I recently emceed a benefit for Road Recovery an organization that helps mixed-up teenagers get on the right track. They do a good job and I could have used them back when I was a mixed-up teenager. Now I’m a mixed-up middle aged man, so I’m too old for them.
The guest of honor was the great Charles Grodin who, no matter what he accomplishes in life, will always be known as The Heartbreak Kid. Grodin’s turn as Eddie Alberts’s nightmare prospective son-in-law is one of the all time greats. At the benefit, Grodin recalled how for years strange women would give him dirty looks on the street because of that film. Imagine how their fathers felt.
Dudley Moore had another classic awkward prospective son-in-law moment in Arthur, meeting with his fiance’s father (Stephen Elliot) and his fiance’s father’s moosehead (“You must have really hated that moose!”). Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro have stretched these awkward moments into two movies now.
Why is the father-in-law / son-in-law relationship such a rich vein for awkward comedy? Three factors. Factor One: By its very nature, the father-in-law / son-in-law relationship is a forced entanglement of two grown men who have to be nice to each other despite one major, fundamental obstacle — no matter who the son-in-law is, no matter what he’s accomplished, he’s still taking away the other guy’s prized possession. Doesn’t matter if you’ve cured polio, to at least one guy on the planet at some point Dr. Jonas Salk was thought of as “that bum who’s sleeping with my daughter.”
Another factor to the inherent awkwardness of the son-in-law / father-in-law relationship is by the time most men get married, they’ve just finished the exhausting job of coming to terms with their own old man. They’re all grown up, hopefully they’ve made some kind of peace with their dad, soothed over the lingering headaches from their mixed up teenage years (paid back the bail money, that sort of thing), had a couple of cathartic heart-to-hearts (or cathartic knock-down, drag outs) and are ready to take on life, head held high, chin jutted, with a purposeful stride, and a jaunty angle to their snap-brimmed Frank Sinatra fedora. Then — boom — just as they’ve gotten the show on the road — there’s a whole new dad to deal with!
A final contributor to the awkwardness is the mathematical fact that most sons-in-law are just getting started in their adult lives, while most fathers-in-law have attained a level of accomplishment that the son-in-law has yet to achieve. There’s a built in competitive nature to the relationship, and the son-in-law has the deck stacked against him. Now those of you who are stable and mentally healthy might say “Hey, Dave Konig, surely family relationships are not a competition, are they?” To which I can only reply, I suppose that’s true, Dr. Phil, and who asked you anyway?
In my case, I’ve got all three of these factors firing on all cylinders. To elaborate on the third factor: My father-in-law is a very accomplished guy. He’s a marine combat vet with a Bronze Star, an author of a dozen or so best-selling books, a legendary New York newspaperman, a genuine raconteur (honestly, how many genuine raconteurs are there?) and a genuine character. My father-in-law is the writer James Brady, and he and I have had our share of awkward comic moments.
I was dating the gal who is now the lovely Mrs. Konig for about six months before she took me home to meet her dad. I never had much interest in fashion, so I was unaware of his career as the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily. He had written some best sellers — potboilers about the fashion industry and the newspaper game, but I hadn’t read them. He had spent years as the celebrity interviewer on New York’s CBS Channel 2 News with Ernie Anastos, but I had always watched New York’s NBC Channel 4 News with Chuck Scarborough. I had read Parade magazine from time to time, so I was aware of him as the celebrity interviewer on the “In Step With” back page. There’s another celebrity column in Parade, “Personality Parade by Walter Scott.” So, to break the awkwardness of our first dinner together, and to acknowledge that I had read his Parade column over the years, I made the following “joke”; “You know, Mr. Brady, it’s kind of funny — before I started dating your daughter I dated Walter Scott’s daughter. Weird, huh?”
If you are staring at this column blankly, with a slight look of disgust, then you are reacting exactly as my prospective father-in-law did. Luckily, you are not actually in the same room as me, or you’d be kicking me in the shin just like the future Mrs.Konig did.
There would be many more moments of awkward comedy between me and Mr. Brady. There was the day we dropped by to tell him we were engaged. His feet swelled to twice their normal size as all the blood drained from his head. Then, a few months later, my wife called Mr. Brady to tell him we had eloped. The phone went dead. We later found out he had literally fallen backwards upon hearing the news and had pulled the phone out of the wall.
There have been thousands of Meathead / Archie moments over the years — usually in his kitchen in East Hampton, usually involving food — me absent mindedly eating the last of the cold cuts, or leaving crumbs on the floor (“ants!”), or somehow disrupting the intricate dinner-table clearing / plate-scraping / dishwasher-loading procedures. I’ve been getting on the guy’s nerves for years.
We’ve had some vigorous political debates, usually (and mercifully) laced with humor (he calls me a “fascist right-wing bomb thrower” I call him a “Bolshevik”). And we’ve bonded in the way all fathers and sons have bonded, in-laws or not, for the past 150 years — by talking baseball. Although, even there, a hint of tension — he’s a Yankees fan, I’m a Mets fan.
Luckily, we both have a good sense of humor, and we are both pretty funny. I remember the first laugh I got out of him. We were having dinner at his favorite joint, Elaine’s, and he remarked (apropos of what I can’t remember) “Well, God works in mysterious ways”. I responded, “Yeah? Well, at least he’s working.” Mr. Brady, who has seen more than his share of ups and downs in his career, appreciated the show-business gag.
His comedy is more theatrical. My personal favorite routine of his — and one that got a great response from his grand kids — was his Christmas impression of the ghost of Jacob Marley, complete with rattling a giant set of keys, bandy legs sticking out of boxer shorts, his bathrobe pulled tight, hair sticking straight up, and a maniacal look on his face. Pretty funny stuff (actually, come to think of it, he did that bit one Christmas before we had kids — so he was doing that for grown ups, which is even funnier).
A few years ago he had a stroke. It was pretty devastating. One day, after lying in the hospital for weeks, he showed me something he’d been working on: by distributing his weight incrementally, and shifting down the mattress on his butt, he was able to sit upright in his bed without any help. The whole procedure took about five minutes. He didn’t complain, he didn’t bemoan his fate, he didn’t ask for help. He was damn proud of what he’d accomplished. He was thrilled, in fact.
He bounced back. In fact, he recovered completely. Not only that, but at an age when most guys are being forcibly retired (goo goo ga choob Dan Rather), Mr. Brady just picked up a new gig (as a columnist for Forbes.com), is weighing a couple of TV deals, and is still knocking out books.
After he recovered completely from his stroke I came to a realization: this guy’s going to live to be 120, so I better come to terms with him or else we’re going to be arguing about cold cuts when I’m 80. He’s written two of the best books about the military you’ll ever read (The Coldest War and The Scariest Place On Earth), he’s a funny guy, and he’s the best grandfather in the world (ask my kids).
So, to all you sons-in-law out there who can’t find a way to tell your father-in-law how you feel about him, I know how awkward it can be. Luckily, in our family, we don’t have to tell each other how we feel. We just write about it. Happy Father-In-Law’s Day, Mr. Brady.
—Comedian Dave Konig starred on Broadway in Grease! and won a New York Emmy as the co-host of Subway Q&A. Konig has written a novel, Good Luck, Mr. Gorsky. Konig is also an NRO contributor.