Within my network, I can easily name ten Arabs who are doctors or on their way to becoming one. Let’s be real – badass Arabs all over the country are most likely cramming for their MCATS five years in advance right at this moment. But can you as easily say you know ten badass Arab comedians? Probably not. After today, though, you can say you know at least one Arab comedian. I had the privilege of interviewing the extremely talented, witty, and intelligent Palestinian comedian, Mona Aburmishan, and it was one of the most informative interviews I have ever done. Aburmishan was raw, honest, and did not hold back. Just as she does on stage, she answered all my questions by diving head first into the philosophy of humor, minority politics within the comedic world, her personal journey, and more.
MM: When did you know you wanted to go into comedy? Was it always a passion of yours?
Mona Aburmishan: I had always been a “class clown” in school and the jokster in the family, but I never considered being a professional comedian until much later in life. Growing up in such a culturally diverse community – while being a fat, Palestinian, Muslim girl – allowed for such unique situations, comedy was innate. Also, growing up in the states before Dish Network and Arab TV, gave me access to American comedy like cartoons, sitcoms, and SNL. Something about SNL both annoyed and intrigued me, because I knew I could do what they did, but better, while at the same time, having no idea how they actually did what they did.
You know you’ve made the right choice, though, when you tell your former high school bully what you do and they say, “Oh yea, that makes total sense, Mona, you were always a damn smart ass!”
What took me by surprise, however, was one Christmas, my sister decided to verbally attack me in front of the family by insisting I get off my ass and jump in to comedy already. “Enough already Mona, you’re supposed to be on SNL or something. Stop bullshitting!” The funny part was, at the time, I wasn’t sitting at home playing Xbox, rather, I was finishing up my Masters Thesis in International Development, having just returned from Namibia. I was also employed, but something in her felt the need to attack. God or the universe or Santa must have channeled my little sister the way Patrick Swayze did Whoopi in Ghost. She came at me like I owed her money and by finally becoming a professional comic. I could pay her back. I’m so grateful she yelled at me because it woke up that hidden part of me that had always loved to make people laugh as well as the part of me that needed a stage to address the injustices of the world and in my own life.
What is it that you love about comedy? Where do you get your comic inspiration and influence from?
What I love about comedy is it’s complexity. It’s the only art form where you need other people to create your art. A musician, singer, actress, filmmaker, writer, painter, and even a magician can create their art alone and deliver it completed to an audience. However, a comedian needs the audience in the creation process making it both powerfully vulnerable as well as incredibly intimate and independent. Meanwhile, not a single day in the creation processes is the same. Literally every single day at work for me is different than the day before or the day after. I will never perform in front of the same audience again, ever. Some people might see me again, but never the same chemistry and group of people in the same circumstance will repeat and that is a very powerful contributing factor in the creation of a comedian’s material. So, learning how to create material for a moving target can be empowering while totally nerve wrecking. Nothing in life is so publicly intimate, which allows for a very powerful connection in a time where digital disconnected connection is the norm.
“You’re a Palestinian woman. We always expect our women to be outgoing, driven, and able to do anything.”
Do you think because you’re a Palestinian woman, it is harder to stay relevant? What type of backlash or pressure do you receive?
So far, my being a Palestinian woman has not made it harder to stay relevant. If anything, I’m a preferred outlier, at times. On a comedy show line up of “white guy, white guy, black guy, black guy,” being a woman, let alone an Arab Muslim woman is a nice change of pace. However, just like any comedian, my perspective on what I want to share and what I don’t does shape my branding and really isn’t conventional. For example, I don’t talk about the same things other females are talking about on stage right now (think Amy Schumer), which, at times, can make me feel less appreciated. I once had a fellow comic say, “Yea, we get it. You’re Arab.” That same comic went on stage and talked about being black for 20 minutes. With some of my material coming from a global perspective, I don’t often feel understood or appreciated, but when I am, it feels more rewarding than anything else.
On the other hand, performing for Palestinian and/or Arab American audiences in general is rather tricky, and not just because all Arabs think they can do your job better than you can. But, there’s a fine line I balance to both have an impact on the Arab audience by pushing the envelope on things we need to discuss as well as being respected as an independent female business owner and performer.
Outside of the Arab audience, me being an Arab/Muslim is a draw. Americans want to hear from Arab/Muslim comics, especially the female ones. That’s why there are successful Arab Comedy Festivals around the world as well as Arab/Middle East themed showcases in almost every American comedy city. Comedy has always been a type of therapy, by feeling that your beliefs are heard, but looking for a new perspective to validate or overturn that belief. Right now, America wants to hear that a thick, Arab, Muslim chick who really looks Puerto Rican grew up just like them, loving Fruity Pebbles over Cheerios any day.
Lastly, and most importantly, I noticed that my being a Palestinian woman mattered not at all in Palestine. While doing shows there, I asked my father – who happened to be in Ramallah for the shows, “Why is no one, not the press or audience, making a big deal about me being the only female on this tour?” He replied, “You’re a Palestinian woman. We always expect our women to be outgoing, driven, and able to do anything.” At that moment, in Palestine, I realized my idea of what it means to be an Arab/Muslim woman was based on what American society and media had made me believe.
What is your opinion on minority comedians utilizing the stereotypes of their minority group to gain popularity?
Minorities in comedy go hand-in-hand. Minorities invented stand up comedy. If it weren’t for the Jews (i.e. Lenny Bruce) and the Blacks (i.e. Pryor), stand-up comedy as we know it would still be a rat pack of white guys in tuxes drinking scotch on stage in Vegas. It’s the minorities that took that stage time and said some real shit. That’s why women in comedy play an interesting role. We are a minority, but we also aren’t because we make up half the planet.
Comedy has been said to bring minority groups together as a cathartic outlet. Do you see this at your shows? Is comedy cathartic for you as well?
Yes, Yes, YES! Simply, when you see one of your own on stage and are able to laugh at inside jokes in a public space is cool! But let me clarify. There are two types of stand-up comedians: the type that creates jokes for the audience – the booker – who kind of comes off as an actor. And the second type, which is a fully transparent person, and the person you see on the stage is the same as you see off. The second group of comedians probably get the most healing from doing material on stage because they bring their life to the stage – all the good, bad, and the ugly of it. Comedy does come from tragedy and the comedian that can use the pain in their life as material often brings the audience in closer because we’ve all suffered pain.
I love that comedy bridges groups of different beliefs together. A bad comedian will come on stage and right away alienate themselves from the rest of the room by talking about politics or religion before the audience even knows to trust them. Great comedy brings people together, simply because there is only one person on stage with one microphone with his/her random opinions.
In order to do well in these mono-cultural rooms, the comedian has to be authentic and have a real philosophy that all humans can get down with. A great comic will do the same set they did in an all white room in an all black room, funny is funny.
What is your boundary? In other words, what is a line you won’t cross when telling a joke?
The line I tend to not cross is gratuitous shock-insult comedy. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a tough broad, and notorious for being a lovable asshole, but I don’t talk about private parts, private part creations, and self-degrading topics that leave the audience thinking I’m a drunken whore.
I also avoid heavy religious, political, or news hype because as mentioned earlier it’s a quick way to divide a room when my whole purpose is to unify the room. Also, these subjects tend to change so fast, it isn’t a smart investment to build and work on a joke over time about a subject that’ll soon be irrelevant. Lastly, these subjects also tend to be so heavily discussed by other comics, it becomes “hack” material pretty fast.
“Performing in Palestine was the most healing thing I’ve ever done.”
Do you center your comedy based on your Palestinian identity more or your identity as a woman?
Neither. My comedy is based on my perspective of the world. Sometimes, I talk about lady stuff, sometimes I talk about having lost a lot of weight and that journey, or I talk about being an Arab/American and my family. What I talk about on stage are subjects that have either pissed me off, made me stop dead in my tracks with shock, or have made me laugh really hard and I know it’ll make others laugh.
Do you believe comedy to be a catalyst for social change? If so, do you think all minority groups should focus on social change in regards to their work?
Yes, I do believe comedy is a vessel for social change, so long as the comedy is done well and a hidden message is left in every joke. If a comedian is merely perpetuating the horrible stereotype, then I hope there is a counter voice after that comic gets off stage. Oddly enough, the audience has a great way of keeping the comic somewhere in the center, it’s like magic. A comic can’t be too racist without the audience sensing it and pulling back. A white comedian has just as much power to influence social change through their voice as does a minority comic, so it’s all relative. All in all, the person with the microphone should ideally be conscientious.
Have you ever had a show in Palestine? If so, what was that like? If not– would you ever want to?
Yes, I’ve performed twice in Palestine as part of Amer Zahr’s 1,001 Laughs Comedy Festival in Palestine 2015 & 2016! We were gearing up to go again this year, but the violence in Jerusalem has us halted until January. Performing in Palestine was the most healing thing I’ve ever done. Being half white American and half Palestinian has always left me feeling like I had to balance two different and distinct worlds. But for the first time, being on stage and telling a joke in ½ Arabic and ½ English about whatever goofy ass thing I was saying, like marriage, was so well received, it made me want to cry. I felt – for the first time – I made sense.
What’s your favorite thing about being a comedian?
Making a room full of strangers laugh. I love to see them smile.
What’s the hardest part about being a comedian?
The difficult part of being a comedian is it’s undervalued, until it’s not. The pay structure is bananas. You go from being paid nothing, to getting paid in drink tickets (useless) to, when you’ve made it, able to make thousands of dollars for an hour of work. This leads to the hardest part about being a comedian: there are no rules to the game. It’s a combination of work, luck, and mountains of gratitude. My career is a perfect example of just being ready when luck strikes. Essentially, do the work by writing the jokes and getting the jokes to the masses and the rest is up to Allah.
Do you have any advice for other Arab women who wish to pursue comedy as a career choice?
My advice would be to contact me and I’ll give you all I can. My greatest gift would be to help other comedians pursue their dream. At times, this can feel like a lone wolf business, but really, it isn’t. So many comedians have helped and ignored me; it’s like any other business except there really are no rules. Study comedy as you would any other industry. Find a local open mic and go see how it’s done. Then, go back, sign up, and go on stage when they call your name. Face the fear and there will be no fear!