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Comedian James McCann: “Dad Jokes Are An Abuse of Power”

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James McCann is an award-winning stand-up comic. Six months ago, he also became a father to a baby girl. Here’s what the 28-year-old has learnt so far.

Recently, an old mate from Adelaide posted an Instagram photo of his beautiful house full of all this boujie, Scandinavian furniture. The caption on Instagram was: “What a perfect day to do nothing!” Now I love this person. But right then I wanted to hit him with my car. Because I realised I am unlikely to have a perfect day to do nothing at any point in the next decade. It’s impossible. Either there will be something to do or my family won’t be there, so it won’t be perfect because I’ll be missing them. So for me to have a relaxed, self-sufficient couple of days is off the table. And for the most part I don’t care.

Sadly, all the things people say
about becoming a father turn out to be true. People say, “You won’t sleep, but you won’t mind!” and “Your life is gonna change!” Before all these things sound like empty clichés and you pity these people who have perhaps only had one life event that’s affected them in any way. But then, of course, you have a child and all of those things turn out to be true and not clichéd in any way.

Since becoming a father the world all of a sudden has a tremendous weight to it. Decisions you make now have consequences. Nihilism and irony are just things you can no longer afford. There’s an entire moral seriousness to the universe that is basically forced upon you by love. Everything is harder and everything is more beautiful.

I’m on tour at the moment – I’m here doing comedy in Melbourne and my wife, who’s a Kiwi, has taken our daughter to New Zealand to see her family. I miss them very, very much. But it’s maybe given me five years of life back. Just getting to sleep all the way through the night.

One strange thing that’s happened since having kids is that I find it so much easier to connect to people who are not of my generation. I now have something in common with a 72-year-old man. There’s this notion that when you have kids you drop out of society and you’re just in your tiny little bubble. And I can see how it would seems like that to someone in their atomized, bar-hopping, “just off to catch up with my mates” world. But when it actually happens to you, this whole other community opens up of kids and parents. Suddenly you’ll feel this real and immediate kinship with a woman holding a crying baby in a supermarket. Having a child is like this automatic community machine generator.

Having said that, people who are showing me pictures of their nephew I have zero time for that. Or pictures of their dog. But yeah, if it’s someone’s child I can tolerate it now.

James’ new show Devil’s Advocate consists of audience members writing down indefensible ideas – deranged, perverse, criminally insane – and putting them into a bucket. He then pulls them out and has to justify every single one.

Doing this show is a huge relief because for that one hour I can’t be responsible for anything else. So it’s just like an hour where I can work really, really hard and have to be on and really sharp. It’s like sitting a test or playing at a grand final. Before I go on stage I can be scatterbrained, thinking about the baby, worrying about the future or finances or whatever. But then I can just do the show. And there’s nothing I can do to prepare for it. Usually that would be very scary, but it’s actually really liberating.

There’s a Francis Ford Coppola quote: “You won’t know what it is to work hard until you have a child.” I’d always thought that it meant that you would have this like renewed ability to apply yourself when you became a father. What’s happened is that it squeezes out the inconsequential. Which is good. I’m now less likely to just get lost in esoteric or immaterial things that I’m better without.

I feel more focused. I know what I’m doing and I’m ready to do it. If anxiety is the dizziness of choice, then I have been cured of anxiety. All of a sudden, life has become more binary. It’s like: are you gonna do the right thing or are you not? Are you going to be a man? Are you going to take the action that you have to? Or are you going to fail? The survival instinct kicks in. Yes or no? Heaven or hell? Light or dark. It’s a wonderful dichotomy to have been hurled into. I’m really enjoying it.

Dad jokes are an abuse of power. It’s like the king can say whatever he likes and people have to listen because he’s powerful. It’s the same for the head of the family – that’s why he gets away with these shithouse puns. An audience would never let you do a dad joke. Even dads that are comedians don’t crack dad jokes on stage. That’s an indulgence for the home where people have to listen. But where an audience can, boo or leave, no one tries that.

James McCann’s Devil Advocate plays at the Melbourne Fringe Festival from September 21. Buy tickets here