I’m not gonna lie to you people. Not gonna lie. I can’t lie. Can’t! I gotta be honest with you all, because this is my LIFE, okay? This isn’t some made-up shit! This straight up really happened. This is my family we’re talking about here. I love ‘em but I ain’t gonna sugarcoat it because I have to say what’s on my mind. So here’s what’s happened at my house…
My son loves Kevin Hart.
Kevin Hart’s stand-up, to be more precise. There may come a time when the 9-year-old crosses over to Hart’s film catalog and commits all of Central Intelligence to memory. But for now, it’s Hart with a mic in his hand that has commandeered all of his attention and adoration, and for a very good reason. It’s because Kevin Hart is the first dirty comedian we ever let him watch. You never forget your first dirty comedian. I know I never have.
We lived in Chicago. I was no older than 8. In the TV room, we had a top-loading VCR, with a remote that had a cord you had to plug into a jack along the bottom. One night, my parents rented Eddie Murphy: Delirious on VHS. I still remember the font on the tape’s label. I could recognize all of the VHS label fonts back in those times: for Paramount, Orion, Vestron Video, and for myriad other studios and production houses, only a few of which remain standing today. My folks popped in Delirious, sat us down in front of the TV, and I became captive audience to a run of profanity so abundant and so masterful that I didn’t even understand what I was hearing (in the case of Delirious’s most dated material, this was probably a good thing). All I knew was that my parents were fucking DYING the whole time. And then I laughed because they laughed. Their laughter was all the permission I needed to dive deep into filth flarn filth and never look back.
A few years later, I owned a copy of the Delirious performance on audio cassette, titled Eddie Murphy: Comedian by the record label, and had it fully memorized. I would recite the bits to myself, both out loud and in bed. Murphy was hardly the only comedian I worshipped. I collected tapes from all of them, including Richard Pryor, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Dennis Miller, Robin Williams, even Howie Mandel back when blowing up latex glove over your head was a signature Howie Mandel bit. The dirtier the comics were, the better. They were speaking in a language I knew wasn’t for me, which was why I wanted to hear that language over and over again. The more they cursed, the greater the rush I felt.
It’s 2021 and, against all odds, we still have swear police out there who remain shocked—SHOCKED—anytime they encounter an F-bomb on the internet. These people never fail to amuse me. That’s true even when, after all these years of being online, I know, with a disappointing intimacy, that profanity and honesty don’t always directly correlate. But they sure fucking FEEL like they do, and that emotional magic trick still works wonders on my eternally pubescent psyche.
That’s particularly true in comedy, a medium where dignity exists to be spit on. After my family left Chicago, we moved to suburban Minneapolis, a place that’s just DYING for people to be rude to it. So I basked in as much rude comedy as I could find there. I took any allowance money I got over to Down In The Valley records, which is still there, and spent it on every dirty stand-up cassette I could find. Then I would take the albums home, crack open the cases, and listen to them, rapt. I did stand-up myself in front of my eighth-grade class at a party. (One kid accused me of stealing jokes and I damn near cut his head off; fuck you, BOBBY.)
When I told my dad I dreamed of doing an amateur set at the fabled Just For Laughs festival in Montreal one day, he took me down to the basement and put on an old Redd Foxx record he’d saved for years and played me his favorite bit from it. He also offered to take me, although I never figured out the exact logistics to make good on his encouragement.
So instead, I listened to my tapes. And listened and listened and listened, to the point where, decades later, I still know every beat of this:
I can’t even tell you how many times I rewound the tape to hear that run. I also learned how to work the VCR myself, and I recorded every Showtime comedy special that came on, from Richard Jeni, Bob Schimmel, Paula Poundstone, Mark McCollum, and anyone else I could find. I still hold the voices of those comedians in my head when I’m working. That’s why when I write, I think of it as a performance more than as the actual, plodding writing of something. It’s also why I suck at listing actual writers as influences when the reality is that I’ve got Kinison’s primal scream playing on a loop in my head anytime I lay my fingers on the keyboard.
It was only natural that my progeny would gravitate toward stand-up along a similar trajectory to mine. My parents had a pretty laissez-faire approach to my childhood viewing habits, because it was the ’80s. I, in a fit of hypocrisy anyone could have foreseen, have been far more vigilant. The existence of Youtube comments alone was and is enough to scare me shitless about what kind of cultural landmines await my children out there. My wife and I didn’t let the oldest kid watch PG-13 movies until she was actually 13. When we loosened up that rule with the next two, the girl was like, “Hey man, what the fuck?” Sorry, girl. You’re the first kid. The beta test child. We make all our mistakes with you, then correct them for the other two. Parenting has been this way since Eden.
That said, while I let my youngest son have all the boilerplate PG-13 Marvel shit he could eat, I still policed his stand-up intake with all the rectitude of a fucking nun. I definitely didn’t let the kids watch Delirious, or any vintage Kinison or Pryor, and I still haven’t. If you’ve ever seen those sets, you know why. Right now we’re living in an age where comics often make for objectively better targets for ridicule than the people those same comics themselves ridicule. The entire stand-up apparatus is far too cozy with the alt-right, along with more general forms of pathetic defensiveness.
But my wife and I always let the kids watch stand-up at night, because it’s funny and because I think it’s a brilliant art form for any kid to get into. Stand-up teaches you about writing, performance, delivery, and how to connect with other people by giving away part of yourself to them. It’s why I let our oldest kid, 15, watch Dave Chappelle’s 8:46 last summer, because it was one of those rare sets that legitimately earned the right to be labeled important.
Apart from that, we kept things clean, only putting on the likes of Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, and Nate Bargatze for family stand-up hour. I would have included Bill Cosby in the rotation, only he turned out to be a serial rapist. The other three are all brilliant comedians who happen to work clean and have NOT been convicted of horrifying shit yet. They are the Pixar comedians.
My 9-year-old was ready to move on from the Pixar comedians. He’d heard Daddy swear enough times that motherfucker and goddamn and shitburger were not exactly a foreign language to him. He wanted to watch more stand-up one night, but we had run through the Gaffigan specials so many times that even he was tired of watching them. I tossed on Sebastian Maniscalco, one of our cleaner dirty comedians but also a guy whose act very much comes across as a persnickety artifact of the 1990s. There are jokes where Maniscalco complains about people eating Starbucks pastries out of a bag, as if eating out of a bag is some notable violation of societal norms. Have you met this country? Proper dinnerware is a needless obstacle for the average American.
So my son went back to the Google TV home screen. He landed on Kevin Hart: What Now?, a full-length stand-up feature that Hart recorded in front of a packed house in PHiladelphia. The R rating was peeking out of the corner of the screen. All the boy needed to see.
“Can I watch this?”
The wife and I were like uhhhhhhhh, we guess? Close enough to a yes for the boy to move forward.
He hit PLAY and, in an instant, knew he had entered a whole other level of stand-up comedy, featuring all the casual fucks and shits that I have long held dear. This was the good shit, and my son knew it. Whether or not you think Kevin Hart is a better comedian than some of the cleaner ones mentioned above is immaterial. Kevin Hart is much looser, much more enthusiastically profane, much REALER. Kevin Hart spends half of any set reminding you of that last point. This is his LIFE, okay? This isn’t fiction. Swear to God, on his mother’s grave, his father really DID think that Siri is named Cyrus and is an actual being who lives inside an iPhone. True story.
My son laughed as hard at Say What? as my folks did at Delirious 37 years ago. It’s one thing to hear your old man curse up a storm and then either apologize, or lightly remind you to not talk the way daddy talks. It’s a whole other thing to hear those words from a talented performer and seeing him win over a fucking football stadium’s worth of people by saying them. My son always suspected that profanity was worth a mint. Now he was watching proof of it.
“You like this?” I asked him.
“Oh god, yeah.”
“You like the swearing?”
“Yeah. When he swears I know he means it.”
I kept a steady hand on the remote during What Now?, because that felt very parental of me to do. Same deal with Kevin Hart: Irresponsible, where Hart performs, in the round, to a sold-out arena in London. A couple of times, Hart would start talking about sex and that’s when I hit fast forward. My son got pissed.
“Why are you skipping that part?”
“Listen man, you’re still not old enough to hear some of this.”
He stewed. He wanted to know how that story about Kevin buying a “pocket pussy” ended. But I still had some nouveau Puritanism left in the tank. My folks didn’t fast forward through any of the sex jokes in Delirious now, did they? If they had, the tape would have lasted six minutes. But I reasoned that since my son didn’t even know how babies were made yet, he wasn’t ready to hear gags about it from a comedian.
The irony here is that stand-up comedians WERE my sex ed back in the day. I had actual sex ed at school, but it was all cursory bullshit, with surrealist cross-section diagrams of the male scrotum to study and a PTA parent coming in to put a rubber over a cucumber to teach us about birth control. We also learned what syphilis was. It was all very clinical and sober, and designed to be that way. None of it reflected the actual logistics, not to mention anxiety, that went into fucking another person. For that, I needed to go to Murphy. I needed to go to Robin Williams.
And I needed to go to Pryor. When I first heard Pryor do his bit about masturbating in the tub as a kid, I was like HOLY SHIT I DO THAT! Doves cried. I felt a little less alone the second I heard Pryor say that, and I never would have heard it—at least, not at the moment when it would strike so cleanly—if my mom had been sitting in my bedroom, hitting fast forward on my boom box anytime the word “dick” or “pussy” came blaring out.
Later that week, the boy blitzed through all of Hart’s specials on an iPad, without his folks watching over his shoulder. He was in love with the man, until he found all of John Mulaney’s specials and realized there was an entire cinematic universe of grown-up comics for him to watch. And study. There may be a lot that the boy has to unlearn over the course of his voluntary stand-up education. Lord knows I had a lot to unlearn after mine. But that’s what you sign up for when you grow up. You sign up for the clusterfuck. You discover the power and the joy of learning things on your own, from people other than your parents, your teachers, or anyone else determined to educate you within the stultifying boundaries of good taste. The hardest truths are often the ones that people never intended to let slip out, but a talented stand-up flips that logic on its head and broadcasts those truths loud and clear. And with some fucking FILTHY English on it. That part never gets old to young ears.