedding?’ I just can’t remember any of the words.”
And to this day, I have a weird habit of singing sentences at people. When I’m onstage facing a tough crowd, sometimes I sing my thoughts. The other night, I sang, I’m a stupid cunt in the audience/and I won’t shut up because I’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.
I’m eight years old and staying at my dad’s for the weekend. We’re sitting side by side on the couch, my three favorite stuffed animals, Booboo, Cubby, and Felicia, wedged between us. We’re staring at the television, waiting for Audrey to finish making breakfast.
“Oh, nice Booboo,” Dad says. “Come here, my little friend.” Dad pulls Booboo, a large white bear with a red bowtie, onto his lap and starts petting his head.
He hugs the bear closer. “I love you, Booboo.” Then he punches Booboo in the face, knocking him across the living room in one swift hit.
“Daa-aad!” I yell, laughing.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Dad says.
I scramble off the couch and retrieve my bear.
“Aw, come here, Booboo.” Dad reaches for my bear again. “I’m so sorry, Booboo.” He pats Booboo’s head, pulling him onto his lap. “Nice bear.”
He puts his hands around Booboo’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 Cubby’s ears and body slams him. He does the ol’ Three Stooges two-fingers-to-the-eyes move on Felicia.
And I laugh and laugh and laugh until breakfast, screaming, “Do it again, Dad!”
The last time my dad watched a clip of my comedy, he saw me tell a joke about punching a toddler. “Oh, God,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sometimes people get really offended by that.”
“Well, it probably just scares people that you think things like that are funny. They probably think you’re a weirdo.”
“Probably,” 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. They’re wiseasses, they’re ridiculous, they eat an obscene amount of food, and they’re unpredictable.
When I’m around them, though, I don’t say too much because I’d rather just sit and take in the chaos that happens when we’re together. I wouldn’t say I’m shy, but I don’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 can’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 couldn’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 son’s shoulder. “Everything’s okay!” he yelled. “Nishan found the booze!”
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 Kim’s suitcase malfunctioned, and she couldn’t open it.
Here’s how Dad tells it:
“The whole Kayajanian family has gathered around the suitcase. Charlotte pulls at the latches while Kim tries to yank it open. Everybody’s yelling out suggestions.
‘Maybe it’s stuck,’ Lucy says. ‘Push down on it!’
‘Maybe if you use a screwdriver,’ Nishan says. ‘You could prop it open.’
Comments from the peanut gallery, right? But no one’s really helping.
Just then, Harry walks into the room like a knight in shining armor. He clears his throat. ‘Back up!’ he says. ‘Back up! Give me room!’ And then he parts the Kayajanian crowd. ‘I got this!’
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. We’re all looking at each other as if to say, What’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.” (Pause, where he and my family inevitably crack up laughing.) “That was his big plan. His goddamn shoe!”
It’s June of 1996, just before I turn 14. I’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 didn’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.
“One time,” my dad says, “Leah and Neil were playing fish in the living room, and Audrey and I were in the kitchen. I turned to Audrey and said, ‘You have to come listen to this game.’ So we hid behind the counter and listened to the kids.”
He points at me. “And you, you were always very serious about winning, so you were into the game. And you’d say, ‘Neil.’ And he’d say, ‘What?’ Like you were annoying the shit out of him. ‘Do you have any twos?’ Then he’d sigh and hand you a card. But his irritation never fazed you, and you’d just go on. ‘Neil?’ ‘What?!’ Just like that, like you were putting him out every time, over and over again.”
“He was so funny,” Lucy says. “Remember when he packed a suitcase and walked upstairs to Mom’s door? How old was he? Three?”
Our server, Pam, approaches our table. (Note: her name probably isn’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 they’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, “You guys have been so much fun. What brings you all the way to Oklahoma?”
The table gets very quiet. My Uncle Harry clears his throat and speaks for us. “Actually,” he says, “it’s a very sad occasion that brings us together here. We lost one of our own.”
Pam gasps and clutches her chest. “Well, my goodness, I’m so sorry! I had no idea. You guys have been laughing so hard, it seemed like you were having a good time.”
My uncle smiles. “That’s just how we get through things.”
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. They’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 we’re all together, I just sit and absorb them. I don’t say too much.
I’m not shy, but I don’t like to try and talk over all the noise.
It’s like when I talk to my dad on the phone: it’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 “What?” and “Huh?” and “Dad, I can’t hear you.”
I never get the chance to tell him this: “I 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.”
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 doesn’t see the similarities between us.
I blame it on the bad connection.