smoke alarm

Ceiling mounted home smoke detector

In late November on a Sunday morning my mother burned something she was cooking and the smoke alarm went off.

And the joke was there – right there – in the air like a piece of low-hanging, very ripe fruit.  And I ran – ran up to my room and shut the door and started writing in my notebook:  

Her cooking.  Her cooking is so bad – in the kitchen – in our kitchen we haven’t got a timer –

So she uses the smoke alarm.  

And there it was:  a joke.  A real joke!  It felt like a joke.  Smelled like a joke.  Looked like a joke.  A kid’s joke.  A parents joke.  It was the first joke I’d written that felt finished, self-contained, not an idea or a fragment or some warmed-over Six Pistol bit – something only high school boys would think was funny.  It felt like a joke that a real comedy writer would write.  A real stand-up would tell.  It almost felt like I’d bought the thing.  And all because my mother had burned something in the kitchen.  

And what the hell, it was true.  She really was a lousy cook!  I mean, you couldn’t identify half the stuff she made – mixing meat and cottage cheese and ketchup and pineapple.  Rock hard hamburgers, bony chicken, gristly steak.  And forget anything ethnic.  It had never occurred to me that my mother was such a bad cook.  But now – it was staring me in the face!  Man!  

Okay, it was a one-liner.  There was no story, no build.  But so what?  A good joke was a good joke, right?  

Thursday night’s audience confirmed it.  

so she uses the smoke alarm!  

As if on cue, the room erupted – erupted – at the punchline.  Right when they were supposed to.  Here was an audience doing exactly what it was supposed to do at exactly the right moment.  Joke – Laugh – BAM!  After two months, it was the single biggest response I’d ever gotten in my act.  

Mike and Dr. Weiss were right.  My parents.  My parents, my parents, my parents.  Smoke Alarm – by accident – became my #1 joke – the first joke that I started to repeat regularly – and the centerpiece of my act.  And suddenly my act was all about my parents.  

My mom’s a terrible cook.  She made steak the other day.  I said, ‘Make mine rare.’ To my mother ‘rare’ means ‘unique.’  It came back burnt and covered with glue.

My mother’s an awful driver.  She’s into parking by sound.

For my birthday, my dad bought me a Driver’s Ed car – the kind with breaks on the driver and passenger’s side.  So now when we’re out, he goes “TOO FAST!” (stomps on the brake)

Sure, I did other stuff – commercials, candy, dogs, school, camp.  But starting with Smoke Alarm nothing killed more than bits about my family.  How could things get better?  Here I was telling strangers how screwed-up my parents were –

No, really – she does burn all the food – I’m not being funny – I haven’t eaten in weeks.  Why are you laughing?

– and they were eager to hear about it.  

It was liberating.  The power – the freedom – unequivocal.  Where else could I openly criticize my parents and be encouraged – rewarded even!  Stand-up became even greater therapy than Dr. Weiss.  

My mom’s cooking is so bad, in our kitchen we don’t have a timer – so she uses the smoke alarm.

And as for the butt of my jokes?  My mother was thrilled.  People came up to her at parties, at her bookstore.  She became a mini-celebrity.

I am a terrible cook!  And I can’t double-park!  That’s where he gets it from!  He wouldn’t have an act without me!”

And after two years, I started to feel like a real comedy writer.  


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