It’s not surprising that the first comedian to successfully integrate parenthood into cutting, popular, and critically acclaimed comedy was a dad. On Louie, Louis C.K. regularly features storylines involving the heaven and hell that is raising tiny people. More often than not, the indignities and contradictions he encounters as a parent prove to be redemptory, the rope our hapless protagonist uses to lift himself out of his self-pity and solipsism. His kids help him remember that, as C.K. once told Rolling Stone, “I have more value as a human being than I thought I did, that I can be of use to other people. That’s a very powerful thing.”
It’s the counterintuitive quality of a man as lead parent that has made C.K.’s fatherhood comedy so easy to laugh at. Humor today largely relies on navigating incongruities, and a father neck-deep in parenting is still incongruous. Motherhood, on the other hand, has long been assumed to be natural for women, a belief C.K. himself appears to hold, based on his show as well as his endorsement of Hillary Clinton as the first mom president, shortly before the election. As he told Conan O’Brien, at best, fathers can meet only 40 percent of their children’s needs, while even the shittiest of moms gives at least 200 percent.
Despite his antediluvian ideas about moms, C.K.’s work has done a lot to convince the world that parenthood is funny, paving the way for this year’s bumper crop of comedy about motherhood—none of which, thankfully, features moms giving 200 percent. The list includes the TV shows Better Things, co-created by C.K. and Louie actress Pamela Adlon, about an actress and single mom raising three daughters in Los Angeles, and Catastrophe, co-created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, which spent most of the recent second season exploring the feelings of desolation and discombobulation brought on by having young children.
This year also brought us the film Bad Moms, featuring real-life funny moms Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn. Despite clearly bearing the watermark of its bro-y writers and producers, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the team behind the Hangover franchise, the comedy still contained plenty of shocking, and funny, mom humor, and it did far better at the box office than many expected. And then there was Baby Cobra, Ali Wong’s stand-up special for Netlfix, during which she riffed on miscarriage and work/life balance, all while seven and a half months pregnant. Parenthood also surfaced as subject matter in more intimate settings, among stand-up and improv comedians. This summer, for example, I got to spend half an hour laughing about what it’s like to be reproductively challenged during a sketch comedy show called Infertile at Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York.
Mom comedy isn’t new, of course. Newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck satirized the suburbs—“Housework can kill you if done right”—during much of the second half of the 20th century, and in recent years, self-deprecating mom humor has made it onto the New York Times best-seller list. The difference between much of what came before and what we are seeing now is that the old guard had a “for us, by us” approach, framing itself as an in-joke for those in the know. This year’s mom comedy has wider ambitions and does for motherhood what comics like Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer have done for single life: present it as a messy human experience that you don’t have to have ovaries to find funny.
Another difference between the funny moms of yore and those we see today is their position within the jokes. The sitcom mom, a figure as old as the sitcom itself, was often the target of the punchline—which was usually written by men. Now moms are firing the shots, which can be aimed at themselves. There is a theory of comedy, one that goes back to Plato and Aristotle, which holds that people like to laugh at those they feel superior to. Most of the mom humor of the past, along with many of the racist and misogynistic jokes that the “politically correct” tend to find intolerable, worked in this fashion. Moms came in two flavors—control freak or hot mess—and we were encouraged to lovingly scoff at both.
Bad Moms, the weakest of 2016’s mom comedies, about a group of renegade moms rebelling against the perfectly coiffed PTA set, relied too heavily on this formula. The premise rests upon a hackneyed understanding of moms, and the punchlines asked us to let go of expectations of mothers that few of us have in the first place. What helped Bad Moms rise above the usual mommy wars nonsense was the fact that the rebel moms, much to the credit of the actresses playing them, genuinely seemed to have fun together. This is a rarity for moms on-screen, and it was a pleasure to watch.
Better Things also gave us a chance to see a mom enjoying the act of parenting, and not because she succeeds in being someone else’s idea of a good mom. Adlon’s Sam is the rare TV (and real-life) mom who navigates parenthood with an easy confidence. The show is honest about the chaos of raising children—unlike most other TV homes, this one is never clean and rarely quiet—but it moves far beyond the conceit that parenting humor can only be funny when the chaos renders the mom crazy. Sam functions as a pretty sane guide through the absurdity of raising three girls; she spends equal time showcasing why it’s maddening and why it’s nourishing.
While Catastrophe doesn’t show many interactions with the couple’s two young children, it takes a similar approach to life with kids. Horgan and Delaney adroitly mine the misery of early parenthood in the show, but the light behind their eyes and the warmth behind their laughter never quite dims. Parents of young children are simultaneously some of the happiest and unhappiest people I have ever known. Understanding this tension is a big part of why Catastrophe works.
Wong’s stand-up also plays with the incongruities of contemporary motherhood. With the help of two carefully arched brows, she takes on the culture of Lean In by protesting that feminism has made women work too hard. She also challenges natural birth advocates by insisting that a woman’s body during and after pregnancy is not that of a magical earth goddess but of a leaking, aching mammal with a job to do.
Taken together, these new forms of mom comedy make a case for the still-radical notion that mothers are complex and therefore relatable. We learn that within the particulars of motherhood exists a universal experience that most of us can relate to: the expectation of two parts drudgery for every one part of joy, a longing for silence mixed with a need for noise, and a simultaneous sense of nonstop movement and standing still. Funnily enough, it turns out the maternal condition and the human condition are not that different after all.
Read more of Double X’s 2016 year-in-review coverage.