A word to describe Heather McMahan: Son I Never Had is ‘intimate.’ While we cannot say enough that the act of comedy follows the rules of a conversation and not an elocution, meaning that intimacy is a given part of any set, there is something that goes far deeper when comedians start letting in the audience to get a glimpse of their trauma, which they present in the way they choose. There are many ways to process grief, and talking about it repeatedly in many forms and situations is one of the most defining ways of dealing with it. That is what Heather McMahan does, and each member of the audience is aware of it. She starts by talking about body image issues and how she became her father’s greatest support before addressing how she is starting the journey on her own going forward. But what struck us the most was how she connected these topics.
Usually, in any stand-up set, the comedian addresses different subjects, and their connecting thread is either one particular anecdote or a joke, or they just switch topics randomly, with the occasional well-timed statement thrown in that gets a few laughs with its recall value. Heather follows those steps, but if you are someone who has read more than the Instagram captions on body positivity, you would know that the connection she has drawn between the topics runs way deeper than we would have thought.
We remember saying in regards to a previous stand-up special of another comedian that self-deprecating jokes about one’s own body are a double-edged sword. There is the fact that the natural state is being normalized, but even within that, the politics of desirability cannot be escaped. Because the joke is about reality being undesirable. It is always important to question why something is found to be funny.
Heather McMahan doesn’t hide the fact that she is talking about her trauma regarding her body image issues. That adds a layer to her jokes that elevates them from being merely self-deprecatory. We understand that we are not simply laughing at her but are recognizing the bias that she is desperately trying to point out, which has shaped her into the person she is and made her the son her father never had. By simply acknowledging that she is traumatized, she raised the quality of her own comedy.
Admittedly, this was not a set where we could laugh. It is not because of the subject material, but because it simply wasn’t that funny. But it was touching and made us see what kind of person Heather McMahan really is. Also, wrapping it in the garb of comedy, no matter how not funny we found it, meant that people were more receptive to the topic, and that is always a win.
Then there was the bit about her fertility treatment. Every such story needs to be told, and we are always appreciative of anyone who comes forward, but again, the bit was not that funny. Heather McMahan tried really hard. She had the energy; she was unabashed, but sometimes, we simply have to accept that a funny anecdote doesn’t translate into a funny stand-up bit. It may make for a lighthearted story (the kind that you laugh at much later after the grief and anger have passed away) for a podcast, but it still doesn’t make it laugh-out-loud funny, no matter how invested someone is in it. On this note, we find the need to repeat that despite not making us even chuckle, the set remained engaging, and that is more than what most people on stage achieve these days.
Heather McMahan: Son I Never Had is based on the unsaid premise that, if given a choice, would one prefer to be skinny-shamed or fat-shamed? If she had asked that question that bluntly, it would have made it an entirely different set, one that would have been a lot more bitter and raw. But by masking that question, Heather made sure to keep the audience’s mood just right for the rest of the jokes. One thing to realize about this set is that it is not about the audience or what would make them laugh. It is purely for Heather to process everything she has been feeling in her life, regarding her body image and the complicated relationship it gave her with her father.
To reiterate our previous point, we will say that Heather McMahan remains engaging, whether we laughed or not, and a huge reason for that is that her personality compensated for the jokes. It was as sparkly as the suit she was wearing and as classy as her self-awareness and her ability to put it in just the right words. While the ability to do that is not itself a rare thing, the choice to do it is. With most comedians, who say that everything is content (something we agree with), the need to get a laugh out of the audience is greater than any message they want to send or issue they want to point out. While the best comedians are those who are able to skillfully marry these two things, we are always aware of what holds more priority.
But that was not the case with Heather McMahan. Her awareness indicates the journey she has been on and the therapy she has probably sought to come to terms with it. That meant that she had the right words to let it all out. But she was not talking about the grief from one particular aspect of her life. They were all mixed up together, and even though they were connected, Heather realized that there was only one way to express her combined grief, and it was by editing parts of each. Not cutting them out would have made this a far stronger set, but doing so helped her heal in a way she craved. That is why we said that this set was about Heather, not the audience she was performing for. She took Netflix’s money and anything that the audience may have paid and also used them as her free therapist, which, in our dictionary, makes her the smartest businessperson we have seen in a while. That is how you use your trauma three-fold to make money, and it is empowerment of the highest order. That makes us fans of Heather McMahan: Son I Never Had, and she will continue to have our support and our time.