“My dad says I’m not pretty enough to do pageants. So he makes me do comedy.
That’s how 10-year-old comedian Saffron Herndon opened her set at Fun Fun Fun Fest, a three-day indie music and comedy festival in Austin, Texas. It’s early afternoon and the comedy stage still has a small audience, but that doesn’t hinder her performance, which includes jokes about online dating, Nirvana, and being an awkward fifth grader.
After the set, I found Saffron, her dad Steve, and uncle Anthony, backstage. “I like that shirt,” I said, pointing to Anthony’s “Saffron” shirt, which is a play on Nirvana’s classic smiley face shirt. After a beat, Saffron helpfully replied: “They’re for sale.”
Whether it’s comedy or commerce, Saffron has great timing. She’s been doing standup in and around Dallas since she was 8, after seeing her dad do standup and improv and wanting to give it a try.
“My dad did standup, but then he stopped because I got good at it, right?” she jested as we sat backstage, Saffron’s focus rapidly shifting from interview questions to food to bands. Her dad related that she has ADD, and so does he. “What’s that?” she said at one point during our interview. I looked over my shoulder but realized it too late.
“Deez nuts,” she booms into my tape recorder.
Her dad told her that if she came up with three minutes of material, he would help her shape a set. She started doing open-mic gigs and was hooked. Does she remember some of her jokes from her first set? Yes, but she can’t do them now; she’d be too embarrassed. She’s evolved, you know?
While Saffron is a comedy fest veteran at this point—she’s performed at Gilda’s LaughFest, the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, and the Amsterdam Comedy Festival—she wasn’t on the larger population’s radar until a few months ago, when photos started circulating on social news site Reddit, featuring bits of Saffron’s standup sets. Her dad posted them in hopes of getting her some attention. In mid-September, a photo set was uploaded to Imgur. Saffron went viral—the set has gotten nearly a million views, and her videos have seen an uptick as well.
Of course, all the attention brought out the haters, too: Commenters on Imgur and elsewhere claimed there was no way she wrote her own jokes; clearly someone else wrote them. Or that her parents were forcing her to perform and exploiting her. Or that she was a novelty act, not a real comedian.
“Haters are going to hate, because that’s their job,” Saffron said of the criticism. “And also I don’t really care; I’m just going to keep doing what I want to do.”
The buzz landed Saffron on BuzzFeed, MTV, the Huffington Post, and Today, the NBC morning show, where she had to do a “clean” set. This month, she’s starring in a pilot for a new show about the growing Austin comedy scene.
After sitting with Saffron, it’s clear she’s wise beyond her 10 years. She embodies a confidence and has a grasp on performance that kids her age don’t often know how to articulate. For Halloween, she dressed up as late comedian Phyllis Diller and performed 10 minutes of Diller’s material at the Kessler Theater in Dallas. “I like that she’s very flamboyant and doesn’t care what people think of her,” Saffron explained. She also loves Tig Notaro, Maria Bamford, Kristen Schaal, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, and Aubrey Plaza.
“Do you like any male comedians?” her dad asked.
“No,” she quickly replied.
It’s also clear she and her dad have an important and creative partnership. “I see things, I tell Dad about it and he writes it down, and we think of different ways you can turn it into a joke,” Saffron said.
“Sometimes she’ll say something and I have to bring it to her attention that she wrote a joke,” Steve Herndon said. “Like the Nirvana joke… She knew that would get my goat. She did it to make me laugh. But in her mind it wasn’t like, ‘Oh I wrote a joke.’ It just happened to be a really good joke. We were on the way to a [open] mic and I said, ‘Hey, you want to tell that on stage?’”
She still performs two to three open mics a week, and over the summer, when she was off from school, she did even more.
“We run jokes by her mom and if she laughs, we scrap ’em,” Steve said. “We knew at a young age that she was an entertainer and enjoyed the stage.”
Both her dad and uncle said she relates more to adults than kids; Anthony says she doesn’t talk as much around her fellow classmates. She’s been approached about writing a kids’ book, but Steve explained she initially balked at the idea of writing for that demographic. When you spend a lot of time in comedy clubs surrounded by often-drunk adults, you have to tailor your material. Saffron’s dark comedy doesn’t necessarily translate to the middle school or young adult set. Her dad has also learned to pick up on signals if she’s approached by drunk fans or someone’s lingering a little too long after a show. The Internet fame hasn’t made him more protective of her, but he understands there’s another layer to their relationship.
As we wrapped up our interview, I asked Saffron if she knows about Babes in Toyland, the Minneapolis punk band that’s playing the fest later that day. That’s their drummer standing a few feet away, and if you like Nirvana...
“Let’s go talk to them!” she enthused.
And off we go.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai | Photos by Shelley Hiam