Wolf Files: The Mother of All Jokes

Whether your mother wears Army boots or simply subjects you to daily doses of psychological torture, you have to admit professional comedians have a virtual license to publicly humiliate the person who gave them life.

Should a mother be proud or embarrassed when her child bases a career upon a supposed lousy childhood? What if the kid had a happy childhood and just created the myth of a bad mom because it plays well on stage?

And does being a professional comedian mean never having to say you're sorry? Even on Mother's Day?

"My mother treated us equally … with contempt," Groucho Marx once said.

But later in life, Groucho admitted that he and his brothers Harpo and Chico owed their mother, Minnie, a great debt for pushing the boys out on stage as a singing act. "She made us," Groucho said.

But comics rarely apologize to mom. Some of today's top stand-ups — like Judy Gold and Susie Essman — rag on their mothers relentlessly.

But Gold and Essman are just like old-timers Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, and even Soupy Sales when it comes to turning mom into the butt of their jokes. Apologies are almost never in order. Comedy is not pretty.

With Mother's Day approaching, here's what several comics say about their mothers, on and offstage: The Comic: Judy Gold

The Jokes: Gold's overbearing mother offered a special brand of comfort when the comic was a tall, gawky child and the other kids would make fun of her.

"She'd say to me, 'Judith, don't you worry about it, they're jealous of you. Go upstairs, put on your father's clothes, leave me alone.' "

These days, Gold's mom never stops complaining. "She hired a nursing aide recently, so that she could complain someone was stealing from her."

Mom's Reaction: "No matter what I say, I never feel bad because she loves the attention," says Gold, a 40-year-old Emmy Award winner.

Gold regularly plays her mom's answering machine messages in her act — a bit she even did on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

"My mom keeps telling me she should get residuals."

Mother's Day Thought: "I call her every day because I need material." The Comic: Phyllis Diller

The Jokes: "My mother taught me to think of myself as a sex symbol for the men who don't give a damn."

"Why do I have a poor self image? When I was a kid my mother always told me, 'If someone asks your name … don't tell them."

"My mother talks to herself and complains of hearing voices."

Mom's Reaction: "I never had to worry about what my mother thought of my stage act. By the time I made it, she was dead," says 85-year-old Diller, widely hailed as the first female comic to strike it big.

"Let's face it, if you tell the crowd about how sweet your mother is, they are going to want their money back," says Diller.

In reality, Diller says her mother was a smart, strong woman. When she was a child in Ohio, Diller says, it was her mother who gave her the confidence to be a trailblazer in stand-up comedy. "I wish she had a chance to see it," she says.

"Luckily, I don't believe in the afterlife," Diller says. "Or my mother could be looking down on me, criticizing my act."

Mother's Day Thought: "The biggest joke of all is death … For all the times I told my mother I love her, I wish I did it more."

The Comic: Bob Hope

The Jokes: "I was the youngest of five boys. After they had me, Mum and Daddy never spoke to each other again."

"I came from a very big family. Four of us slept in the same bed. When we got cold, mother threw on another brother."

"My mother had so much work to do that when one of us was being born she never used to go to the hospital until the last possible second. In fact, three of us were born on a bus … and after each one, Dad would go up and ask for a transfer."

Mom's Reaction: Hope had six brothers and his mother ran a boarding house because the family was so poor.

Hope never stopped doing jokes about being an unwanted child, even though his mother, Avis, died before he hit it big in Hollywood.

"When you've got family in show business, you just learn to adjust," says Bob Hope's daughter, Linda, who helped her father write My Life in Jokes (Hyperion).

In reality, Hope grew up poor but relatively happy. His mother scrimped to take him to vaudeville performances. "She'd whisper — loud enough for everyone around to hear — 'Son, you're much better than those folks on stage,' " says Linda Hope.

"I think his mom really made him feel proud. She made scrapbooks of his news clippings when he started out."

Mother's Day Thought: Bob Hope's mother liked to get her family around the piano and sing. It's cheaper than going out to dinner, and almost always more memorable. The Comic: Susie Essman The joke: On her mother's Eastern European looks: "You know the kind of woman that looks like she has a brisket under her skirt."

Mom's Reaction: "Denial is a beautiful thing," says Essman, a New York stand-up who's become famous for tearing apart Larry David on HBO's hit comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

"When my mother hears my stand-up routines, she reacts the same way my ex-boyfriends do," she says. "They always think I'm talking about someone else."

Mother's Day Thought: "Moms are important to humor because they're so engrained in our psyche," she says. "I suppose when my mom dies, I'll have a whole new hour of material … Hopefully, that won't be for a long, long time." The comic: Soupy Sales

The Jokes: Through the 1950s and '60s, Soupy Sales had an endless stream of mother-in-law jokes.

On The Tonight Show, he once told Johnny Carson that his mother-in-law asked him not to send Mother's Day gifts. "She didn't want to be reminded," he said, joking that she was a wino.

Mother-in-Law's Reaction: "When you're married to a comedian, you can't take it personally," says Trudy Carson, Soupy's second wife.

Soupy and Trudy married in 1980. But Soupy kept using the same mother-in-law jokes on stage. That's showbiz.

Soupy says he didn't have a great relationship with his first wife's mother, and the wino schtick didn't help matters. But she put up with it, while her daughter was married.

Soupy recalls his mother-in-law once saying, "I'm going to dance on your grave."

"I hope so," Soupy replied. "I'm going to be buried at sea."

The 77-year-old comic has collected his favorite bits in Stop Me If You've Heard It (Evans & Co.).

Some of his jokes might be a little musty. "What's a home without a Mother? … Dirty!" But his memories of his own mother are not. And Sadie Soupman was much more than a housekeeper.

Soupy lost his father when he was 5, and Sadie raised her boy and ran the family's dry general store. "She didn't care what I said about her," he says. "As long as it was funny."

Thoughts on Mother's Day: "Remember, there are no bad jokes … only bad parents."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.