December 29, 2023

Mo Welch’s Hybrid Documentary/Comedy Special “Dad Jokes” Contextualizes Humor in Real Time


When Mo Welch first steps on screen for her docu-special Dad Jokes, smiling mischievously, it’s as if she’s about to tell us “My name is Mo Welch, and this is Jackass.” Standing in the middle of a rural Illinois road, Mo pretends to sheepishly deliver jokes for the corn stalks and livestock to either side of her. A quick cut to her being brought out on stage in a packed venue, and I’m immediately curious about how the hell she got from there to here. Over the next hour, I will learn not only how she got from farmland to limelight, but why.

Dad Jokes is a hybrid of documentary and comedy special: A camera crew follows Mo around Illinois as she prepares to meet up with her estranged father for the first time in 20 years…but it also has jokes. In fact, I can’t think of a time where Mo wasn’t cracking a joke — a coping mechanism I know well — and here we watch as she makes  jokes about her trauma in real time, as she is experiencing it.

To me, Dad Jokes is the epitome of turning trauma into content, not unlike modern true crime documentaries or “story time” TikToks videos that serve you some of the most fucked up, hard-to-swallow truths and immediately slap you with one of the corniest jokes you’ve ever heard. Mo is either a genius for figuring out the algorithm and stretching into long-form or my brain is permanently ruined. But I mean it! As someone who watches a lot of true crime documentaries, I couldn’t help but notice the lingering sense of danger and concern for Mo as she made her way around her home state in a pick-up truck.

Perhaps it’s because she visits cemeteries and prisons or because of the stories she tells of her abusive father — or both — but I grew scared to see how the special was going to end. A lot of the comedy I write is rooted in my trauma, which of course can feel vulnerable. But to quite literally face your trauma head-on with a camera crew? That’s a level of dedication I’m not sure I’m capable of.

Not only that, but, for the most part, Mo is alone here. There are some valuable moments of her with her mother, but other than that, Mo is on this adventure alone, which I have to imagine is how she felt in the wake of escaping her father. She must have also felt the loneliness that is coming up in comedy, and especially being a woman, specifically a gay woman, in comedy. I love this juxtaposition of loneliness on the road and being absolutely surrounded by people hanging on to every word she says while she’s on stage. It’s the reality of most comics, and I’d imagine most performers, and it’s portrayed very beautifully in this special.

My favorite use of the hybrid format is that you get to hear Mo’s jokes and then get to see the reality behind them right after. This is especially cool to me now because of the current discourse in comedy about how far we can stretch the truth in order to make a joke work. It’s common to lie in comedy — to an extent. Instead of saying “Six months ago…” we might say “Yesterday.” Rather than saying “My sister’s husband’s niece’s friend,” we would just say “My niece.” What you don’t want to do is say that something horrible happened to you and have some internet sleuth pull up the receipts and catch you in a lie. In this format, Mo doesn’t have to worry about any of that. Not only is she telling the truth, but she has the b-roll footage to back it.

Another favorite moment, which I’m curious how many viewers also noticed, is when Mo enters a gas station to try to find a souvenir gift for her dad. It isn’t uncommon to see Mo in random interactions along her journey in the special, sometimes in a gas station, other times in a fast food joint, and once at a stranger’s front door. But in this particular moment, Mo picks up a pair of sports sunglasses and tries them on.

Seeing her reflection, she says, “I can tell you, with all confidence, somebody that wears these sunglasses does not have the same political views as me.”

At the time, this felt like a throwaway moment; like a jab at conservatives’ style coming from a dyke in overalls. But in the penultimate chapter of the special, when she finally reunites with her father, he is wearing a pair of those sunglasses. After seeing that call back, I knew it wasn’t just a throwaway or a jab but rather a smart way of showing us how much of a stranger this man really is to her.

In these final scenes of the special, Mo sits under a pavilion waiting for her father to show up. With her, she has a stack of large, pink index cards held together by a binder ring, containing questions to ask him. It’s unclear to me what the intention behind this prop was, but I couldn’t help but feel like it captured her stolen adolescence.

As a young girl, I would get so excited about fun colors on index cards. I loved the aesthetic of being studious more than I did the actual studying. Test preparation was really just a handwriting contest with your best friends, and school supplies shopping was never about practically, but performance. So, seeing Mo holding this relic of wanting to be prepared, wanting to do a good job, and wanting to look good doing it, too, I mourned for her childhood. Further, I mourned the effects it had on her adulthood.

With her father finally across from her, willing to answer any and all questions she may have for him in front of a camera crew, she’s a different person now. The smirk is gone, the confidence seems stripped, and in a floral dress, it’s easy to see a young girl waiting to be picked up from school by her daddy. In anticipation, my mind begins to wonder, what could she possibly want to ask him?

All supporting context would lead me to believe she’s going to hit him hard with really dark yet sarcastic questions like, “Did your life get better or worse when your family ran away from you?” or “What’s your biggest regret in life and don’t say that tattoo!” But remember, for every heart wrenching moment of Dad Jokes, there is an equally corny followup.

So, in the moment we had all been waiting for, she asks, “Who is your number one celebrity crush?”

It felt like she was making fun of me, the viewer, for falling for a trick. As if it was preposterous of me to have believed she’d take this seriously. Truly, how could I have just watched an hour of her pranky and unserious behavior and really think she’d be earnest in the moment. Everything I had seen before that interaction, Mo’s anxiety and uncertainty, her mother’s fear, prepared me for a moment much larger than what we got.

But isn’t that the point?

Isn’t the point of stringing me along for an hour, telling me stories about the trauma she faced, to explain to me why she is the way that she is now? There are so many ways in which someone can end up after going through what Mo did. Some people have a harder time coping with the trauma and turn to drugs or alcohol until it consumes them. Others want to grow up in spite of what they experienced, and they become therapists or social workers or foster parents. Some people can’t escape the trauma and go on to inflict it onto others.

And to some people, trauma is just a thing that happened to them. I believe Mo Welch is one of those people. I don’t think she grew up to be a comic because her father was funny and she wanted to be like him in order to feel closer to him. No, her mom confirmed he wasn’t funny. I believe Mo was always funny and always wanted to be a comic, and her estrangement with her father is just one item on a list of things that gives her good material.

Mo Welch is also a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend, a cartoonist, and a comic. In the standup portion of the special, we see just how much of Mo’s material isn’t actually centered around her father. She’s written fantastic jokes about queer parenthood, scissoring, 9/11 (every great queer comic has a 9/11 joke), puberty, sex education, and so many other topics that have nothing to do with her father.

I understand why she named her docu-special Dad Jokes; it’s because of how she started out in comedy. Most of her first jokes were about her dad, or quite literally in dad-joke-format. Dad Jokes feels less of a definition or categorization of Mo’s comedy and more of an origin story. If I dare assume, this experiment she did with her father will help her move on from her original dad jokes and usher in a new era of material for her. In fact, I think it will give her permission to move on now that she’s put herself out there and done something scary for herself.

I’m excited to see what that new era might be, and how, if at all, her learnings from this adventure will inform her new material. Maybe she’ll get new inspiration from raising her kid and release her second special, Mom Jokes.

Originally posted at: AUTOSTRADDLE