Mo Welch Laughs Through Trauma in Docu-Special Dad Jokes

Comedy Features Mo Welch
Mo Welch Laughs Through Trauma in Docu-Special Dad Jokes

When queer cartoonist and comedian Mo Welch sent her estranged father a text message, asking for his help with a “little project” she was working on, she had no idea if he would actually show up. After over 20 years apart, he doesn’t exactly have the best track record. 

In her explosively funny, fiercely irreverent, and dark debut special, Dad Jokes, Welch describes a concept known to her as a new mom, but one apparently lost on her own father: parenthood as an attendance mandatory phenomenon. Part-documentary and part-comedy special, Welch’s Dad Jokes showcases a gleefully harmless shock factor, a style of comedy Welch perfected throughout over a decade of sketch work, stand-up, and writing, and now, with her foray into long form comedic storytelling. 

A successful performer, writer, and illustrator, she has notebooks filled with beats of black humor surrounding the subject of her elusive father; from her very first stand-up set, as well as her first ever cartoon published in the New Yorker, Welch told dad jokes. “It is kind of funny that I have all of these dad jokes,” she explains to me about the inspiration for her special’s premise, “and I don’t have a dad. Like, why have I always tried to talk about this?” Welch transformed the details of her stormy childhood into fodder for her career, never quite moving on from her father leaving, at least not completely, she shares during our phone conversation.

In her expert comedic hands, Welch makes the categorically unfunny issue of paternal abandonment strikingly hilarious. She began putting the “project,” as she calls her special, together when she started to run out of creative spins and unique angles on her complex childhood trauma. With a vague concept in mind about how to approach this deeply personal topic (she knew she wanted to film a documentary in her hometown and interview her father), Welch went searching for new material by going straight to the source.

While psychoanalysis is typically reserved for the confines of a clinical setting, Welch travels, together with a small and trusted film crew, to her hometown of Normal, Illinois in order to understand why she writes so many jokes about her relationship, or lack thereof, with her abusive father. In the film, Welch brings us on her journey to solve this existential mystery.

Intercutting the documentary footage with various instances of father comedy from her sets, Welch visits the prison where her dad got locked up during her childhood, the plot of land where the house they lived in was eventually condemned, and the domestic violence shelter she, her four siblings, and their mother escaped to when she was young. 

Meeting her dad and seeing this wild idea through to the end helped make her a braver person, Welch tells me, as well as a better comic: “I see myself in that moment when my dad’s coming up, and I go, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’” 

She talks more about filming the penultimate scene in her father/daughter special, in which Welch gets her dad seemingly close to laughter. Considering, in the 20 years prior, she had only seen a few photos of him, “I basically had to keep myself from shitting my pants,” she confesses, later stating that they took the shot only once. “I was so nervous,” she says. Throughout Dad Jokes, we see her raw emotions unfolding in real time, and in that way, it is different from talking-head style documentaries, which is what Welch wanted. However, even though we know a joke is coming, it was still hard to put herself out there, she says, and to show us the same places where she endured those very painful memories from her childhood. 

Thankfully, all the courage required to make her documentary-type special was worth it. “I think I’ve been able to move on from even talking about my dad [in stand-up], and I’ve used [filming this docu-special] as some sort of therapy,” she elaborates (also spelling out that she did actually go to therapy, too).

In this bass-ackwards society, the onus of “daddy issues” is placed not on the damaged daddies themselves, of course, but on their children to resolve later in life with (hopefully) professionals, or in some cases, the catharsis of a comedy special. Welch’s artistic experiment bears a striking resemblance to another work from a peer, Whitmer Thomas, who in his 2020 HBO special The Golden One goes golfing with his once-absent father. Shortly after having seen his special, I spoke with Thomas following a stand-up show, and he mentioned how he could now move on from that one specific story of his, and allow himself to explore more creatively outside of such an overwhelmingly sensitive narrative. Similarly, Welch expresses in our interview how freeing it was for her to make Dad Jokes. Of her on-stage performance these days, Welch observes, “I’m way less in my head,” post the completion of her project. “I’m not so strict with myself on the words of my joke, and I feel more in the moment on stage, I feel more alive on stage,” she tells me about her newfound sense of liberation. And about what it’s like to see your dad after two decades, Welch cringes, saying, “It’s so awkward.” 

As far as what she wants audiences to take away from Dad Jokes, Welch says in no uncertain terms, “I just want people to see that when you grow up in a domestic violence household, that you can be normal, or you can be fun and laugh.”

Subversive as hell, whip-smart, and compulsively unserious, Mo Welch’s first comedy special delivers all the laughs, just in time for Father’s Day. With her burning questions about her dad more or less resolved, it will likely shepherd in a new age for this phenomenal talent, but I don’t know how much more committed to the bit she could get than this. And I can’t wait to see her try.

Dad Jokes is now available for streaming on 800 Pound Gorilla, YouTube, as well as TVOD. Catch more of Mo Welch on her podcast, Sweethearts, with fellow Midwesterner and her best friend, Beth Stelling, or on tour where she is currently opening for Ted Lasso’s Brett Goldstein.

Felicia Reich is an entertainment writer and culture reporter. She lives in Brooklyn with her collection of decorative pillows and insatiable curiosity. Follow her on Instagram @feliciamnqreich or around Whole Foods at a tasteful distance.

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