Standups seek chance to break out beyond race base
When Maysoon Zayid walks out onstage, she always opens with the same line: “I’m a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey.”
She wants to get the fact that she has cerebral palsy out of the way — otherwise, auds would mistake her shaking for nervousness — and she does it by burying the detail among other hot-button elements of her identity.
“We are the ethnicity that is under fire right now,” Zayid says. “The image of Arab women in the American media is so skewed, I feel like it’s almost my duty to come out there with a Rachel Corrie T-shirt and say, ‘Hi, this is what most Arabs look like,’ ” she adds, referring to the slain pro-Palestinian activist.
Zayid, who co-founded the Arab-American Comedy Tour in 2002, says the tour’s first crowds were “all Arab, all the time.” Now, wider (and whiter) auds are showing up, too.
“Believe me, there’s a gazillion angry white guys in the comedy business,” says Elizabeth Porter, senior VP of specials and talent for Comedy Central. “I love them, but everybody is looking for that next great voice. That’s ultimately the business I’m in.”
As the field of aspiring comics diversifies beyond just white, and even African-American, voices — just check out Just for Laughs’ “Asian Invasion” talent showcase, for example — the range of voices Porter and her industry peers have to choose from expands accordingly.
Chris Mazzilli, who owns the Gotham Comedy Club, makes it a point to showcase comics from wide-ranging backgrounds. “We welcome everybody,” he says. “Nothing against a white comic, but if you have four of the same type of acts on the show, it’s boring.”
In addition to the GCC hosting ethnicity-themed nights such as Comedy Salsa and Chopshtick, Mazzilli’s strategy is to assemble as diverse a lineup as possible for each show, so that of the six or seven acts that go onstage, each one is different.
“I like autobiographical material because it’s what makes people unique,” he says. “If you go out there and talk nothing about who you are and where you come from, I don’t think people get a real sense of who you are.”
Native comic Charlie Hill tours colleges, casinos and the latenight circuit. He got his break on “The Richard Pryor Show” commenting on topics from his perspective as a member of the Oneida tribe.
“Seinfeld’s an observation comic,” he says. “Well, I’m an observation comic, too, except I see through indigenous eyes. We find it incredulous that people who are descendants from immigrants are pushing this immigration thing. If we’d strip-searched the Pilgrims, none of this would have happened.”
Like Zayid, many of these “off-white” comics first catch on within their own ethnic group, but the common goal is to reach everyone the way, say, Nia Vardalos did with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Of course, plenty of African-American comics — from Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor to modern-era standups like Dave Chappelle — have managed to maintain their core aud while developing a broader one. And in recent years, Latino funnymen like George Lopez have done the same thing.
The question remains: Can a new wave of even broader diversity — talent with backgrounds such as Asian, Arab, Native, etc. — make this same transition from niche standup to mainstream film and TV success?
Certainly, there are those who can’t.
“I’ve seen comics who do stuff that’s so culturally specific that they do great when they’re playing the local mosque, but they die in the comedy clubs,” Zayid notes.
Beyond finding an entry point into the world of standup, it’s still questionable as to whether a broader color pallette will be accepted in the realms of film and TV.
Within these mediums, even black comics have struggled to adapt their material so that it appeals to core and mainstream auds alike. Sitcoms traditionally yielded middling results for them — a fact noted by NAACP studies in recent years pointing to the dearth of African-American talent featured in prime time.
Lately, however, a flurry of black standups have caught on big on platforms like cable’s Comedy Central.
Adding Jamie Foxx’s “Laffapalooza” to the Comedy Central sked, for example, drew African-American viewers to a channel whose aud was predominantly young, white and male. The same goes for Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show.”
“What we end up looking for are voices like Dave that speak to a broad audience without dodging or avoiding the reality of what is a continuing culture clash in America,” Porter explains.
Indeed, the fact that African-American comics like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Chris Tucker and Chappelle are able to perform this unique kind of audience alchemy suggests why they now command higher salaries than their white counterparts.
“Black comedy has always been more accepted than us,” says George Lopez. With Latinos, he says, “I think people who push buttons thought there could only be one at a time. Ultimately, the important color is green.”
Still, there is reason to believe that some Latino comics are beginning to stumble on the formula for mainstream acceptance.
“If America allows you to be on TV 102 weeks, then the minority of people watching are Latinos, because they’re watching a guy climb up a grease pole for prizes on Telemundo,” jokes Lopez, whose ABC sitcom recently surpassed the episode century mark.
When Comedy Central first got into business with Carlos Mencia, he was touring to a very strong Latino base, but had already found a way to attract mainstream crowds as well.
“I’ve gone through phases in my comedic life where I’ve done heavier ethnic stuff,” Mencia admits. His material for Comedy Central’s “Mind of Mencia” is less culturally specific. “With any comic, when you step onstage, before you open your mouth, the audience has a perception of what you are about to say … So where are you going to take them?”
But will other ethnicities be able to expand their base in the same way?
“I have a theory that Indian is the new Jewish,” quips Mindy Kaling, who plays Kelly on NBC’s “The Office.” “In our writers’ room, the entire staff except for me is all Jewish comedy writers.”
Kaling’s takes it as a good sign that her character’s most emphasized traits are that she’s annoying and clingy, and not that she’s Indian. Still, her role is small — as are most roles for comic thesps of South Asian descent.
“I keep getting offered those taxi-driver roles, the 7-Eleven guy, all the stereotypical stuff that I just won’t do,” laments Toronto-born Russell Peters.
Still, there are those who suggest that experience could soon change.
“As an agent, it’s about feeling like you have a very good mix of people, and ethnicity factors in more,” says Omnipop Talent prexy Bruce Smith.”You don’t want to represent three people who are going to see each other at the same auditions.”
“For some reason, it’s assumed that the audience will not be able to accept (a broader ethnic palette), and I don’t think that’s true,” adds comedian Margaret Cho, one of the few Asian-American comics to find a broad following. “The audience is much more interested in whether it’s funny or good.”