"The Smaller Place It Came From"
I had my adventures and misadventures growing up, but it's the varying mixture of what I did or didn't get from my parents that really leaves a mark. The relationship we have with our parents explains how we engage with the world and other people.
Sometimes bad experiences can lead us to a place of self-realization or, at the very least, give us a great story. Sometimes our childhood experiences take a lifetime to process, if ever. These stories define us, they haunt us, but they also can liberate us.
I am positive I did not grow up properly. Does anyone, really? Something is definitely off. There are obviously many reasons for whatever emotional flaws I have as an adult, and I can trace most of them to my parents. I have grown into a place of gratitude rather than resentment toward them because it is essentially those flaws (and my struggle with them) that make me who I am. It is not really sympathetic or attractive to be actively mad at your parents after a certain age. You have to let it go at some point. It was fifty for me.
My parents left me hanging in the "Providing the Boundaries Necessary for Me to Take Chances and Succeed and Fail with the Support and Guidance Necessary to Define My Character" department. I had to put my sense of self together from scratch. I spent a good part of my life moving through the world like a kid lost at a mall. Looking to other grown-ups as role models, I learned which cigarettes to smoke from Keith Richards. I dressed like Tom Waits for most of my junior year of high school. I looked to Woody Allen to understand what it meant to be smart and funny.
My mother was a bit sarcastic and could be a little cutting. She was funny. She was always expressing herself in a creative way. My father was unpredictable and explosive at times. Sometimes that explosion would go in, sometimes out. He thought he was funny, but he wasn't. They both have a lot of energy. These are the things in the plus column.
It's always good to learn about the struggles other people went through while they were growing up. I like that Paul Scheer felt comfortable sharing with me the very difficult situation he found himself in after his parents' divorce. Same with John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats, who is still dealing with the pain his stepfather put him through. I was able to laugh in disbelief at Molly Shannon's story of complete parental irresponsibility when she got on a plane without an adult and flew to New York City accompanied only by another child. I'm glad people still tell these stories about their childhoods. It took years of me talking to people in my garage to finally get some perspective on things I went through as a kid and stop them from undermining me as an adult. Well, that and a little therapy and some specific reading and age.
CONAN O'BRIEN — TALK SHOW HOST, COMEDIAN, WRITER
I think I was an anxious kid. I was not the class clown. I was funny for my friends, but quiet in the classroom. I worked really hard, and I was kind of grim. I have to say I didn't really enjoy my childhood. I was not socially uncomfortable. I could make my friends laugh, but I was not easygoing. From fourth grade until, like, now.
SIR IAN MCKELLEN — ACTOR, ACTIVIST
The first three years of my life I didn't sleep in a bed. I slept on a mattress under a metal table in our downstairs room in case a bomb knocked the building over, and blackout material so the light didn't attract any German bombers that were coming over. Not much to eat, but quite healthy eating, rationing. Of course, when you're growing up, you know that's not the norm. I was well looked after. A lot of love in my house.
KEVIN HART — COMEDIAN, ACTOR
I grew up in Philadelphia, PA. My neighborhood is shit. North Philadelphia, Fifteenth area, Crime City. Right now I think we're third in the world in deaths, probably. New Year's we opened it up with five murders in my city.
Happy New Year.
Yeah. It's not the best place in the world, but I love it. It's home for me. That's what I know.
MEL BROOKS — COMEDIAN, WRITER, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER, ACTOR, MUSICIAN
My mother, Kitty. Kitty Kaminsky. Raised four boys. You know, those days, diapers, you had to wash them. Yeah, I'll never forget. One time I wanted to see a movie. She gave me three deposit bottles, each one was three cents apiece. So that was nine cents. You needed a dime. She went next door to Mrs. Miller and borrowed a penny so I could make the dime. I don't know whether she was typical, but she was a wonderful, loving, caring, beautiful mother.
RUPAUL CHARLES — ACTOR, DRAG PERFORMER, SINGER, MODEL, WRITER, TELEVISION HOST
I was watching a kid the other day. He must have been about four years old, and he was so happy to be in a human body. He was just jumping around going upside down, and he was running over there, and he came running. It was like, "Oh my God. It's great. I'm a human. Look at me. Look, I can do this. I can do ..." That's what I want to do. Just to move your hands, jump around, roll on the ground with an exhausted parent going, "Yes, you can. You can do that."
Unfortunately, when I was a kid, my parents were in their own melodrama, and so I really couldn't do that as much as possible.
Luckily for me, though, my sister Renee, she was the one who said, "You're great. You should try this. Why don't you do that?" I have that in my sister, so that was great.
JIM GAFFIGAN — COMEDIAN, WRITER, PRODUCER, ACTOR
Four boys and two girls and I'm the youngest of six. The oldest in my family is my sister Kathy, and she's, I don't know, she could be like a hundred and I wouldn't know. My brother, Mike, is, I don't know, fifties. It's all a blur. It's like, who cares? I kind of know that there's six kids over seven or eight years, they're just old.
You saw them all leave, I imagine.
Yeah, yeah, it was a little bit difficult. You're leaving me here with these people that are crazy. A little bit of the enthusiasm wanes in parents, right?
"You're still here?"
"Yeah, I'm still here."
So there was some of that, but there was also such an amount of distrust that develops in parents of that generation. They had been lied to by so many teenagers, by the time I got there, they were just like, "You're guilty!"
And I was like, "I didn't do anything wrong."
They were like, "Just go to your room."
JOHN OLIVER — COMEDIAN, WRITER, ACTOR, TELEVISION HOST
When my dad first started taking me to football games, to Liverpool games, I would make him let me wear my full Liverpool kit, so this was me at eight, nine years old. My full Liverpool kit, underneath whatever I was wearing, because there was a part of me as a child that felt if someone got injured on the field, they would just turn to the crowd and say, "Does anyone have a kit so that we can carry on?"
And I would say, "Yes, my name is John. I'm eight years old," and clearly somewhere in me, I think that this is going to turn out well. That this eight-year-old is going to physically compete with these twenty-nine-year-old super-fit athletes.
I wore cleats. You could hear this clip-clop of this eight-year-old kid going, "Let's do this."
MARIA BAMFORD — COMEDIAN, ACTOR
I used to play the violin and I used to be very good at it because, you know, I started when I was three. It was forced on me in a way that I was not conscious of until I was around eleven and then I said, "Oh, I think I'd like to quit."
They said, "No. Oh, no. You cannot. Because we have put in a lot of time and money, and you're freakishly good at it, so why not continue?" I was good at it, but I did not enjoy it at all.
PAUL SCHEER — COMEDIAN, WRITER, ACTOR, PODCAST HOST
My mom took my "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3D album and broke it over her knee because a song on there was called "Nature Trail to Hell." It was on one of the devil worship lists that the church had given out. If your children have any of these albums, and one of them is a "Weird Al" album, you must find it and destroy it. That and my LL Cool J album. It was terrible. I was crying, like, "Nooooooo! My 'Weird Al' album!"
I got to tell "Weird Al" that story, which was awesome. There's nothing satanic about "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Actually, that might be Satan. You never know. He's very cunning. He's charming.
Satan comes in Hawaiian shirts.
My mom took all my action figures away and gave me Ten Commandments figures. I had Moses. Literally a Moses action figure, and he had two tablets in his hand, like the Ten Commandments. I would play with them, like I would play Batman or G.I. Joe. I'd make Moses swing down a pole and get into a Batmobile. I still had the Batmobile, so Moses would drive a Batmobile.
We were hardcore Catholic growing up. Church every Sunday. The whole nine yards. It's in my bones. I mean, as much as I've tried to evolve past it in certain ways, it's in my bones.
What are the liabilities of it, carrying it with you in your mind?
Body shame. I've been accused over the years of, "You're self-deprecating and that's your act." You know what? It really comes from finding myself very flawed. I think that's at the root of Catholicism. We're all just flawed. There's nothing we can do about it. I grew up just having a very dark self-view.
Why? Because you were too tall, or too what?
Too skinny, too tall, you know, my dick's too big.
I hate to get that out there as a rumor, but do you know what I mean?
My dick is huge, and it's got a lot of girth.
Yeah. Don't want to hurt people.
No. The thing is I was so worried for a long time. I actually had doctors say, "You're going to hurt someone with that." Then it was only later in life that I found out that this is a great gift. For years I lived with the shame of this, "My penis is too big. I hope no woman ever finds out." You live with these things, and then you eventually learn to work with them.
I was not a hypochondriac, but I probably feigned illnesses to get my parents' attention. I didn't believe I had the illness. When you're one of six kids, you've got to do anything to get some face time, so I was not beyond trying to just have something.
I remember I read Death Be Not Proud, the John Gunther, Jr. story. It's about a boy who's fourteen, and he gets a brain tumor. It's really touching. Everyone is supposed to read it when you're thirteen, fourteen years old, and you're supposed to just feel so terrible for the boy. I read it, and I thought, "Man, that guy is getting so much attention." I remember envying a kid with a brain tumor, and he dies at the end of the book. I remember thinking, "Man, brain tumor. That's the way to go."
NORM MACDONALD — COMEDIAN, WRITER, ACTOR
When I was very young, I was very, very, very shy and very afraid of everything. I mean, people say they're shy when they were kids, but it was a pathology for me.
This weird thing happened to me when I was young. I don't know if this means anything. It wasn't religious or anything, but it transformed me to some degree. I was so fucking afraid of everything, and if I went to a store, I'd have to walk around forever before I could even face a person in the store to buy a pack of gum. I don't know why the fuck I was like this.
Anyways, when I was nine, we lived in rural Ontario, and there was a blind friend of my dad's. My dad said, "Take him to the store." I was like, "What the fuck? I have to take this blind fucker and I'm already shy and shit?" I'm taking him to the store and then the fucker wants me to explain everything, describe everything to him, so I'm like, "There's some grass over here, and now there's a lamppost," and this guy's all happy. What is it about the lamppost? I mean, it's just a lamppost. It goes on and on, but something happened to me during this. It sounds bizarre, but something happened to me where I was actually, instead of always looking inward, which I think I'd always done before that one time, I was looking outward. Anyways, while I was talking to him, I suddenly had a sort of hysteria, like I was laughing. I started laughing, and I don't even know why I'm remembering this, but I started laughing about everything, and everything seemed very, very funny to me.
A couple weeks later, I saw a homeless guy and he started talking to me, and he was talking to me about John D. Rockefeller. He was like, "I was at John D. Rockefeller's funeral!" and all this shit, and I was laughing at him. And then he started laughing, and I was like, "It's all fucking crazy shit."
Now I find everything funny except really serious stuff.
MOLLY SHANNON — COMEDIAN, ACTOR
I was raised by my dad from the time I was really little. He was very Catholic so he was repressed in a lot of ways, but he was also really charismatic and fun and would do anything and was real wild. We would do crazy stuff, like we would go to the airport and we would be like, "Let's take a mystery trip." We would have no suitcases or anything and it was when they had those airlines where you could pay right on the airplane. Do you remember that? People Express. We would go to the airport, pick a city, and just fly to the city and then borrow clothes when we got there or buy clothes. Like crazy stuff and my dad would call in sick for me to school.
Then I hopped a plane when I was twelve. We told my dad, me and my friend Anna, "We're going to hop a plane to New York," and he dared us. We went to the airport and we had ballet outfits on and we put our hair in buns and we wanted to look really innocent and this was again when flying was really easy, you didn't need your ticket to get through.
Apparently you didn't need an adult either.
We told my dad and we saw there were two flights, we were either going to go to San Francisco or New York and we thought, "Oh let's go to New York, it's leaving early," and so we said to the stewardess, "We just want to say good-bye to my sister, can we go on the plane?" She was like, "Sure." Then she let us on. It was a really empty flight because it was out of Cleveland, Ohio, and we sat back there and then all of a sudden you just hear "Woosh!" The plane takes off and we had little ballet outfits and buns and I was like, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women." Then the stewardess who had given us permission to go say good-bye to my sister came by to ask if we wanted snacks or beverages and she was like, "Can I get you ladies something to eat?" She was like, "Oh, motherfucker!" We wondered if we were going to get in trouble, but she ended up not telling anyone and then when we landed in New York City she was like, "Bye, ladies. Have a nice trip."
It's such an exciting story but the irresponsibility of all the adults in this story is somehow undermining my appreciation of it. You were twelve-year-old girls in fucking ballet outfits and everybody's sort of like, "Have a good time." What world was that?
It was crazy. It was a crazy world.
We called my dad. "We did it!" He was like, "Oh God, Molly, oh jeez!" He didn't know what to do. He said, "Try to see if you could go find a hotel where you could stay and me and Mary" — my sister — "will come meet you, we'll drive there." Basically we were like, "All right, we'll try to find a hotel," but he was kind of excited because he liked crazy stuff. Basically we didn't have that much, we had just our ballet bags and a little bit of cash, so we went to a diner and we dined and dashed and we stole things. We were like little con artists.
We made it to the city. We just asked people, "How do you get to Rockefeller Center?" because I had just seen it on TV.
Nobody said, "Are you girls lost?" Nothing like that?
No, nothing. We did try to go to hotels and my dad would call and ask, "Could they just stay there until we get there?" and none of the hotels wanted to be responsible. He was like, "All right, you've got to come home, but I'm not paying for it, so try to hop on one on the way back." The flights were all so crowded, so we ended up having to have him pay for it and he made us pay it all back with our babysitting money.
He loved that kind of stuff. Like I said, he was wild. In his drinking days he would go to bars and if somebody didn't let him in he would be like, "Damn it!" He would go into the bar and knock all the glasses down. He was the kind of guy who could, maybe, get arrested. It was crazy.
I love the strange nostalgic excitement you have for this borderline child abuse.
It was complicated. He was also a very loving parent. I think it's complicated. He was also really supportive and made me feel like I could do anything, and so in that way it felt really free and wild, but then in other ways I had to learn the rules of how regular people live. From other people. Like, professionals. Like, people you pay.