Comedian Dan Soder on jokes about dead parents, Leaving Neverland

Marcus Jones

For his new HBO special Dan Soder: Son of a Gary, comedian Dan Soder digs a little deeper, sharing jokes about losing his father when he was a teenager.

The Billions star workshopped his hour-long set at places like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, connecting with people across the world who relate to losing a parent. “Laughing about it is something that, if you haven’t been through it, you can be like, how could you laugh about that?” Soder tells EW. “But if you’ve been through it, that’s really, in a lot of cases, the only way to get through it, is just to joke around about it, make it lighter than it is. You’re not going to take the weight off, so you might as well make the weight a little lighter.”

Here Soder talks about the healing properties of joking about death, his take on the harrowing HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, and why he feels we have a generation of snitches.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve done an hour special before, but does this one feel any different in terms of scope? What was the difference with this one?
DAN SODER: I think the thing about HBO is it’s HBO man. I think as a comic, that’s the gold standard. I loved doing my special for Comedy Central, and I love working with Netflix, but HBO was always the thing I grew up watching. I remember having to wait for free weekends of HBO to put it on tape and try to see everything I could. It was where I saw Chappelle’s Killing Them Softly, which probably changed my life and made me want to be a comic. It’s just an unbelievable place to have an hour special. The way that they work and how they do things is so top-notch. It’s great, man. It feels like winning the lottery immediately.

Is the goal now to be keeping a steady stream of specials going as your career goes? Or are you thinking “Well, what’s the next level up from HBO?”
I’m honestly just hoping people dig the special. And then I think, I don’t really have that many grandiose ideas as much as I do just hope I can keep writing good jokes, and build another hour that I’m really proud of. Whenever that happens, that happens. 

I feel like when I did my Netflix half-hour, there were some really great bits in there, but I feel like I could have done a better job. And I think I kind of exhausted myself on this HBO special, so I feel like now I just hope people dig it. And then I get to go back to the process of just writing new stuff, which I think is terrifying, but also at the same time, very freeing, just to know that I get to talk about whatever the hell I want to talk about now and see where the evolution happens in the next hour. 

Was there a lot of thought behind the subject matter that you wanted to cover? Did you want this special to be particularly personal?
I think I was just becoming comfortable with the fact that I am a personal comedian. And I think comics are always trying to find their voice and the way they look at that stuff. I’d always kind of been a personal comic, but this was like, alright, well let’s just really get into it just by actually finding a way to do stuff about my dad being dead, and finding a way to make fun of that in a fun way that I feel like is inclusive. It’s like when I was working this material out, there’s a lot of people with dead parents that were coming up to me that were like, “Man those jokes, I love those jokes because I’ve been through that.” That was rewarding, to see people be like “Yeah man, I feel what you’re saying. I’ve been through that.” As opposed to being like “Dating is weird!” Everyone’s like, yeah, well of course it is.

Don’t get me wrong, there is also that stuff in there. I didn’t want to see an hour, a one-man show, where I’m just like “Daddy’s not there.” Like I wanted to do an hour of f—ing jokes. I wanted it to be joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. I didn’t want to be like, “Here’s what I think about…” I hope people watch it and laugh. I always think the sign of a good special is it feels like 20 minutes when it’s an hour. I hope people feel that. I hope people are like “Aw man it’s over already. I kind of wanted more.”

Do you feel like you also get more responses from people who watch your show coming up to you about the more personal jokes, saying they really identify with that, or thought it was hilarious?
Yeah, that’s what I kind of like. I like when someone comes up and they’re like, “Yo man my mom died,” or “My dad died, and that joke is hilarious,” because I think people like to treat people who have lost people with kid gloves. A lot of times, it’s like, “Yeah, I need you to treat me normal. I don’t need you to treat me like I’m a weak animal. I need you to be able to laugh about it with me because that will help me.” 

But again, people react to dark sh– differently. Some people laugh at it. Some people want to be coddled, and I don’t blame those people. But I’m definitely the previous. My sense of humor is kind of born out of a self-defense mechanism. It’s just like if you’re able to laugh at the hairy sh– that life hands you, it makes this whole experience a lot easier.

Speaking of dark sh–, did you know that your special was going to be with HBO before they premiered Leaving Neverland?
Kind of. I wrote that Leaving Neverland before HBO locked up the special, but I was definitely like I wonder if HBO is going to let me do this joke. And then they saw the special and they’re like “We love that f—ing joke.” Well, then we’re fine. Everything’s great. It is kind of convenient to have a joke about an HBO property. 

So there was just talk on your side of things about whether or not that joke would be left out? Especially thinking about Dave Chappelle, who also had a Leaving Neverland joke this year, although they’re completely different.
I’ll tell you this man, everyone’s got a Leaving Neverland joke. Everyone’s got a take on that sh–. Mine is again, a more personal, weirder, darker take.

I noticed when a lot of comedians start doing acting work, some Hollywood jokes end up in their set, or they start talking about the ways that work has changed their lives. That’s not really in your special. Was there any thought about jokes including jokes about being on Billions, or anything like that?
Nah man, I kind of look at Billions like it’s a great job, and I’m learning how to act, but that doesn’t really—I’ve never liked when comics do that. When comics are like “When I was on set on bleh,” shut up dude, I don’t give a f—. It’s a job. I think being the son of a bartender, I always kind of like my comedy to be like we’re sitting at a bar, having a conversation. So I don’t know, I’m not saying that I’ll never do those jokes, but I’m just saying I don’t really feel a natural progression to do those jokes. I don’t really know man. I can never really say what I am and am not going to talk about because I think that I take it joke by joke.

You talk about how we’re a bit of a snitching generation. Do you feel like we love to tell on each other? Or do you think that also extends into like people telling on themselves?
I think it’s a mixture of both, man. I think our generation loves to tell each other. I don’t think it’s everybody. I think it’s a lot of people who don’t have anything to say, so they just want to get attention, so they’re like “This person said this, and I don’t agree with it.” It’s like “Shut up…then say that to that person.” Stop trying to get attention for getting someone in trouble. Growing up, I always remember, like trying to make kids laugh in the back of the class, and it’s always like that one kid that’s like, “Dan Soder said this word,” and you’re like, “Shut the f— up dude, what are you doing? You’re ruining the fun to the back of the classroom.” And then you wind up, you’re always like where did those kids end up, f—ing trying to ruin people’s careers because of sh– they said? And you’re like Oh that’s where those joyless f—ks ended up

I like doing comedy because comedy felt like the people who I grew up with in the back of the bus. It felt like the people who I was smoking cigarettes with in eighth grade, like those kids that would just bust your balls in a way that probably made you sad, but also was really funny and gave you thick skin. I just always liked comedians for that reason. And then it felt like, Oh, yeah there are people who want to get attention for getting people in trouble, and I think that’s a dangerous f—ing territory. I think that’s the whole point of that [Yelp] joke, it’s like Yelp has really given those people like, “Did this restaurant fuck up? Bury them. Bury them online.” It’s like “Whoa man, do you know how hard it is to run a restaurant?” That shit’s hard. And now you’re mad because they had one bad Tuesday? Get the f— out of here. We’re holding people to a figure skating routine level of excellence where it’s like if you slip once, you’re in trouble.

On the flipside though, there’s so many examples, like the Am I An Asshole subreddit, where people choose to post something about themselves with an inkling that it will backfire. With stand-up comedy, it’s a venue where people know you’re working on stuff. Whereas Twitter, there’s no working on anything, you just put it out there.
Yeah the weird thing about Twitter, and the weird thing about social media is it’s a time stamp. You’re having an actual finite like I said this at this moment on this day, and that’s not how the world works, man. My opinion about sh– changes every day. Every day. You what I mean? I think the Denver Nuggets are going to be an incredible playoff team this year, but we could talk in May and they could suck ass. They might not even be in the playoffs and they’ll be like, “but you said in December when I talked to you that they were going to be involved,” and it’s like that’s how I felt then. That’s what I thought was gonna happen, and then sh– changed. 

Sh– changes, sh– moves, sh– evolves. I feel like we need to be more conscious about that in society. People change, people f— up, and people become better—people become worse. It works both ways. Digging up sh– from people’s past, that’s not a good thing because that’s not the same person. I was an alcoholic sh–head at 26. At 36, I’m a decent pothead. I mean, I was a pothead then, but you know, I just more gassed up on whiskey. 

Is there any sort of subject matter you’re thinking about now as you have a clean slate with this special?
Actually no man, I’m just trying to kind of bump into stuff. What’s great about after a special is you kind of get to do like, well what do I think is funny? Like is this funny? I got to watch Nate Bargatze and Michelle Wolf go through that after they did their hours because they taped before me, and it’s always a fun process to watch a comic be like “I don’t think I know comedy anymore.” And then you’re like, “Oh, no, I got it. This is funny.” Like I’m still doing jokes about my grandma, but it’s a little different. And it’s like coming off the Thanksgiving, and then like, now I have a girlfriend, so that’s changing. There’s more stuff I want to talk about, about how our relationship works. So I think when it changes, you kind of find a way to be like “Oh ok, I’m talking about this now,” which is in a different light.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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