When young comics tell me about their great relationships with their Dad, I think 2 things. 1) I’m happy for you and wish I could say the same. 2) It lessens the chances you will ever be a good standup comic.
Now do you have to have a trainwreck for a father to become good at this job? No, there are some exceptions, but I find that most really good comics have that as common bond or they had some personal tragedy at a young age that pushed them into finding something to forget the pain. I know this is definitely the case with me.
I grew up in the Cornstalk Ghetto of Iowa. Times were tight for my family until my parents divorced. They got a light tighter after that. Even though my Mom leaving my Dad meant we would be living in government housing and using food stamps for awhile, it was the happiest day of my childhood because the abuse ended from my Dad. I do some material in my act about this subject. I mention that my Dad was so abusive to me as a kid that if I was female I would have become a stripper, but I didn’t have that option so I had to find a job where I could work at night, onstage, under the hot lights, hanging from a pole (mic stand). That is why I’m a comedian. Like most of my comedy, it hits pretty close to the truth.
I thought today at my blog I would respost a story from my book Dysfunctional Thoughts of a 21st Century Man. It kind of explains what my life was like. I can’t promise you it’s an easy read, but it helps inform you of why I am who I am today.
To give you a little background, my dad, Carl Long, Jr., was a very difficult man to grow up around. I have described Carl as having the personality of basketball coach Bobby Knight, without the good mood swings. His method of parenting seemed patterned from the Pat Conroy character Robert Duval played in the movie, The Great Santini. Let me tell you, when I saw the scene in that movie where Duval continues to cheat and change the rules just so his son can’t beat him in a game of driveway basketball, I felt as though I was watching a home movie from my childhood.
In my father’s defense, it should be mentioned that he suffered from severe manic depression. At the time, it was an undiagnosed affliction, as in the seventies, in small-town Newton, Iowa, people didn’t go to a psychiatrist and the local doctor didn’t have any handy anti-depressants to prescribe. People where I grew up just referred to as that fella’s kind of moody. (I have always said that if my tyrannical father had worn a mood ring, it would have been flipping colors like a Vegas neon sign).
Growing up the child of an un-medicated, manic depressive parent was a rather frightening experience. I’m sure it’s similar to growing up in a household of an alcoholic parent, yet at least with an alcoholic parent, you’d be able to predict when their temper was going to rise. With my father, you never knew when he was going to go off, only that it was going to be sooner rather than later. Just to give you an idea of how much I hated being around my dad, I can remember being jealous of a kid whose father was a dead-beat parent, because at least his dad was never there.
My father’s abuse was both physical and mental. I can recall how he developed a pattern where he would spank me everyday whether or not I deserved it just because he’d heard somewhere that it was good for a child. (My father’s favorite parenting author was not Dr. Spock but the Marquis De Sade). When he would spank or beat (you pick your favorite word) me with a belt, he would always say, ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you”, for which I prayed that he was telling me the truth, because I wanted some kind of retribution.
As bad as the physical abuse was, the mental abuse was much worse. In my book, constant threatening and belittling wear you out more than any kind of beating. One of the favorite “games” my dad would play was to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me what I had done all day while he had been hard at work. I can recall one time where he had expected me to fix a lawn mower, which I had no luck doing, despite spending a couple of hours looking it over and praying to God for an answer. Not taking into consideration that I was ten years old and untrained in engine repair, Carl Jr., when he got home, pulled me out of bed (at 1 a.m.) and told me not to go back to sleep until I finished fixing it. Since he worked part of the year doing the 4 pm to midnight shift at his factory job, this was more than a random occurrence.
I knew my dad hated his job because most days he would come home and tell me how difficult it was. On one hand, he would talk about how working in a factory sucked, but at the same time he would brag about how hard he worked. This was one of the few good examples my father set, as I promised myself that I would never consider working really hard as a virtue, particularly at a job that I hated.
The time of the year I hated the most was Christmas because whatever gifts my dad gave me, he would spend the rest of the year using them against me. For example, when I was 12, Santa gave me a moped. As much as I loved getting the moped, I was conflicted, as I knew that a gift of this magnitude would increase the level of indentured servitude I would owe the upcoming year. My worst predictions were realized, as almost everyday for nine months, I heard about how I should be more appreciative of my moped. His idea of the best way to show my appreciation was to paint the house or dig some post-holes. Let me say that the birthday and Christmas gifts were nice, but the hours spent working to “show my appreciation” would have been unacceptable even for Third World employees of Nike.
I finally got some relief from my indentured servitude when Carl broke “my” moped. Ignoring the manufacturer’s recommendation that no one weighing more than 190 pounds operate it, his 235 pounds of biscuits eventually disabled the two-wheeler. The best part of the story was that, at the time of the moped breakdown, he was wearing a “No. 1 Dad” T-shirt he had bought for himself. Now top that story, Lyle and Erik Menendez. (reference from 2000, when I initially wrote this story for my book. Look them up, it was topical at the time.)
The lamest Christmas gift I received was the year I asked for a GI Joe doll. Not wanting to spend the requisite money for an authentic soldier, Carl Jr. purchased a second rate army guy who looked like a reject Ken-doll. I took to calling him GI Jerry and amputated his leg to make it seem more like a real Vietnam vet. When you pulled “Jerry’s” string, he spoke such a garbled mess that it was impossible to discern what was said. I just pretended that Jerry was suffering some Agent Orange flashback. (I thank Mr. Fred Roger’s for having developed my strong ability for going to the “land of make-believe”.)
The worst thing my father would do was to find ways to embarrass me in front of my peers. Despite growing up in the long-haired era of the seventies, my dad would insist on cutting my hair himself. His method was to put a bowl on my head and trim around it, not exactly giving me a David Cassidy-look. Add to this my being forbidden to wear tennis shoes to elementary school and it’s surprising that I didn’t start my own trench coat mafia.
You might not find it a big surprise that there wasn’t a lot of physical affection in my family. Carl Jr. viewed hugging as something that made you less masculine. I’m certain that if I would have asked for a hug from him he would have replied, “What the hell would I want to hug you for? Are you trying to do me”? Anything that he perceived as “soft” would be addressed as, “Scott, I don’t want you doing that because it will make you a homo.” I really believe he thought you could become gay from a non-masculine activity. Last year I sponge painted one of my bedrooms while listening to Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits and still held onto my heterosexuality, so I think it’s safe to say that nothing can make you gay unless you’re born that way.
At this point, let me add my belief that no matter how dysfunctional your childhood is or was, it does not give you a reason to shoot up a playground or molest someone unless they are an adult who begs you to do it. We all have our own particular childhood nightmares, but using these past troubles to excuse current behavior is a cop-out. Now that being said this is just a silly little column I’ve written and if I am ever accused of a serious crime, I want to say that Daddy made me do it.
Having a great mother definitely helped get me through the tough times I endured. This is why I get tired of hearing that children of divorce are doomed. The day my mom left my father was the greatest day of my life, as no matter how tough my economic future would be, at least I wouldn’t have to live with him anymore. Sure, two good parents will be best for a child, but one good parent always beats one good and one bad parent.
You might be curious about what has become of my relationship with my father. Well, after not seeing him in nearly 20 years, I decided to visit him. At this point of the story, I wish I could have had NBC’s Stone Phillips take it from here and put a heart-warming ending to our relationship, Dateline-style. That’s not the way it happened, though. Carl Jr. wasn’t mentally well and I really didn’t have much to say. Looking at his face, though, it was like looking in the mirror, which made me realize that in some ways, I am my father’s son.
I have come to grips with my childhood and as rough as it was, I wouldn’t change any of it if it meant that it would change who I am today. I have met so many people who have what would be considered idyllic childhood’s, only to grow up as adults who are filled with depression and gloom. Sure, it would be great to share some of my life’s ups and downs with a father, but on many levels, not having a dad who was there in the tough times has made me more self-reliant. This self-reliance is one of the characteristics I value most in my personal make-up.
I know if I read this memoir, I would feel sorry for me, but since I don’t believe in proofreading, I feel fine right now. I can honestly say that my father is a non-entity in my life and has been for 25 years. I’m sure that he stills manifests himself in my sub-conscious, but that’s why I don’t take psychoactive drugs. Since it’s this time of year, I will let you in on a little secret. Having no relationship with your father saves you from the agonizing chore of finding a Father’s Day gift, though, if something changes in our relationship and I do need to get a gift, I’ve already got it wrapped and ready: His name is GI Jerry.
POSTSCRIPT: My father died a few years after I wrote this piece. Things didn’t change much before his death, but I did get a chance to try to make my peace with him before the end. I wrote a story about that which I will share tomorrow. I know this isn’t exactly standup comedy, but it informed who I have become on-stage.