Iranian / American comic Maz Jobrani is performing at Just For Laughs – the Montreal Comedy Festival. He’s got a solo show on July 23, He’s part of the Howie Mandel All-Star Comedy Gala on July 26 and he’s hosting the Ethnic Show which has performances till July 26.
The word “ethnic” is generally in and of itself, banal. But in the context of Montreal, it has an extra, more meaningful meaning. See, it was October 30, 1995. The weather was brisk and the mood was electric as voters in Quebec turned up in record breaking numbers to vote for or against separation from Canada. The period leading up to the election was acrimonious and when the dust had settled, Quebecois had voted against separating by a a narrow 50,000 vote margin. That evening, the then Premier of Quebec’s pro-separatist government, Jacques Parizeau, blamed the loss on “money and the ethnic votes.”
It’s true that there was a well funded No (to separation) campaign. It’s true that the majority of the majority French speakers in the Province voted Yes for Independence (albeit narrowly). And it’s true that most immigrants to Quebec, many escaping political turmoil at home, voted against independence and the turmoil that would ensue should Quebec decide to break off from Canada. However, when one combines “money” and “ethnics” – the one segment that stands out the most, is the Province’s Jews, the vast majority of whom did not support the separatist cause. They, and many others, were greatly offended by Parizeau’s words.
So when you have this thing called “the Ethnic Show” in Quebec, even in the context of a comedy show, there’s a history there that needs to be considered. What does that mean? It means that ethnics are usually outsiders and what they bring to comedy is an outsiders’ perspective that is more able to discern the follies and foibles of the dominant society – making fun of it while at the same time, desperately hoping to belong. I mean it’s no accident that so many of comedy’s early giants were Jewish: Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, George Burns, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce etc. One might ask that given their broad acceptance – can Jews still be funny? The answer is clearly yes as many of the most popular comedians are still Jewish – everyone from Jon Stewart and Larry David to Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and even Trevor Noah! While Jews still retain enough of their outsider status to be funny, that comedy mantle is also now being borne by the kinds of comics featured on the ethnic show.
Maz Jobrani was born in Teheran but moved to Marin County, CA, when he was 4 years old. He makes references to his Iranian heritage but his comedy is broadly relatable and the dude is pretty darn funny judging by the peals of laughter he generated at the show I saw last Thursday. Matteo Lane is technically of Italian heritage but his queer identity looms larger in his comedy. Gina Brillon is Puerto Rican but you wouldn’t really know that from her set – which was super funny but not particularly ethnic. Francisco Ramos is Venezuelan and he too was extremely relatable. Loyiso Gola was born in and spent most of his life in South Africa. Does that count as ethnic? He’s definitely not ethnic in South Africa but as an African he is an outsider looking in at the First World – and his show which highlighted those differences was very funny and even included a reference to onomatopoeia.
Orny Adams, the show’s token but requisite Jew, was born in Lexington, Massachusetts – a town that doesn’t usually come up immediately when one thinks of ethnics and America. As an Israeli, I found it quite funny that Orny appeared in the show’s posters with an Israeli flag behind him, as if Israel represents all Jews everywhere. Benjamin Netanyahu would certainly approve but that’s a discussion we need to save for later because it’s very nuanced. Lets just say that an Israel flag in this context is funny. To his credit though, Orny did mention a recent family trip he took to Israel: “12 Jews crammed together in a van, the definition of Hell.” Beyond that though, Orny was hilarious. He exuded a manic energy as he discussed topics as disparate as testosterone, old people and technology and dispensed advice to women about men.
I totally enjoyed the show and in thinking about it, I was heartened by the notion that “ethnics” in America can be so quickly integrated into the mainstream that they are in reality, insiders. Certainly they’re not part of the 1% but on a global level, a Latina living in Queens or a Persian living in LA are highly privileged by mere virtue of the fact that they live in the US. Talking to Jobrani, what stood out for me was not so much what divided us, and there was a lot dividing us given that he’s Iranian and his people want to nuke our people, and I’m Israeli and my people conspire against Iran all the time. No what stood out was what we both had in common as middle easterners who left as young children and grew up in the West. In fact, I walked out of the show enthralled by the commonalities I shared with all the performers. Yes, even Loyiso Gola – because my parents were born in North Africa – “so f*ck you!”
Maybe that’s really what it’s all about. Jacques Parizeau and his nationalist government lost their bid for independence because much of the separatist discourse was colored by an us vs. them, xenophobic tone. Today, people are pissed at Donald Trump’s immigration policies because they unfairly focus on division as opposed to unity.
The Ethnic show was all about Unity. And laughter. And I’m super good with that.