How a Philly father-son comedy duo went from funny conversations to viral fame

Eric Lawton, left, and his son, Shawn, 7, stand for a portrait at the Happy Hollow Recreation Center in Germantown on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. The two star in popular Instagram videos posted to Lawton’s account, @GheeFunny.

When Eric Lawton is playing himself in his comedy videos, he’s not trying to be the picture-perfect father. His image looks nothing like the dads in Norman Rockwell paintings, nor the corny, confidant types often seen in television for teens. And while he may be writing jokes about black families, he most certainly is not doing The Cosby Show.

Lawton, who stars alongside his son, Shawn, wants to portray a father who can slip up.

Some critics say he’s doing just that: He is, after all, writing one-minute sketches where he and his 7-year-old trade jabs laced (sometimes) with sexual innuendo. But fans of the pair appreciate the blend of subversive African American comedy traditions with father and son’s satiric ability to capture the challenges of everyday parenting, economic realities especially — talents that have earned the pair 660,000 Facebook followers and an Instagram following of 188,000 under the moniker GheeFunny.

Take a recent sketch posted in January, where Shawn asks for a dog. Lawton: “Hell, no. … You just started wiping your own a– two months ago.”

READER NOTE: The Instagram videos below may contain foul language or sexual references.

Unlike his on-screen persona, the real-life director at a local youth development program is laid back, with a calm tone of voice. As he was preparing to hit the “share” button on a more recent clip, he shook his head and laughed.

“This video is probably going to get some bad feedback,” Lawton said of the video in which he takes Shawn to the doctor because of persistent itchiness — he guessed that was from chasing around girls four grades ahead of him. From other videos, too, Lawton has received backlash from viewers who don’t like that his character uses foul language, or that he shuts his son down by insulting him.

“Who cares? Not me. You need negative,” said Lawton, 30, of Strawberry Mansion. “Without turmoil, who are you?”

Negativity aside, his goals are positively ambitious: He wants Shawn to be able to make the leap from digi-shorts novice to professional actor. Lawton sees it as showing his son something other than playing ball. They’re already working on leveling up: Next month, they’ll debut The GheeFunny Show — Ghee is Lawton’s nickname — a web series of 25-minute episodes with professional camerawork instead of iPhone grabs. Lawton said he is in negotiations with Facebook and YouTube over which platform will host the first season.

But it all just started as a funny guy from a funny family who figured he’d try sharing his wisecracks on social media. And then when Shawn was 6, the child asked a question all parents know is ripe for comedy: Where do babies come from?

In that moment, he understood their conversation was unfolding in a funny way, so he asked his son to raise the question on camera.

Experts and fans now marvel at Shawn’s comedy chops at so young an age. “He’ll tell me something, or I’ll just make something up,” Shawn explained nonchalantly. “I’ll say this or I’ll say that.”

His father estimates about 70 percent of their dialogue is off the cuff. How does Shawn come up with it? “I just figure it out from what he says, and then I say something back that’s disrespectful.”

Over time, their sketches, which earn some money through sponsors but not views, have become a mix of scripted dialogue and their own improvised banter, with a range of plots. There’s a video where Shawn thinks his ankle is broken. (Lawton, unwilling to pay for a hospital visit, tells Shawn to put on his Lebron James sneakers.) Or when Lawton gets pulled over and tries to gloss over his infractions to a cop. (Shawn pipes up to tell the truth after each response.)

This is “more than a high-concept buddy comedy between the Rock and Kevin Hart might make [people] feel,” said Nick Marx, a comedy studies expert based at Colorado State University. He said social media comedy often captures “everyday lived experiences.”

Black parenting, of course, is not a monolith.  But in many black households, parents teach that respect is an ironclad boundary. GheeFunny’s comedy exposes what can happen when that understanding goes off the rails, like when the kid keeps crossing the line, or if the parent is wrong. What if parent and child are actually talking about different things? Shawn’s catchphrase is: “That’s besides the point.” Lawton’s catchphrase is: “Do it look like I give a f—.”

“Our relationship in real life is nothing like that,” Lawton insisted. Still, “a lot of the stuff we do is stuff that we go through. But once we do it on camera, we take it to the max.”

Denene Millner, an author and expert on African American parenting, pointed out that many black parents turn a good phrase as they lay down the law. The Lawtons are tapping into that, notably in a media landscape where black fathers lack visibility.

Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal, a scholar of African American popular culture, sees their sketches as a brilliant blend between African American comedy and how black fathers turn to humor to “cut through the tension between all this maleness” when speaking to their sons — GheeFunny “ain’t The Cosby Show, and this ain’t Black-ish.” It also reminded him of conversations with his own daughter.

“The conversation is real and it can be profane, but it’s a glimpse into what the challenges of everyday parenting” are, said Neal. “It’s not romantic. It’s real.”

Except when it isn’t. In real life, Shawn is every bit a 7-year-old: He’s energetic. He loves pancakes, hot dogs, PBJ, and soda and candy. When he grows up, he wants a mansion in California where he hopes to raise twins. Sometimes, he said, teachers at his school quote his catchphrase.

“A lot of people from school know me from Instagram,” Shawn explained. “I have a lot of friends. That’s good. They talk about my videos at lunch and stuff.”

Also, in real life, Shawn doesn’t understand the sexual references.

“Those are the videos where I have to write the content out,” Lawton said. “I have to make sure I’m staying in bounds.”

Shawn still asks questions, though, like when they were filming a sketch where Shawn asks why his father’s bedroom smells like fish.

Lawton remembered giving this explanation: “When you have friends over, it’s not good to have a seafood smell.”

Upon hearing his dad’s retelling to a reporter, he got curious again. Lawton feigned ignorance: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

That video has more than 6 million views on Facebook, with the majority of commenters responding positively. Still, some posted upset critiques. “That boy is a child and should not be exposed to such ignorant nonsense!!!” one viewer wrote.

Millner wishes that social media videos had rating systems like movies do, giving parents the tools to know which content is not suitable for children. GheeFunny’s accounts, for instance, aren’t, she said. Still, she finds their work “hysterical,” and believes much of the backlash is due to the medium.

“If it was HBO or Showtime,” nobody would really notice, said Millner. “I don’t look at this father-son duo any differently than I look at Jodie Foster [who played a prostitute at age 12] in Taxi Driver. Or Quvenzhané Wallis [who was 9 when she punched her on-screen dad] in Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Lawton named Shawn after his cousin Shawn Thomas, who died after a car accident months before Shawn was born. Lawton grew up in Strawberry Mansion, where he’s raising Shawn now.

Shawn’s mother, Ashley Reavis, who co-parents with Lawton, is famously absent from the videos. She said she’s gotten bad feedback about the content, which she hears out but doesn’t heed. Shawn said he doesn’t pay it much mind either: “I really just ignore them ’cause they hatin’.”

Grandpop Lawton is especially proud of the sketches — that’s because they are an exaggerated version of his tough but hilarious fathering, his son said. Eric Lawton Sr. gets worried, though, too.

“I told my son the other day to make disclaimers,” said Lawton Sr. “There’s a lot of child abuse in this world. There’s a lot of bad parenting in this world. I don’t want anyone to take it to a point where they think this is real.”

Lawton does get messages from people who don’t know that they’re acting, which he finds absurd. But Lawton doesn’t ignore the comments. In fact, he made a strategic decision months ago to scale back how many obscenities he uses. Since then, his Instagram following has tripled.

In the future, he hopes to do more public appearances — Jan. 30 was his biggest gig yet, at Onyx, a strip club. (Shawn didn’t see the ad for that.) Stand-up is next. Lawton is not letting the detractors stop him: “Sometimes negative energy motivates you.”