After her set, Saffron Herndon comes bounding into the comedy club lobby. She’s a wave of smiling, frenetic energy, with her dad, Steve, trailing a few steps behind. The sound of the crowd cheering the next comic can be heard through the doors and she’s curious about what’s happening onstage, but she knows she’s not allowed to see any of the other comedians unless they’ve been screened by Steve and deemed appropriate for a 10-year-old.
It’s a packed Sunday night at Hyena’s in Plano. A handful of audience members have abandoned their tables and come out to the lobby hoping to meet her. A couple from Frisco tells her that they saw her recently on The Today Show.
“You’re hilarious!” a woman says. A man in his 30s, his arms covered in tattoos, has seen her before at other shows. He asks if she has any t-shirts to sell.
“You know I’ll hook a brother up,” she says, delivering a fist bump. She has long brown hair parted down the middle and is wearing a dangly necklace, a black t-shirt, jeans, and a blue pair of Vans she got at a thrift store for $4. She’s antsy, going from standing still to swinging her legs and arms in a vague dance, and then back to standing still in a matter of seconds.
Saffron—or Saffy as her parents and friends call her—is comfortable in the world of adults. She is used to greenrooms that smell like weed and beer. Talking to strangers, both with and without a microphone in her hand, is no big deal. A fifth-grader from Mesquite, she has been doing stand-up for two years now at clubs and open mics around Dallas, and at comedy festivals all over the country. She has been featured on BuzzFeed and the Daily Mail, and she has been contacted by producers from Ellen and The View. In a few days, she’ll fly to Los Angeles to meet with an assortment of managers and producers, including some at Disney.
One of the audience members asks Saffy about her goals in life, and the little girl explains that she has a career path all planned out. She wants to be a professional comedian. She wants to be on Saturday Night Live and then on her own show. She wants to follow in the footsteps of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. She references Phyllis Diller. But then, like flipping a switch, she sounds like a 10-year-old again.
“Dad, I’m hungry!” she says, tugging at his hand.
“In a minute, Saffy.”
“I’m like a Tamagotchi,” she says. “You have to feed me!”
This announcement is followed by a brief aside about a friend of Saffy’s who had a Tamagotchi that “pooped so much that the screen filled up with poop.”
One of Saffy’s fans wants to know if Steve has ever
“I did until recently,” he says.
“What’s that thing you do with your hands when you talk about our careers?” Saffy says.
He laughs. “Eclipsing.” He holds up his left hand, then moves his right hand in front of it. “Your career is eclipsing mine.” He thinks about it for a second, then adds: “And it’s a big shadow.”
The Herndons are at a crossroads. Kenna, Saffy’s mom, is a teacher at Saffy’s school in Mesquite. She has always stressed the importance of school—Saffy is in the gifted program—but if Saffy were to quit school to focus on a career, Kenna knows she’d be able to homeschool her. And Kenna wouldn’t mind living in beautiful Southern California either. Steve works in building restoration, but before Saffy was born, he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. That was his dream. He knows that Saffy has the chance to succeed where he didn’t. And soon, their only child—all 4 feet and 80 pounds of her—might have the means to support the whole family.
It’s an exciting and dangerous time for Saffy and her parents. They’re protective of their daughter—they didn’t want her to do a photo shoot that would have had her holding a whiskey bottle and a cigarette, for example—but merely floating the idea of a child star conjures sad images of that Hollywood trope and all the kids who have been ruined by the entertainment machine. Think Lindsay Lohan.
Lohan’s parents were damaged by that machine, too. That’s a worst-case scenario. But even if Steve and Kenna can avoid becoming the dreaded, cliché stage parents, even if they can avoid being seduced by the trappings of money and fame, they’re still giving up their own lives for a while—like every parent with a talented soccer player or a daughter on a traveling club volleyball team. The risk of becoming the Lohans might make you hug your child and rest assured that you’d never make a decision like that—that you’d never upend your life to follow the career of your 10-year-old. That is, until you’re where the Herndons are right now.
Steve and Kenna were high school sweethearts. They are Buddhist vegetarians who waited until their early 30s to have a child. Saffy started taking acting classes when she was in first grade. Steve had done stand-up for a few years, then stopped when Kenna got pregnant. He decided that, with a child on the way, he needed to focus on a more reliable paycheck. But five years ago he began taking improv classes, then two and a half years ago he started going to open mics again. Saffy loved doing the improv exercises with her dad. They’d spend hours creating impromptu characters and scenes, giggling together after every bit. She also liked watching her dad do stand-up and said she wanted to give it a try.
“We told her if she could write three minutes of material, we’d let her go up and try it out,” Steve says. Her first jokes were about cartoons, and how her teacher would always say she was “sooo sorry” when she didn’t really mean it. “I don’t have my homework today,” Saffy would feign. “But it’s okay, because I’m sooo sorry!”
Her first time onstage was at the Backdoor Comedy Club, a clean-content venue. Saffy looked forward to it all week. She liked the rush of making people laugh. Word got around that an 8-year-old girl was doing real stand-up. She started fielding invitations from other clubs, and from comedy festivals in Texas, Oklahoma, and Michigan. A few months ago, she was invited to perform at an 11 pm show on a Thursday at the Addison Improv, the biggest venue in the area. But it was also a school night.
“Her mom wasn’t happy about that one,” Steve says.
“I’m the one who has to get her up in the morning when she’s so tired,” Kenna says.
In September, some memes with her jokes went viral on Reddit. Within a few days, videos of her performing were getting posted all over the internet. That’s when calls from TV producers started coming. The family was flown to New York for The Today Show, where they had her do the only jokes producers thought were appropriate for a morning audience. She had a Skype conversation with Ellen DeGeneres’ people. She flat turned down the Steve Harvey Show. (Saffy just doesn’t think he’s funny, her dad says.) The family realized that doing stand-up comedy might be a different route to the same type of child-entertainer success.
Steve and Kenna often ask Saffy if she’s happy. They don’t want her to feel pressured. But what kid wouldn’t be happy? A few weeks ago, she was hanging out with Seth Rogen.
“We don’t want to depend on our kid for money,” Steve says. “We don’t want to be those kind of parents. But this is also her dream, and these are incredible opportunities, and we don’t want to look back and wonder, What if?”
A lot of Saffy’s material is dark. She jokes about murder and suicide and internet predators. “Online dating is tough,” goes one joke. “Every time I meet someone new, they end up in jail.”
Here’s another: “I told my dad I wish Kurt Cobain had waited 20 more years before killing himself so I could have at least seen him in concert. My dad said: ‘Why don’t you just wish he didn’t kill himself?’ Yeah, Dad, and then not have the Foo Fighters?”
Kenna says she doesn’t always like the dark places the jokes go. “But I love that she comes up with all her own ideas and develops them,” Kenna says. “She’s always been creative, and this is a good outlet.”
“I’d keep doing comedy even if I didn’t get big, because I like making people laugh.”
Saffy gets annoyed when people suggest that her dad writes her material. Each concept is her own. “I write it, and I collaborate,” she says. “Just like any other comic.” Steve helps shape the act. He goes over the wording of lines, and they talk about her timing and her gestures. When she rehearses, the goal is to make her dad laugh. When she repeats jokes for the kids at school, they mostly reply with perplexed stares.
“I’d keep doing comedy even if I didn’t get big, because I like making people laugh.”
She’s more comfortable around adults. With adults, Saffy has conversations about being a vegetarian and a feminist. One of her jokes is about being approached by proselytizing Christians: “Before you come up and try to convert me to your religion, just remember I’m a 10-year-old girl. And you’re an adult that still believes in fairy tales. We’re really not that different.” One time she was heckled on stage by an obnoxious drunk, and she proceeded to mock the heckler, asking in the perfect shut-up-and-sit-down voice: “What kind of person heckles a 10-year-old?”
There’s some shock value, of course. But part of what makes her act so appealing to adults is the fact that her knowledge of pop culture predates Justin Bieber. (She loathes Bieber.) In the age of YouTube and Netflix, she can study the comedy of any name she hears. For Halloween this year, she planned to dress as Phyllis Diller. She’s a scholar of the ’90s. Her favorite bands, she says, are Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, and Jane’s Addiction. She went to a festival dedicated to the movie The Big Lebowski. She can quote from episodes of Seinfeld—a show that concluded its original run before she was born—as well as any thirtysomething.
When she started, she sounded much more like an actor reciting memorized lines. Over the two years of practice, though, her delivery and timing have become much smoother. She still sounds stilted sometimes, but she can hit a deadpan beat that cracks people up. Backstage, before and after shows, she talks craft with other comics. They tell her how to hold the microphone and how to tease out extra jokes. Someone suggested she take a Sprite on stage and take a sip after every punchline as a way of spacing out material and not talking over the crowd’s laughter.
It can be weird performing at the same show as a child, but most of the comics around Dallas have come to accept her. Or at least they are nice to her, and supportive. Nobody wants to seem jealous of her success. But comics can also be cutting and cruel, and when she’s not around, there are plenty of jokes about how beleaguered Saffy’s future might be when she’s older and maybe not as adorable as she is today.
The family lands in Los Angeles on a Tuesday in October. Saffy has a meeting with executives from Disney the next morning, followed that night by a short set at a comedy showcase/talk show hosted by Stephen Kramer Glickman, a regular on the Nickelodeon show Big Time Rush.
They’re staying at the Garland Hotel, a chic, ’60s-style resort by Studio City, a few minutes from Hollywood Boulevard. Saffy kills time by attempting dozens of handstands in the pool and drawing in a notebook in the hotel room. She explains that it’s her best friend’s journal. The two girls take turns drawing comic strips with two characters based on themselves. Saffy’s character is a dragon named Blaze who wears a curly wig and occasionally hides in the refrigerator.
As she draws, Steve quizzes her on tomorrow night’s set list. She rattles off a list of her jokes with ease, referring to each by a one- or two-word nickname that sounds like utter gibberish to anyone who doesn’t know all of her material.
When she’s done drawing, she stands up on one of the beds like it’s a stage. She’s wearing a shirt with different colored cats that comes down to her knees, bouncing ever so slightly as she goes over a joke in which she pretends to do the robot for an awkwardly long time. She’s only done the bit once in front of an audience, but it did so well that they might close tomorrow night’s set with it. Steve explains that the audience will laugh when she starts, and then the laughter will die down. “But then they’ll laugh even harder when you keep going,” he says.
Kenna, sitting on the other bed, isn’t so sure. But Steve and Saffy want to do it. It’s a risk, but it’s the kind of risk she needs to take to get better as a comic.
The next morning, Saffy meets with five executives from Disney. They all seem to like her. They give her a script to read for a taping they want to do in the future, and they float the idea of Saffy doing a show with an animated character. This is good: generally, animated shows mean more toys, and that means more money.
They all seem to like her at the Lyric Theatre, too. Sitting between her parents on a turquoise couch that looks three times as old as she is, Saffy says she feels fine. She doesn’t really get nervous much. Steve points out that she didn’t take a nap earlier, and it’s nearing 11 pm West Coast time—1 am back home in Texas. Saffy says she tried but couldn’t; she was too excited. Because they were nervous about traffic and left two hours before the show, Saffy didn’t get much of a dinner, either.
Backstage is loud and chaotic, the room littered with comics in their mid-20s. People are drinking beer and wine and there’s the slight scent of weed in the air. Bobby Lee, who was a cast member of Mad TV and had a memorable role in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, is here. And there’s Jonathan Kite, who plays the creepy Ukrainian cook on 2 Broke Girls.
A tall woman wearing high heels and glasses, her hair in a tightly wound bun, introduces herself to Saffy and her parents as “MJ.” She bends at the knee to talk to Saffy at eye level.
“I think you’re great,” MJ says. “I think your voice is great. I think you’re gonna be famous within the year.” She tells Saffy that she could definitely see her in something with an animated character. She asks Steve and Kenna who they’ve met with so far. She explains that she isn’t an agent or a manager. She helps “put together projects.”
“I just want to help you out,” she says. “I don’t want anything in return. A lot of people, when they first come out here, they have a lot of questions. I’m just here to help answer any questions you might have.” The conversation is briefly interrupted when the group is told that there will be talent scouts for TBS and Oprah in the audience tonight.
The show starts with a death metal band playing a few songs. Glickman comes out wearing a white suit. Saffy is still in the greenroom, so she doesn’t see the comics before her. Anna Akana has more than 1 million YouTube subscribers and more than 100 million total views, and she had a recent cameo in Ant-Man. Her act consists mostly of jokes about her sister’s teenage suicide and how she discovered her own vagina. Another comic does an impression of Homer Simpson having phone sex with Smithers. Kite does a spot-on impersonation of Vince Vaughn.
When Saffy walks on stage, she takes a moment to lower the microphone. Once, while trying to loosen the mic, she hit herself in the lip, so this can be a delicate process. It allows for the roar of the audience to die down, too.
She opens with a joke about how her dad doesn’t think she’s pretty enough for pageants, so he makes her do comedy instead. The kicker is a (presumably) faux plea for help.
Steve is standing off to the side, a few feet from the stage. Kenna is behind the crowd. When she’s nervous, she picks at her cuticles. Sometimes her co-workers gauge her stress level by the number of Band-Aids she needs on her fingers. (“A two-Band-Aid day is a good day,” she explained earlier.) At the moment, standing behind the laughing crowd, she’s trying hard not to shred her own hands.
If Saffy is nervous, it doesn’t show. Her timing and delivery seem calculated, but she hits the beats and punchlines. The audience of 100 or so is caught off guard when she jokes about killing someone, but the room loves her. The robot joke transpires just as Steve predicted, with the second wave of laughs hitting hard.
After her 10 minutes, she sits down on the couch for a chat with Glickman and his sidekick. When Glickman asks how she’s doing, she answers with funny, fierce aggression: “I’m amazing! How are you?!” As the crowd keeps laughing, the sidekick says, “This kid scares the shit out of me.”
When Saffy walks backstage, the other comics all high-five and congratulate her. Bobby Lee asks her to pose for a picture with him and exchanges numbers with Steve. Kite, who keeps the stubble of his 2 Broke Girls character, leans over to tell Saffy: “You’re awesome! You’re gonna be huge!” She asks him where he got his necklace, and they talk about what soda is called where he’s from in Illinois.
When she walks out to the street half an hour later, there are fans who also ask her to pose for photos. Adults literally line up to tell her how great they think she is. “Incredible!” “Hilarious!” “So great!” One man says he heard about Saffy online and waits for more than an hour for the chance to talk to her. Steve will later describe the guy as “extremely creepy.” This, too, is part of their new reality.
An hour and a half later, they’re still on the sidewalk. It’s 2 am—4 am at home. When a woman asks her, mostly as a joke, if she has any homework to do, Saffy says she does, but she probably won’t do it.
“Well,” the woman says, “tell your teacher you’ve been working.”
Nobody here even comes close to suggesting that a 10-year-old shouldn’t be on the streets of Hollywood in the middle of the night on a Wednesday.
By the time they eventually make it to the car, the noodle place that Saffy was eyeing on the drive over is long closed. Most restaurants are closed. The adults in the car are too tired to eat, but Steve is determined to get his daughter something for dinner. They wind up at a 7-Eleven, where Saffy picks out a bag of chips, a can of bean dip, and a bottle of mango-orange juice.
Saffy says she was tired when she got back to school. “Six o’clock felt like 4,” she says. The other kids had some oohs and ahhs when she described the trip, but they didn’t ask her many questions. “One kid asked if I went to Compton,” she says. She didn’t do most of the homework her teacher assigned. She didn’t get in trouble, but she was told not to let it happen again.
Steve says it feels weird, like the entire family is caught between two worlds. After the Disney meeting, the family drove through the Hollywood Hills, up toward the Hollywood sign. They stopped at an outdoor cafe, and Saffy had a slice of vegan strawberry pie. Saffy wanted to walk the trails all the way up to the sign. But soon they had to go back to the hotel. As they drove down, Kenna stared up at the mansions on the hills. She yawned and asked, “Saffy, will you buy Mommy one of these houses one day?”
They debated extending the trip for a few days in Los Angeles—“There were so many people we need to meet with,” Steve says—but they didn’t have the money to pay for more hotel rooms and more days with the rental car. He says it feels like a matter of time before they make the move.
Saffy is caught between two worlds, too, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. A few days after the trip, she is asked about all the attention she has been getting. Has she ever thought about what it might be like if the attention went away, if one day there weren’t so many people telling her how great she is?
She pauses for a moment. “I’ve never thought about that,” she says. The question throws her briefly. Her first reaction is confidence: “I don’t think that will happen,” she says. “If I work hard—” she stops. She makes a joke about how she’s “a magnet for amazing.” But then she thinks about it a little while longer.
“I think if all that stopped, I would just keep on doing it,” she says. “I’d keep doing comedy even if I didn’t get big, because I like making people laugh.” She doesn’t really want to be like the other kids.
“Normal is so boring,” she says.
Does she ever worry that if she becomes famous, she’ll lose her privacy?
She’s thought about this. “I don’t think I ever want to be an A-list celebrity,” she says. “I’d rather be a Sarah Silverman level of famous.”
Soon, she’ll be flying out to New York again to tape an episode of The View. Not long after that, she’ll be back in Los Angeles for more meetings with more executives. NBC. Fox. TBS. BuzzFeed. A club wants to book her in Portland. Another wants her in Houston.
In 10 years, Saffy could be one of the biggest stars on the planet. She could be a household name. Her story could also become a tragedy. That’s always the fear when someone gets so much attention so young in life. And, of course, she could also go on to do something else entirely. She’s 10. Her future is wide open.