Looking back, I think the most amazing thing about my father as a parent was how he included his children in his work. Most men of that era left their home and kids and went off to their jobs. Not my father. He would often take us to work at the studio with him. He let us sit in when the writers gathered for meetings in our home. He shared his passion for his work with us, and we knew he genuinely enjoyed our company.
I can still remember sitting on the floor, watching story conferences, as he and his comedy writers shaped his nightclub act or knocked around ideas for an episode for his series. Sometimes I’d laugh out loud at a joke and he’d say, “You like that?” He’d get such a kick out of my getting the joke.
I tried not to cry during the long silence that followed. Then he said, “I raised you to be a thoroughbred. When thoroughbreds run they wear blinders to keep their eyes focused straight ahead with no distractions, no other horses. They hear the crowd but they don’t listen. They just run their own race. That’s what you have to do. Don’t listen to anyone comparing you to me or to anyone else. You just run your own race.”
The next night as the crowd filed into the theater, the stage manager knocked on my dressing room door and handed me a white box with a red ribbon. I opened it up and inside was a pair of old horse blinders with a little note that read, “Run your own race, Baby.”
Run your own race. He could have said it a dozen other ways. “Be independent.” “Don’t be influenced by others.” But it wouldn’t have been the same. The words he chose touched my heart and have remained with me all through my life. Whenever I’m at a crossroads, I ask myself, “Am I running my race or somebody else’s?” What a gift he gave me.
My father was truly interested in his children. He wasn’t at all a “kids-are-supposed-to-be-seen-and-not-heard” kind of guy. Unusual for a powerful man.
Growing up around all of this made my entry into the business so much easier. By the time I started working, it wasn’t a foreign land to me. I knew the lingo; I had learned how to shape a good story. And I understood the most important thing about comedy: As my father would say, “The audience will go down any yellow brick road with you, as long as you don’t lie to them. Don’t veer off that road of truth to get a laugh. Have respect for the audience, and they’ll stay with you.”
Marlo Thomas’s latest book is the New York Times bestseller Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny