“People’s Relationships to Their Moms is Always Deep”: Director Rachel Grady on the Comedy Central Doc Call Your Mother
The latest film from the Academy Award-nominated team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Call Your Mother is a laugh-out-loud love letter to one of the most universally defining figures in all of our lives. (That would be our moms.) Executive produced by Caroline Hirsch, the force behind legendary comedy club Carolines on Broadway and the New York Comedy Festival, the doc airs on Comedy Central on May 10th (Mother’s Day, naturally).
Featuring a vast and eclectic array of interviews with famous funny folks — everyone from Awkwafina, to Tig Notaro, to Jim Gaffigan and Jo Koy discuss their mother’s influence on their work — interspersed with clips from mom-based stand-up routines, the film notably also goes in a deeper and more poignant direction. Bookended by a startlingly transparent Louie Anderson, whose mother is deceased, and featuring longer scenes of comics interacting with their moms (including Bridget Everett, David Spade, Roy Wood Jr., and even Norm Macdonald), Call Your Mother ultimately transforms into an unexpectedly sincere exhortation to — as Anderson himself urges directly to the camera — reach out to and celebrate those you love while you still can.
Filmmaker took the time to reach out to Rachel Grady, co-owner with Heidi Ewing of Loki Films, a week before the airdate to learn how the two turned a one-liner into a feature-length doc.
Filmmaker: So how did this project originate? Did Caroline Hirsch and Comedy Central bring the idea to you?
Grady: Heidi and I had lunch with Caroline, and she said, “How about comedians and their mothers?” And that was it. That is literally the whole origin story! We thought it sounded like a fun project and lighter fare for us, but not shallow because people’s relationship to their moms is always deep. The concept has a whole lot of heart baked into it. We then brought the idea to our agent Maggie Pisacane, and she brought it to its natural-born home of Comedy Central.
Filmmaker: This is certainly an inclusive portrait when it comes to race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality. So how did you choose who to feature? Were there comedians you reached out to that declined to participate? Or, who had to be left on the cutting room floor?
Grady: We always think about gender and race diversity when we are “casting” a story, and this was no different. We looked for subjects that we thought would bring out a good “mom story” — that was our first priority.
Our producer Eleanor [Galloway] spent months researching and finding stories of comedians who would each bring something a little different and special to the table, so that the story can keep moving. One of the fun parts of making this film was the armchair shrink conversations we’d have, exploring how a comedian was raised and how that affected their sense of humor. Humor is such a unique and revealing aspect to someone’s personality. Where the hell does it come from? Who really knows, but moms are a fun lens to think about it through!
Filmmaker: You spend quite a bit of time with Louie Anderson, who seems completely at ease letting down his guard and exposing his vulnerability when talking about his mom and his family (which he uses in his comedy). This stands in stark contrast to someone like Judah Friedlander, who you had to sort of reel in and keep from going off on a fictional comedic tangent during an interview. So was it hard to get folks who are always “on” to turn “off” and be open and honest in front of the lens? Did it require perhaps putting in more time with your subjects?
Grady: All people who are professional performers are harder to get a less polished interview from, not just comedians. It usually takes a little more time for them to get out of autopilot. That said, everyone in the world becomes a little (and often times a lot) more open, vulnerable and candid when they are taking about their mom. Whether you have a good, bad or indifferent relationship with her, it will always elicit an opinion or a feeling. That always makes for a good interview, so we knew we would eventually get something that was very genuine.
Filmmaker: As filmmakers who’ve already secured cable distribution, has the global pandemic affected your plans in any way? I mean, it doesn’t seem like a Tribeca debut would have been all that important in the first place.
Grady: I guess this is the rare case for us where a festival release was not crucial for the life of the film. Or was it? Who’s to say that showing Call Your Mother to over 1,000 people over a few days at the Tribeca Film Festival, all sitting together and laughing in the dark with our moms, would not have been the most impactful way to experience it? So sure, on a business level we are not negatively affected by going straight to TV, but I remain wildly passionate about collective moviegoing. It stings me to think that we won’t have that communal, cinematic kumbaya with Call Your Mother.
Filmmaker: You’ve documented comedic characters (Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You) before, but also evangelical Christians (Jesus Camp), a Muslim community (The Education Of Mohammad Hussein), a Roman Catholic Church-supported pregnancy clinic (12th & Delaware), and ex-Hasidic Jews (One of Us). Is there a reason you’re particularly drawn to religious subjects time and again?
Grady: Rachel and I used to say that “zealots make for fascinating subjects.” In retrospect that’s probably too flip and reductive of a statement. What I think we meant, though, is that we are drawn to understanding humans that are resolute in their beliefs, that manage to live in the black and white. People who hold a worldview that is unshaken by the hyper-individualistic, consumer society of now. You’d think that it would be hard to find nuance in those among us who evangelize just one point of view. But if you are very patient and listen really hard, you will find that natural human curiosity and roiling doubt can be hard to suppress — even for the most stalwart believers among us. And right there, at that messy little intersection of “definitively” and “maybe” is where things get really interesting.