Thirteen years ago, Dawna Kinne got the call every mother dreads. “We have a bit of a problem here,” the school principal told her gravely. “Your daughter has been impersonating a penis in front of the other first-graders.” Kinne exhaled and paused for a long moment before asking, “Well, did she get any laughs?”
Dawna Kinne was never like the other mothers. While they were making Rice Krispie treats and planning PTA fundraisers, she was adjusting to life as a single mom and braving hecklers on the stand-up comedy circuit, always sharpening her new routines first in front of her three young kids. Kinne was sure most of the humor went right over their heads, at least until she got that phone call from school. “That afternoon, I told my daughter, ‘Honey, comedians don’t use each others’ jokes. You have to write your own routine,’ ” she recalls, chuckling.
Before I met Kinne, I figured that, like all the other wisenheimers I see in the comedy club ads, she’d be wearing either a black leather jacket or a tweed newsboy cap turned backward, her face screwed into an ironic smile that seemed to say, People are morons. Being a woman, she’d have red hair, of course, in homage to Lucille Ball.
On the other hand, as a Murfreesboro mother, perhaps she’d prefer a jogging suit and red eyeglasses or a sweater set from Ann Taylor Loft. Truth was, I didn’t actually know any other momedians. So to settle the matter once and for all, I got online and looked up her website, dawnakinne.com. And there she was, staring back at me.
Red hair. Black leather jacket. Newsboy cap turned backward. Wry smile.
Can I call ’em or what?
Fortunately, the Dawna Kinne I met in person for coffee last week was wearing camouflage pants and a sweater, absolutely believable both as a stand-up comic and a woman knee-deep in the drama of co-existing with her husband (she remarried in 2005), 27-and 17-year-old sons, 19-year-old daughter and 18-and 15-year-old stepsons. “It’s like living in an episode of Jackass my house,” she says with a wan smile, going on to describe how just the other day, her boys had formed a shirtless human chain in their backyard to shock themselves on the invisible fence.
Still, beneath Kinne’s Everymom facade, I could easily detect the special brand of crazy, the trademark that most creative types wear like a prison tattoo. Within just a few minutes, it’s obvious that Kinne lives stand-up comedy—she’s obsessed with it—and now that her kids are almost grown (or at least, almost out of the house), she’s plotting her next career move with all the intensity of Faith Hill throwing darts at a Carrie Underwood poster.
For the last three months, Kinne’s hopes have been pinned on Nick@Nite’s Funniest Mom in America contest. She made the cut from the thousands of moms who auditioned nationwide to one of 60 semi-finalists. The final 12 will go on to a two-week reality television-style competition in L.A. and, presumably, spectacular fame and fortune.
Unlike the amateur moms who showed up “straight from soccer practice” to audition for the show (some dragging their wailing babies up on stage with them), Kinne, with 15 years of stand-up under her belt, is a true professional. She spent three years performing in New York City and was on the verge of making it big, following Jerry Seinfeld’s act onstage one night and catching the attention of programming executives at CBS. Then her ex-husband died, forcing her to re-evaluate the impact her lifestyle was having on her kids. “At that point, I realized, ‘I’ve gotta make a change,’ ” Kinne recalls, “because I didn’t see the whole thing as being very healthy.”
Kinne packed up and moved the kids to Murfreesboro in 2000, where she had nearby friends and family members. For six years, comedy took a backseat as she restricted her stand-up engagements to venues that were within easy driving distance of her home. It was a time when most budding comics would’ve given up, but Kinne continued to hang in there, determined to prove to her kids she could cut it. “It was important for me to impress on them that if you are really passionate about something, you do it,” she says.
Late Sunday night, she called from the America’s Funniest Mom regional finals in Raleigh to say she’d made it to the final 20. Now, producers will choose 12 from that number to go on a two-week trip to California, where the winner will be determined.
“Do you think you’re going to make it?” I ask.“Oh yeah. I definitely feel like I’m going to L.A.,” she says. “In my mind, I’m already there.”
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