Throughout the arts there have always been lots of kids who follow in the footsteps of their parents—except with comedians. There are virtually no second-generation comics. There’s actor and comedian Chris Elliott and his daughter Abby Elliott, who is a comedic actress, improviser, and Saturday Night Live cast member—they’re the only such family of performers to appear on SNL, by the way—and you also have regular Christopher Guest comedian-actor Martin Mull, whose daughter, Maggie Mull, is a comedy writer on sitcoms, but that’s about it, since no one would consider what Melissa Rivers does to be comedy.
It’s likely that the reason there aren’t a lot of multi-generational comedians is that nepotism doesn’t matter in humor. Either you’re funny, or you’re not. Which is all the more reason why mother and daughter comedians Kathe and Jessica Farris are such an anomalous pair. Two performers who clearly have a similar sensibility on what’s funny, but who come at it from different perspectives. What’s even more odd? Jessica’s a teenager who actually likes her parents.
I sat with Jessica and Kathe recently to find out more about their careers.
As the only mother and daughter doing comedy in Boston, have you thought about a duo act?
J: We did that once. Obviously it didn’t go well, because we didn’t continue our partnership.
Other than teaching comedy, do you have day job?
K: No, no, I don’t have full employment with like a 401k or anything like that. I teach at ImprovBoston, produce shows, do workshops, and I’m basically a stay-at-home mom. With Jessica in school 30 minutes away, and my oldest daughter in Vermont, this is the first year that I am an empty nester, and it’s really awkward when you’re a stay-at-home mom and there’s nobody at home.
Do your friends back at school know you do stand-up?
J: Yeah, like most of them do. I try my best not to bring it up anymore because I feel like every time I bring it up people are like, “Okay, tell me eight jokes right now and prove yourself. I don’t believe you.” I don’t have a quick wit. That’s not going to happen.
K: Hold on, let me get my notebook.
What inspired each of you to start stand-up?
J: I didn’t even think it was an option for me. My mom offered it to me like, “Hey, you want to take a class?” And I was like, “Sure.”
K: I thought this might be a good for her because she’s a shy, introverted person. One day I picked her up from school and said, “You’re going to ImprovBoston tomorrow.” I had taken a class when I first got married at 23; I got married really young. I took a class, and I just never went back to it. And for 19 and a half years I always said I was going to do it. And then my older daughter, I would want her to try out for this improv group and in this play and she’s like, “I don’t want to do it.”
I heard myself doing the same thing. Like, well, you don’t know unless you try, and I felt kind of like a hypocrite because it was something that I knew I wanted to do, but I had a lot of good excuses not to do it, and it seemed like a good time in my life to do it because I could leave the kids at home, and not have DSS after me. I was scared that there was this terrifying thing for me to do. It took so much just to get in the car and get over to ImprovBoston.
When you were trying to get your first daughter into an improv class, do you feel like that was a little bit of you living trying to live vicariously through her?
K: As a parent I’ve always done this thing of, if I’m going to ask you to do something, I’m going to do it. If I’m going to ask you to make your bed, I’m going to make my bed. It was a little bit of that in it. I think it was more of me talking to myself. Yeah, maybe projecting a little onto her.
As a stay-at-home mom, what was your experience when you were the comic in residence at the Comedy Studio? (A prestigious honor in which one comedian performs at all 25 shows at the Comedy Studio in a month.)
K: It was incredible. I turned to my family and said, “I really want this.” And they knew that I really wanted it. So when it came, we were all kind of prepared for it, but it was a sacrifice, you know, that’s a lot of days out. As a comedian it was great because every night you got to perform, you really load up your schedule. What was the most fun was Jessica performed for the first time performing at the studio, so that was exciting. It was kind of nice to have that combination.
J: I didn’t see that much of a difference because I try to ignore her anyways. I did miss her a little bit because she’s my best friend, but I knew how much she wanted this, like this is something she was talking about since she started comedy. We’re not going to complain about her doing it. This is like her dream and she’s living it.
How many family members have said to you, Hey, you can use that in a skit? And how many of them have tried pitching to the other after getting shot down by the first?
K: I think there might have been something that Jessica’s boyfriend, Greg, tried to do.
J: He does try to pitch us stuff. Oh my God. All the time. Like he’s trying to rework my set, but English is his second language, so …
Is there material you don’t want your daughter to hear?
K: No, but we do have a lot of follow-up questions on the way home.
J: Especially when I was 15.
Do you talk with your mom openly about relationships or questions about that kind of stuff?
J: Yeah, I think it’s definitely because I’m like overly anxious about this stuff ever since I was little. Like in high school and starting to do stuff, French kissing and stuff, I’d be like, “I’m not sure, but is this pregnancy?”
K: She looked everything up online. You can’t imagine the question she was asking me after health class.
Have you run into a situation in comedy that you didn’t want your mother to hear?
J: There’s a lot of advantages for having my mom being a stand-up comedian, like she like taught me how to do this. I felt like even when I was 16 I was worried like, man, I’m going to say shit in this next joke. And I feel like I could hear her in the audience taking a deep breath. So I don’t know, like we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. My material itself isn’t too dirty, but honestly she respects the craft of comedy.
K: First of all, if it’s funny, it’s funny. Secondly, I’m pretty clean, but that’s only because I just tend to be clean. I don’t purposely try to be clean, so if it wasn’t clean I’m good with that too. As long as it’s funny. And then if it’s authentic, you know that doesn’t mean it has to be the truth, but that it has some authentic value. Not just telling a Tinder joke just to tell a Tinder joke because you’re 19 and you should be telling a Tinder joke.
Have either of you ever tried writing for the other one?
J: Yeah, we do. We’ve had these, like, couch chats, exchange ideas and stuff like that.
K: Jessie’s very much a better writer than I am. She can write her blogs and things like that. She’ll see something and be like, You know what, I think this word will work better than that word because it just doesn’t make sense to me or it doesn’t feel right. And then we just go into it that way where I’m more like, I was thinking about this joke.
I had you each write two of your own jokes. I’m going to read the setup to see if the other can finish the joke. We’ll start with one of Jessica’s jokes: “I really like anime…”
K: Which is just another way of saying I’m lonely.
That is correct. Kathe, you’re on the board with one. All right. Jessica, for you: “The best part of being a mom is…”
J: Oh, throwing away the art!
Correct! Tie score. Kathe, for you. “People say I look like Ron Weasley…”
K: … But … um … with bigger boobs?
J: That’s not even close.
Jessica, here is one of your mom’s jokes: “I was kicked out of the Girl Scouts of America…”
J: Uh, oh God. Um, do you know how hard it is to get kicked out of America’s biggest pyramid scheme?
K: She knows the first draft. The new version is, “When I was 11 years old I was kicked out of the Girl Scouts of America because my troop leader, Mrs. Sullivan, hated me. My parents would always say, “Kathleen, Mrs. Sullivan doesn’t hate you, she’s just going through an ugly divorce, and you reminded her of Mr. Sullivan.”
Future aspirations for your future in comedy, and what do you hope for the other one?
J: My own personal goal is just to be able to do comedy more consistently because it got really hard double-majoring second semester to be able to get on the scene. So my personal goal is to be able to make a more set schedule so I can really set aside time for comedy.
For my mom, I have bigger dreams for her. I honestly think she could probably win the Boston Comedy Festival, and if she doesn’t meet them, you’re not my mom anymore.
K: Wow. Those are big goals. Putting all the pressure on me. I would love to get a late-night spot. Honestly, my thing with comedy is that I just love doing it and I’m going to be just as happy doing whatever I’m doing right now, and just keep trying to get better at it. Especially this year. This has been really crazy. Trying to figure out how to do 30 minutes.
For Jessica, she’s an incredible writer. She realized that I really think that she could write comedy for anything, but more so just do what you want to do, you know, have fun with it. I think when you’re good at something and you know it, and you get to challenge yourself with it … that’s better than any drug in the world. I just hope that she just continues to do that.
See Kathe Farris Saturday, Sept 8, at the new Comedy Studio in Bow Market, and on Sept 12 at the Boston Comedy Festival. As for Jessica Farris, see her when she gets back from college. Also listen to the full, unedited podcast at deadairdennis.com/podcast, and for a full listing of all the comedy shows in Boston visit bostoncomedyshows.com.