“When I was 18, Dad wanted me to do stand-up,” says Rain Pryor. “And I was like: ‘Are you crazy? You’re Richard Pryor, Dad. That’s impossible.’ A regular comic can go to an open mic and work out material. I have to go and be funny right away.”
The list of job requirements for a comedian is short: Make people laugh. However, for those who also happen to be children of famous comedians, that list multiplies: Be as funny as your parents, espouse their same opinions, be a conduit for them, answer for their actions, serve the role of holy relics after they die. All the while, of course, they struggle to cut their own paths, as anyone following in a parent’s footsteps would – except in a very public way.
Pryor, now 47, did eventually try stand-up, but it isn’t her passion. She instead performs autobiographical solo shows and is a cabaret singer. It’s no coincidence that each of the five children interviewed for this article pursues an artform slightly different from his or her parent’s.
“I’m grateful that he never did stand-up,” Camilla Cleese says about her dad, Monty Python legend John Cleese. “Part of the reason I tried it the first time is because I saw it as a way to establish myself as a separate entity.”
Still, fans of her dad occasionally ask her to do his famous silly walk. “I have the same weirdly double-jointed legs,” the 33-year-old comic says, laughing. For all their similarities, though, she asserts, “I know I’m not as funny as him – that’s not my goal.”
Such disclaimers are another commonality among kids of comedians. “My dad is the funniest guy I know,” says A.B. Cassidy, speaking of the Farrelly brothers director Bobby. “I rank, like, 19th in my family. My sister had to explain jokes to me.”
Earlier this year, A.B., 24, adopted the stage name Cassidy. “Farrelly is such a specific brand of humor and I don’t want those preconceptions about my comedy,” says the stand-up, who mines her experience as a butch lesbian. She says she even removed a poop joke from a TV script she’s writing because it felt too close to the gross-out comedy associated with her dad.
Rain Pryor admits once using a pseudonym, Cynthia Grossman, at an open mic in Albany, New York. Max Silverstein, on the other hand, never needs a fake name, because his dad, Andrew Dice Clay, already has one. Drumming is Silverstein’s professional pursuit – he and his brother, Dillon, are in the band Still Rebel – but he’s also been “quietly doing open mics for 10 years,” he says. “It’s a weird hobby to have. I grew up at the Comedy Store,” he explains, referring to the marquee club in Los Angeles where his dad often performed.
Other comics at these mics usually know who Silverstein’s dad is, but they don’t bring it up.
Professional settings are different. “In stand-up, I am never just Rain Pryor,” she says. “It is always, ‘The daughter of ...’”
It’s a way to wow the crowd. And, Camilla Cleese says, it’s also sometimes a cruel joke. “I still get hazed about it at one club in particular. It’s very deliberate. They introduce me as John Cleese’s daughter. I feel the room turn.” Suddenly the audience is judging.
Another thing Cleese says: “I don’t envy Kelly or Rain.” She’s speaking of Kelly Carlin (daughter of George), Rain Pryor and the shadow under which they live as children of, arguably, the two most iconic stand-ups in history. Camilla has met them – and also Max and A.B.
“It is a club in some ways,” Carlin says. “It’s a club when your parents are alive. And it’s another club when your parents are dead and you are the focus.”
Carlin, a storyteller and memoirist, didn’t find her voice until after her father died. In 1999, she wrote a solo show, her first onstage endeavor, about her mother’s death. “I gave my dad the script to read, and he said it made him uncomfortable, and that he would never stop me, but he would not come to any performances. This completely cut me off at the knees.” She did the show for friends but canceled its scheduled six-week run – and then went to graduate school to study Jungian psychology.
After George Carlin’s death in 2008, the comedian Lewis Black, who knew about Kelly’s storytelling work, invited her to tell family tales on a cruise ship for which he was booking talent. She and the audience both found it cathartic. Back onshore, she developed the show into a theatrical run and then a book. “To fully let go of the mantle of being George Carlin’s daughter, I had to walk through the fire of it,” Kelly says.
She says she spent nine years engaging with her dad’s fans “24/7 on social media” and supporting her dad’s legacy. Last year, she donated his archives to the National Comedy Center and told fans that she was finished talking about her dad, a request they have largely respected. She describes playing the role of George Carlin’s daughter, during her book’s promotional tour, as “a strange privileged hell.”
Pryor also feels that she plays two roles onstage. “If I mention (my dad) in a show, it triggers this thing” for fans, she says. “It encroaches on your process to grieve. It wasn’t just Richard Pryor that died. That was my father. ‘Oh, we get it, we miss him too.’ No, dude, you’re a fan. I miss my dad.”
Everyone interviewed expressed a desire for healthy boundaries with their fathers, whether emotional or creative. But they also admitted inheriting some of the creative DNA. “The great thing I got from my dad is this truth that I can’t avoid. I am honest to a fault,” says Pryor, whose work often grapples with the experience of growing up black and Jewish.
Cleese, who looks like her father and, at 6-foot-2, shares his height, admits that she and her dad “have a very similar sense of humor.” Helping her dad write a one-man show was her first foray in the entertainment industry. “When I started doing stand-up, I had to snap myself out of writing in his voice. It would be weird if I said ‘Indeed!’ onstage.”
Carlin’s name gives her, she says, “permission with people to cross a line, to push up against authority.” She also feels inclined to. “That iconoclastic urge is in my cellular being. And yet, I am a woman and born in a different generation, and had a different upbringing than my father. My dad used a sledgehammer.”
Her tool is “diplomacy and charm,” she says, adding that in a house full of alcohol and drugs, “that was my job as a kid anyway.”
“My dad was one of the biggest truth-tellers in the 20th century, and yet in our house, because it was dysfunctional and alcoholic, no one knew how to speak the truth to each other,” she says. “For me to get on stage and speak my emotional truth – that has been as iconoclastic in my life as my dad saying, ‘Have you ever noticed women against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to f--- anyway?’ It feels like that kind of a rebellious act.”
Cleese talks about her dad onstage, too, but anonymously (“Very exciting news, we have a new child in the family: my new stepmom”). She is also developing a sitcom based on her life. Another thing these comics share: hustle. Silverstein’s band Still Rebel releases its debut LP, “Valley Daze,” this summer. Pryor is taking her theatrical show “Fried Chicken and Latkes” on the road, and she recently performed her cabaret night in New York. Cassidy hits Los Angeles stages several nights a week. And Carlin’s next project? A book about creativity, daughterhood and how to uncouple the two.
The list of these performers is growing. Recently, Larry David’s daughter Cazzie launched the web series “Eighty-Sixed.” Sketch performer and actor Bridey Elliott is carrying a family tradition started by her grandfather Bob Elliott (half of the groundbreaking radio duo Bob and Ray), and continued by her dad, Chris Elliott (“Cabin Boy,” “Get a Life”), and sister, Abby Elliott (“Saturday Night Live”). And Dana Carvey’s sons, Thomas and Dex, have begun working their way up the stand-up ladder.
But having a famous name can take you only so far. “If you’re not funny, no one in that crowd is going to laugh because your dad is so-and-so,” Cassidy says.
“There is no shortcut,” Cleese adds.
Offstage is a different story. Silverstein says the brashness of his dad’s persona can work in his favor: “I meet people, and they’re like, ‘I would’ve thought you were a total d---.’ Because they thought I was going to be, I come off as way nicer.”
It’s almost like a joke.
“Yeah, my dad is the setup and I’m the punchline.”