Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with the creators behind the Comedy Central documentary Call Your Mother, executive producer Caroline Hirsch and director Rachel Grady, about the ties that bind between comedy and mothers.
It’s pretty common for a comedian to get up on stage and talk about their personal life, and if you watch standup closely, you’ll discover how often mothers are at the center of the jokes.
That’s the heart of the documentary Call Your Mother on Comedy Central, directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. The film follows comedians on the road, at home, or in the studio—often with their mothers in tow—and explores their relationships and what the mother-child bond represents in comedy.
I had a chance to chat with director Rachel Grady and executive producer Caroline Hirsch about how this film came about, what it says about motherhood, and how they got comedians to be somewhat serious.
How Call Your Mother was Born
Just as there’s an origin to every joke, there’s an origin to this documentary.
“We were having a meeting with Caroline [Hirsch], from Caroline’s comedy club,” says Grady, “and she said, you know, I’ve had this idea for years, and I don’t know why no one’s ever done it: Comedians and their mothers. And that was basically it. Of course we didn’t know what that meant. Comedy Central was so creatively generous by telling us to go figure out what it meant.”
Call Your Mother executive producer Hirsch, founder and owner of the landmark comedy club Caroline’s on Broadway, says the idea came from news writer Basil Hero.
“I think he read the Chevy Chase book [I’m Chevy Chase. . .and You’re Not], but it was a very dark, dark book, and I said, I don’t think we can make something that dark. It needs to be funny, light, and airy. There is an inner depth to this, about how these children were brought up. You can see with David Spade’s mom. You can see how bubbly and enthusiastic she is. Part of it is probably genetic and probably is also the environment.”
Hirsch admits the project was on her desk for almost 10 years, but it wasn’t until she met directors Grady and Ewing that things clicked.
On the Road with the Moms
After that initial meeting, the doc took two years to make, since the film goes all over the country with these comics.
“We filmed a bunch of them with their moms at shows,” says Grady, “and we went home with Roy [Wood, Jr.] in his hometown and we went home with Fortune [Feimster] and her mom was there. And Kristen Schaal’s mom was visiting in Los Angeles, so we filmed them there together. It was a mixed bag. Some people we went home with, some people we caught up them when their mom was in town.”
As a comedy icon, Hirsch had the hook-up when it came to friends who could be in the doc.
“Almost everybody on this list, I had worked with. Jim Gaffigan, Jimmy Carr. I put [Jimmy] on at a show I do called Stand Up for Heroes, and he killed. So we thought, let’s get Jimmy. We know he’s a winner.”
The doc also featured Golden Globe winner Awkwafina, before she was a Golden Globe winner, who talks about how her grandmother helped to raise her; Grady and Ewing approached the then-future Nora from Queens star about the doc right when Crazy Rich Asians was a hit at the box office.
“It was a pretty good guess that she was going places,” says Grady. “But it’s always exciting to see someone on the rise. There’s a bunch of them like that. I think Fortune is on the rise also.”
Getting Serious with Comedians
While the film obviously has its funny moments, much of it is very poignant and thoughtful. Louie Anderson talks about his mother and her relationship with his abusive father, while Judy Gold, who has a stage bit where she plays her mother’s answering machine messages, shares some of the old recordings while getting teary-eyed over her passing.
“This was a topic that made it easier for us to actually get a little bit deeper than we would have typically,” says Grady. “Not just with comedians, but with performers in general. It’s hard to get them to be more vulnerable, and not go to that comfortable place, which is a persona or a shtick that they give to the press or to people outside that are covering them. People can’t fake it when they’re talking about their moms. It was a little door into how people really feel.”
Motherhood Versus Fatherhood: Which is Funnier?
Since the documentary aims to make a point about the connection between comedians and their relationships with their mothers and how they influence them, does that make mothers funnier than fathers? Both Grady and Hirsch think so.
“Not that relationships with fathers aren’t incredibly complicated,” says Grady. “I have to say relationships with mothers might be more complicated, on average. And any relationship that’s complicated is fair game and heavy with material. There’s no doubt that people have their baggage with their dad, but moms, it’s just a whole other beast.”
“[Comedians are] so influenced by their moms,” adds Hirsch. “You can just see it here. Much more than dads. And I don’t want to put fathers down, but I think children throughout their life are closer with their mothers. You know that that was the person who gave birth to you. You know who you came from. Whereas with a man, ehh, you’re not so sure!”
Call Your Mother airs on Comedy Central at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 10.