A daughter becomes the coach; Dad becomes the dreamer

     (<a href=Open mic image courtesy of Shutterstock.com) " title="shutterstock_open-mic" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Open mic image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    Dad and Mom supported me when I got bit by the theater bug in college. Now, at 54, my dad is tackling stand-up comedy, and it’s my turn to support him.

    Dad’s show was at 8. When he woke up from his nap, we piled into the car. Mom drove so Dad could text his friends and study his notes on the way.

    “Dear, your hair,” Mom said.

    Despite a good combing, the back of Dad’s flat-top spiked up where his head had lain on the pillow. I said the crowd wouldn’t see it from behind the microphone — and besides, comedians are allowed to have messy hair. But Dad insisted on going back inside to fix it before we could leave. I hoped he wasn’t getting too nervous.

    When we talk about how advancing years can reverse the roles of parent and child, it’s usually the sad, middle-aged tale of learning to cope with a father’s dementia or making room for a mother to move in after her hip fracture. But at 30 years old, I’m discovering a different kind of swap.

    My turn on the sidelines

    Dad and Mom supported me when I turned my stellar academic record into a scholarship to major in theater, of all things, which probably hovered at the bottom of the economic ladder even before 2008.

    Most parents probably know what it’s like to keep the video camera ready for their child while 30 other tiny ballerinas or T-ball sluggers take their turn. I certainly put my parents through their paces with my elementary-school ballet classes. Never mind that I can hardly round the corner of the couch without stubbing my toe.

    In the following years, my parents never missed a play. They gamely sat through my minor roles in college and community theater Shakespeare. They drove three hours there and back to watch an extremely serious college production of the Greek tragedy “Electra” that I had assistant directed.

    Last weekend, it was time for me to return that attention. It was Dad’s second stand-up comedy appearance at the D.C. Improv, where glossy posters of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and the like decorate the walls. After years of emceeing parties, dabbling in voice-over and film, and even fronting a Boomer rock band called The Guzzlers, Dad got serious about his comedy with a course at the famous Washington venue.

    Dad was performing an original eight-minute set in the dinner lounge at the Improv along with several other graduates of his course. I knew I had to come down from Philadelphia to see him in the spotlight.

    ‘Mind and guts’

    Every little girl probably thinks her dad is invincible, and this was especially true in my case: At 6’4″, Dad could always make boyfriends quake. He’s 54 now, but giving him a nice shoulder squeeze is still like reaching up to pat a boulder. He performs in size-15 cowboy boots and a triple-XL plaid button-down shirt, and he opens with a joke about the Brawny paper towel guy. (One of Dad’s early gigs was a role as a football-team extra in the 2000 Keanu Reeves film “The Replacements.”)

    But comedy is one thing you can’t conquer with size and strength. Dad’s courage in entering the terrifying realm of stand-up is a triumph of mind and guts. All I can do is show up, tell him I know he’ll be great, and clap politely for everyone else’s parents.

    And if you think sitting through a decade of squawking school concerts or Little League games is hard, consider this: No parents have to cope with drunken hecklers while their little ones are on stage.

    Before it was Dad’s turn at the mic, one of the comics joked that nothing could possibly be more humiliating than that time she farted in her junior-high gym class.

    “You could fart now!” a loud voice sang out from the back corner. He’d better keep his trap shut when my dad’s up there, I thought, or he’ll deal with me.

    Sometimes, when it comes to sheer endurance on the part of the audience, an hour of shaky pliés or painfully earnest student monologues can’t compete with an hour of amateur comedy.

    “I am to punctuality as Saddam Hussein is to human rights,” said one sweaty joker about his inability to get to work on time. “Where’s my mortician? I thought he had me on a layaway plan.”

    Most of the other comics succumbed to a string of jokes about online dating. We really tried to laugh when one woman said, “I preferred it when ‘LOL’ stood for ‘laugh out loud,’ not ‘loser online.'”

    And in the category of things I never want to hear with my parents in the same room, another woman regaled us with that time she ended up at the doctor after an unfortunate incident with a vintage sex toy she got at a flea market.

    Killing ’em

    Nothing ups your heart-rate like going onstage — except for watching your parent stand in the spotlight and grasp the microphone. And, thank goodness, there’s nothing better than watching your dad slay the crowd with jokes about childhood shopping trips to the Husky Boys department at Sears.

    The hard truth is that a daughter’s affirmation can go only so far. The rest was up to the whooping, laughing crowd, and I loved them for it.

    Afterwards, the emcee announced a surprise performance by a “professional comic” to wrap up the show.It was our waiter.

    His set was actually pretty good. A professional comedian who’s still waiting tables — it really drives home the challenge for stand-up performers.

    Some children might worry about the future and encourage their parents to choose an easier road. Me, I’m helping Dad brainstorm for his next performance: the life story of Pumpkin, the gastrically-challenged cat of my childhood. I’ll be there for the world premiere.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.