Nick Cannon is the man of 1,500 jobs. He’s a former Nickelodeon star and executive, prolific movie lead of the early to mid-2000s, and creator of the 2000s improv hip-hop comedy show Wild ’n Out, but none of these things is what he’s most known for today. That would be his maximalist approach to fatherhood. On Howard Stern’s radio show on Tuesday, Cannon, who famously had his 12th child with his sixth partner in December, said he would really enjoy having Taylor Swift bear his next child. Now, granted, Stern basically pulled the answer out of Cannon, but it didn’t take much! When the devil-on-your-shoulder radio host proposed Swift, Cannon demurred for about one second, then perked up, very excited at the prospect, citing his admiration of Swift’s songwriting and their “similar numbers” regarding “being in these streets”—an apparent reference to them both having dated a good number of people, which…ew. Cannon had gone on Stern to promote his new radio show with one of the mothers of his children, DJ Abby De La Rosa, but guess which part of the interview made headlines?
I’ve been struggling to figure out what exactly to make of this public figure I used to greatly admire. All That was my introduction to sketch comedy, Drumline was my introduction to HBCU culture, and Wild ’n Out had me wondering if I could hold my own in the final Wildstyle battle, in which team members trade off improvised disses over a rap beat (I couldn’t). But Cannon has since regressed to the status of internet meme. I’ve been wondering how I should feel about this Black man’s very public endeavor to, as people joke, populate the earth. There’s a lot wrapped up in Cannon’s openness about having a dozen children, and there’s even more involved in our response to it. Winding through all of the memes and jokes, which hint at some actual level of censure of this man’s fruitful endeavors, is a conversation about colorism and privilege, and another about the aggravatingly omnipresent topic of Black men and fatherhood, all of which makes this story feel different from others about white men like Elon Musk who have almost as many kids. Cannon is a never-ending punchline to the most consistently reductive joke I’ve ever heard.
There’s nothing wrong with having a lot of kids, which begs the question of whether I’m even entitled to feel a certain way about Nick Cannon’s life. But lately, Cannon’s approach to publicity around family has changed. Cannon’s genetic proliferation was, for a while, slightly obnoxious, but really none of our business. Previously, his role as father to the world seemed mostly funny and mind-boggling. The fact that no one could understand why he would choose to have so many kids led to some truly unbelievable, nearly sci-fi-sounding theories.
The tides turned for me last month, when Cannon announced a new reality competition show on E!, titled Who’s Having My Baby?, in which women would compete to become the answer to the titular question. This show ended up being a hoax meant to promote his actual new project, Celebrity Prank Wars. In an attempt to get the world laughing with him, not at him, he’s making it our business. Cannon has joked about his paternity on Wild ’n Out and in Aviation Gin commercials. Now he’s shooting the shit with Stern, creepily claiming that he has a ton of interest in and, as he sees it, similarities with an incredibly popular singer, fresh off a breakup, who’s almost a decade younger than him. In an attempt to be in on the joke, Cannon has severely miscalculated the line between “shocking, though funny,” and “downright alarming.”
The jump in Cannon’s status from a long-standing and prolific voice in the entertainment industry to “Ugh, God, Nick Cannon is a menace to society” is not as swift as it might seem (no pun intended). There are other Cannon things, besides his superpaternity, that have made people look at him sideways. There was his relatively recent decision to start donning turbans, which apparently make him “feel like a king,” but make us wonder to what degree Cannon is in on the caricature of himself that he’s become. Speaking more seriously, there was also the time some antisemitic comments he made on a podcast jeopardized his relationship with ViacomCBS.
Now he is trying to assuage our hesitancy about the number of people who call him Daddy. Cannon wants us to feel a specific way about his family life, but try as he might, he can’t dictate what that way is. The more he tries, in one media appearance, to be a man who just loves his children, the more people like Stern needle him into admitting he wants to impregnate Taylor Swift. The more he doesn’t explain why he has so many kids (and maybe there is no explanation!), the more we, the People, only slightly jokingly turn our questions to the women: What do they get out of this? Was a formal financial package offered? Do they have a group chat? Do they set up playdates? Is he attempting to create an entirely new voting constituency to jump-start a political career, and how do the moms feel about that? How many hours does he spend simply driving between their houses on the big holidays like Father’s Day and Easter? In some ways, it seems he’s put himself in an impossible position.
But maybe Nick Cannon has us right where he wants us. I say this with love, but before Cannon was known for attempting to spread his seed like Santa spreads gifts on Christmas Eve, he had settled into a position as a sort of has-been competition show host, who revived his last source of relevancy when he brought Wild ’n Out back in the 2010s, and somehow fumbled the bag of being married to Mariah Carey. (She is the mother of his first two kids, and she very much wants to be excluded from this narrative.) Now, he’s known as, yeah, sure, the guy who hosts The Masked Singer and has a slightly funny nostalgia improv show, but mostly, Nick Cannon is the man with fifty-eleven children. What may seem like a questionable publicity pivot is perhaps a stroke of genius. And by making all of the references and jokes but withholding the real story about what has actually drawn him to have so many kids and whether he ever plans to stop, he’s keeping the mystery alive. If we can’t explain it, we will theorize and joke and remain wary. If we can’t put a reason to something that seems so unreasonable, we won’t stop talking about just how unreasonable it might seem. Cannon didn’t need to play along with Stern , make the joke reality TV show, or dub a promotional cocktail the Vasectomy. He doesn’t need to talk about his fatherhood, but he does.
Deciding to buy into a joke about yourself is risky business. It can defuse situations. But here, it can make Nick Cannon seem more pathetic—unable to fully understand why his private life, which seems to titillate some, makes a lot of us feel so disheartened. Maybe he’s fine with that, though the most cynical parts of me are saddened that played-out jokes about his incessant need to procreate are what his once-illustrious career has come to. But maybe we’re all getting played—maybe Nick Cannon is proving that the biggest joke isn’t him but us. Whether he’s doing all this to steer a narrative that has already gotten out of control, or to keep us talking, rather than relegating him to who? status, one thing is for certain: Regarding the latter, it’s working.