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From the Lair to the Comedy Circuit

December 7, 2009
by Maz Jobrani

Failure can be inspirational.

Have you ever seen someone suck so bad at something that they inspire you to give it a shot? That’s how my standup comedy career began. About 15 years ago, I was sitting at the Bear’s Lair, enjoying a beer and watching a nationwide standup competition. But I soon realized the word “nationwide” could be misleading—the same way you’re let down the first time you walk into an International House of Pancakes and realize that it’s just Denny’s with a U.N.-like name. This nationwide search was so underwhelming that there were only two guys competing from Berkeley.

But I did have a beer in front of me and the weekend had just begun. I don’t remember the two guys’ jokes, but I do remember staring at them, waiting and hoping to find something to laugh at. Every joke made them look more awkward and made me more uncomfortable. If they looked at me during a punchline I faked a smile and put the beer bottle in my mouth. Other people weren’t even paying attention. At least I had the decency to pretend.

Flash forward two years and I was in my dorm room, listening to the radio when I heard: “Enter the $5,000 Dirty Dozen’s amateur comedy competition on KMEL!” I decided to enter even though I had absolutely no material or standup experience. I figured I couldn’t suck as badly as the guys I’d seen at the Bear’s Lair.

A few weeks later I got a call from the radio station saying I’d been chosen to compete. They invited me down to the station to help promote the show. As I waited in the lobby about a dozen more comics arrived. It seemed they all knew one another from the comedy circuit and they were all black. Fear set in. Was I the only real amateur in this group? Did these people actually have material? Was I the token white guy in a black standup comedy competition?

We were escorted into the radio booth, where the overweight white DJ said, “Wow! I feel like I’ve walked into an all-black meeting.” I wanted to say, “I’m not black. I’m Iranian,” but I thought better of it. (Ever since the hostage crisis of the early 80s, randomly yelling “I’m Iranian” in any crowd not filled with Iranians was considered a no-no. That’s why to this day you’ll find many Iranians insist on being called Persian—it’s not just a fancier name for Iranian, but it sounds nicer and friendlier, and some Americans don’t even know what it means. “No, no, I’m not Iranian, I’m Persian, like the cat…meow! Let’s hug.”)

The DJ asked if we all knew one another. That’s when one of the comics started with a “Yo mama” joke directed toward one of the other comics. (I finally realized what the “Dirty Dozen” in “Dirty Dozen’s Comedy Competition” meant—the comics try to out-insult one another.) That set off a series of “Yo mama” jokes with each comic going off on the other and upping the ante every time. I sat in the corner and tried to pretend I wasn’t there. The only “Yo mama” joke I knew was “Yo mama’s so fat, when she wears a Malcolm X t-shirt, helicopters try to land on her.” And I wasn’t about to say that for fear of insulting everyone in the room (including the overweight DJ).

Since then I’ve had many nights when I’ve been on stage and sucked. Once I opened for a band at a nightclub and no one bothered to tell the audience I was opening. So everyone just stood at the opposite end of the room, ordering drinks from the bar and chatting loudly. I screamed my material into the microphone, trying to be heard over their conversations. A few people looked up and smiled politely. I couldn’t tell if they were enjoying the show or thought I was a roadie testing the mics. Another time I volunteered to do a benefit for the Armenian Bone Marrow Association and arrived to find that the average age in the audience was 60 and they barely had a grasp on the English language, much less on irony. When I have nights like these, I always think back to those two guys who first inspired me at the Bear’s Lair. Guys, wherever you are, thank you.

From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.

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