No occasion drags formality out of Jewish humorist Dan Zevin. Instead, when the Forward called to interview him at the set time of 10 a.m. on a Sunday, he was dripping wet. “Actually, I’m just getting out of the shower and walking down the hall to my office,” he confessed. “You know what? Let me just get dressed, and I’ll call you right back on the landline, so everything will be more” — covered? this reporter wanted to ask —“clear,” he said.
Zevin, at 47, is the author of four collections of comic essays on his life progression from slacker to spouse to smitten dad. His fumbling his way through fatherhood from the front seat of his blotational SUV is the theme of his new book, “Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad” (Scribner). The book is the latest in his series of satirical titles (“Entry-Level Life: A Complete Guide To Masquerading as a Member of the Real World,” “The Nearly-Wed Handbook: How To Survive the Happiest Day of Your Life” and “The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-up.”) All present him as giggling his way toward the milestones of adulthood — yet meeting them nonetheless.
His new book frames him, in kind, as both front-runner and backpedaler. As a stay-at-home dad and primary caregiver to son Leo, 8, and daughter Josie, 5, Zevin is a poster boy for egalitarian — even feminist — fatherhood. But at the same time, he presents himself as a loving goof-off: a guy who’s picked the most enjoyable option — parenting — over working a high-powered, full-time job, while wife Megan, an editor at Little, Brown and Company, makes the sustaining bucks.
“When the kids came, I just decided that being a dad was a lot more fun,” he said. That is, compared with his former jobs of teaching magazine journalism at New York University and writing about celebrity fitness videos for The Walking magazine. (“They didn’t say, ‘Do not be funny,’” he said of his editors, “but it was meant to be a serious review.”) Instead, he sent up the flicks in a satirical piece that he sold to Spy magazine, and he morphed into a humor writer.
Since then, Zevin has capitalized on his endearing schlepdom — instead of a diaper bag, he packs baby gear in his multi-pocket cargo pants! — which he’s made into his visual punch line. (Blogging for The Huffington Post on “Fashion Week for Suburban Dads,” he writes: “For Day Two, we’re turning up the heat even more, because this father is feeling frisky. This morning, I cat-walked into my kitchen decked out in an 8-year-old bathrobe, Adidas tennis pants and open-toe, massaging sports sandals ensemble. Make no mistake. When I wore it to take the recycling outside this morning, it was obvious what Mrs. Lowenstein next door was thinking: [admiring expletive deleted].”) With nods to Woody Allen and Larry David, Zevin has forged a persona of half-dorky (yet all-devoted) Jewish dad that’s endearing and, what’s more, marketable.
How marketable? Well, Jewish comedian Adam Sandler has optioned the rights to “Dan Gets a Minivan,” which the former “Saturday Night Live” star wants to turn into a television series. So, is Sandler capitalizing on a trend toward involved fathers? Or a growing niche of stay-at-home dads? “If anything, I think he thinks it’s funny,” Zevin said cheerfully. “Which is, for me, unbelievably thrilling. I was literally jumping up and down when I got the news that he wants to turn it into a TV series. He’s somebody familiar. I think that’s what he sees in my comedy, too; it’s familiar.”
Zevin’s prose isn’t different from his actual life, he’s saying. Furthermore, he’s surprised to hear his humor called self-deprecating. “I don’t know,” he said, “I think it’s just honest.” The question, he feels, is, “Do you see things through a funny filter or not? And I always have.” He adds, “There’s a focus in Jewish culture on parenting and the kids and family.” But his fans don’t mention that. “People will email me, and they’ll never say, ‘I liked your book,’” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, do you want to go out and have a beer, or come to my barbecue?’ And sometimes, I’ll actually go.”
There’s a goofy sweetness to Zevin that’s hard to resist. While he doesn’t deny the challenges of parenting (“It’s hard work,” he admitted), he’s delighted to turn it into a good time.
The only time he gets noticeably angry is when he’s dissing hipster dads in Brooklyn (his old stomping grounds) who won’t spend non-ironic time with their kids. “Trust me, the last thing I want to do is turn you into one of those Creepy Helicopter Dads at the playground,” he snarls in his book at one musician more engaged with his agent and iPhone than with his toddler. “Look at that guy going down the slide with his 10-year-old over there. He’s got his kid strapped to him with his belt. He’s using his belt as a seatbelt. Jesus. Promise me you’ll have an intervention if you ever see me strapped to my kids on a slide.”
So what does Zevin want from his fellow dads? Not to call sexy moms “yummy mummies,” for starters. And to storm ill-named classes: “We’ve gotta get out there and show ’em we’re man enough for Mommy and Me!” he writes, chanting: “Parents with penises. Say it loud, say it proud! No, don’t really say it, shhhh. I was kidding.”
Does the comedian see any link between, well, male dorkiness and the capacity to commit to family over, say, gigs in the trendy clubs of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg? “No,” he said, sounding confused. “Marriage and parenthood are very hip; they’re very cool.”
In the next breath, he was enthused about his upcoming project: interviewing people from his minivan. “There’s a lot of room in there,” he explained. Moreover, since his family recently moved to the Westchester suburbs from Brooklyn, Zevin has felt a bit lonely. So together, he and a pal devised a plan to post to YouTube his backseat talks with local creative folk.
“People think there are no interesting types out in the suburbs, but there are. You just have to work a little harder to find them. My yoga teacher,” he concluded happily, “is going to be my first guest.”
Susan Comninos is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Her journalism most recently appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. Her poetry is forthcoming in Subtropics, The Cortland Review and Literary Mama.