Maureen Langan’s ‘Daughter of a Garbageman’ mixes humor with insights into family

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It’s pretty unusual to walk into a comedy show and find yourself moved to tears.

Yet, as Maureen Langan begins to dissect her childhood, the show moves past the cheap Kardashian jokes and self-deprecating humor — it morphs into an insightful exploration of family dynamics that we can all recognize and identify with in our own ways.

Maureen Langan, a former broadcast journalist, now focuses on her radio talk show and stand-up comedy, showing “Daughter of a Garbageman” last August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Langan began with a standard lambasting of Kim Kardashian and her undeserved success, garnering a few chuckles from the audience. Complete with unnecessary PowerPoint slides in the background, the show took it a bit slow at the opening, but as Langan began to delve into her family — specifically her Bronx-born father and Irish-Catholic immigrant mother — her storytelling abilities drew the audience in.

Langan first introduces the audience to her father, slipping into a confident Bronx accent and topping off the impersonation with mildly racist jokes. But she soon portrays a darker side to her crude-but-lovable father — the turbulent alcoholic knocking over a Christmas tree in a sudden bout of anger. Langan weaves together the more serious aspects of her struggles growing up with humor and a tone of incredulousness, as if she herself almost doesn’t believe how strange her upbringing could be.

The tone changes again, as Langan switches to the discussion of her mother. Langan drew out plenty of laughter as the uptight Irish-Catholic mother convinced that every mildly improper action was “shaming the family.” But again, underneath her humorous anecdotes are threads of uncertainty and questioning, as she uncovers aspects of her mother’s personality that contradict her poised exterior.

The show’s heart lies in these melancholic undertones. In an especially powerful moment, she huddles in the corner of the stage, playing her anxious and completely overwhelmed teenage self. It’s the only moment in the show that the theater is dead silent, the tears in Langan’s eyes just discernible. As she reaches back into her past, the audience is simultaneously transported back to their own memories of their families, conflicting and painful as those may be.

“Mom, were you ever afraid?” Langan asks at one point in the show, questioning if her parents also once had dreams of grandeur. “No!” she responds, imitating the high-pitched Irish accent of her mother, “I was too busy being angry to be scared!” It’s a common occurrence in the show — Langan manages to pose questions that leave knots in our stomach, but also make light of them.

Rather than a simple standup routine, Langan offers the audience a fully immersive look into her life. Classic ‘70s and ‘80s songs and pop culture references are sprinkled throughout the show, setting a warm nostalgic mood for the largely older audience. She seamlessly transitions from the harsh accent of her father to the uptight sing-song mannerisms of her mother. She’s the only one speaking, but fully embodies her parents’ personalities as well as those of young Maureen, teenage Maureen and present-day Maureen.

Her show is undoubtedly more akin to a theater piece than to stand-up comedy. But in the small familiar setting of the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, it remained personal as ever. She frequently interacted with the audience, playfully responding to interjections, asking for bar recommendations and even dubbing one New York native “Brooklyn” for the entirety of the show. It’s an atmosphere that lends well to the very close and intimate performance Langan gives.

Maureen Langan’s “Daughter of Garbageman” tells the stories of people — not heroes nor villains — but simply the ones that shaped her. To Langan’s sarcastic regret, she may not have launched book and movie deals off a sex tape, but she has found a venue to tell the stories she wants to tell.

“Daughter of a Garbageman” runs June 1 to July 15 at the Marsh Theater in Downtown Berkeley. 

Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].