A man stands on a stage, doing a stand-up comedy routine for a packed club. It’s a huge professional opportunity for the comedian, and he’s palpably nervous.
It also happens to be a big night in another way, as he tells the audience: he’s about to become a dad, and is waiting for the phone call that will summon him to the hospital and take him away from the biggest night of his career.
Compact, witty and slyly smart, this short dramedy — directed by David Abramsky and written by Abramsky and star Joshua Robertson — is not only a document of a unique, sly comedic talent and a meditation on fatherhood, comedy and ambition, but a wry comment on the interplay between audience, performance and expectation that works on multiple levels within the narrative.
Shot in a beautifully directed one-shot, it uses its unity of time and image to slowly build character and situation, until it comes together with an unexpected level of suspense and tension. The ambulatory, floating camera captures the texture of the experience of this one night and allows us to go deep with Joshua in an unusual level of intimacy. The slow deliberate movements of the camera form a fascinating tension working against the brutal, honest edginess of Joshua’s comedy and emotions, but they allow viewers to experience the discomfort that is often at the core of comedy itself.
Much of the power is derived from the comedy itself, as lead actor Joshua Robertson is a comedian, with that profession’s instincts of self-awareness, timing and the courage to take big risks at the moment in front of an audience. Robertson’s gift as a performer is out front and center in the short, especially in the writing, as his routine takes us through the ups and downs of his character’s psyche.
Part of his identity, of course, is living with a serious brain injury — something both the character and Robertson share. Yet his multi-layered, raw and honest performance shows he’s not defined by his injury, and his routine shows a sly intelligence and awareness in understanding the apprehension and uncertainty of the people around him — and both confronting it and undercutting it with his comedy, which upends expectations about people with disabilities, and about how comfortable we are with difference.
The core of the film, though, is really about what it means to be a parent, and the fears that arise from that overwhelming sense of responsibility — feelings that are universal to many would-be parents, but skewed uniquely when considered through Joshua’s unique perspective. But when the moment comes where Joshua finally faces fatherhood, it also becomes part of the make-or-break moment of his career, in a tour-de-force of honesty and emotional rawness that wins over the audience — and maybe even the industry people, too.
“Dad Joke” is deeply affecting in its humanity and authenticity, but viewers will have to watch to the end to get the full impact, as well as the film’s ultimate joke. It’s not spoiling it to say it reveals a canny, self-aware comedic intelligence and a rich sense of irony — and perhaps even the story’s true happy ending.