If music is the universal language, then perhaps laughter is its soundtrack. That’s what the comedians of Improbable Comedy’s “Comedy as a Second Language” show are banking on for a night of chuckles at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 12.
The show, billed as bringing “the hilarious stand-up comedy of immigrant and 1st generation performers to the stage,” aspires to bridge the gap between audiences and those with a unique story on what it means to be American.
“The first-generation American experience influences my world outlook as well as provides many stories that are unique yet universal — such as wanting your kids to have a better life, family foibles and funny accents,” said the performer Simone, a comedian who will be part of “Comedy as a Second Language.”
Simone was born in Takoma Park, Maryland, to Ethiopian immigrants who came to the Washington area for overseas study. They loved the country so much that they decided to stay and start a new life for their expanding family.
“Mining this first generation Ethiopian-American experience for comedic value is similar to mining all parts of your life for comedic purposes,” Simone said, adding that his set includes material that anyone can relate to – like the pratfalls of marriage and various observational humor.
“I am focused on being honest with myself and the audience,” he said. “The number-one rule in stand-up comedy is to make the audience laugh. Each comedian takes his or her path on how to get to the funny part of the joke or story. The topics are a byproduct of what I think will be the funniest things to bring up and entertain.”
Simone said one of his routines centers on how the members of an immigrant family will fight over who pays the restaurant bill. “When going out with an American group of friends, no one wants to pay for the bill; when immigrant families try to pay, there is an ‘ethnic holy war to pay between cab drivers,’” Simone said. “The joke is the juxtaposition of how each group reacts to the restaurant bill — playing up the accents and acting out the different scenarios.”
Maher Matta, who also will take the stage at “Comedy as a Second Language,” immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1985 and settled with his family in conservative Dalton, Georgia. “In terms of comedic value, being raised as an Arab American in the South has given me some funny stories,” he said. “I was never really picked on, thankfully, but my experiences growing up in a big Lebanese family made for some funny learning experiences.”
Matta, who hosts a podcast called “The Bald Spot,” will pepper his stand-up routine with tales of his “crazy Lebanese dad” that he believes are relatable to anyone with a quirky father.
“I ‘make fun’ of stereotypes which, ironically, raises awareness of those stereotypes,” Matta said. “An example of a joke: ‘My dad has a HUGE mustache. He’s very Arab — he’s essentially a camel.’ It’s a silly one-liner.”
Despite immigration being a “hot-button” issue, Matta, who has been doing stand-up for nearly half his 36 years, said he has only ever had one incident where a person in a crowd “had issue with my national origin.” However, Matta said he was able to win over the heckler. “As the set continued, he enjoyed my material, [or] so I tell myself,” he said.
Performer Anna Tirat-Gefen’s Jewish family escaped to America from Ukraine shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Tirat-Gefen was 17. Being stuck between two cultures has given her a unique perspective on the humorous situation of seeing the absurdities of two very different worlds. “Every single one of us has felt out of place, as an ‘other,’ at some point,” she said. “I think most jokes about Russia make people feel good about America, because as difficult as things may be here, they are always worse there.
“Of course, I am sure Russians think that things are going pretty bad in America and are patting themselves on the back for it, but they don’t know any better.”
Tirat-Gefen, who works full-time and has five children, said she only performs a few times a year, and her long breaks require her to constantly rework her material in order to stay current with the news. “I try to include at least three different topics in each set so that everyone finds something they can relate to,” she said. “I always talk about my kids. I can talk about my husband if he is not in the audience. I [talk] about what is going in the world and locally, and sometimes I talk about my professional experiences.
“If I am performing before an audience that knows me well, I don’t always talk about my immigrant experience.”
Fellow comedian Davine Ker, whose family escaped the brutal Khmer Rouge purges of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, said that she recently began having dreams in English, thus assuring her fluency in the language of her adopted land some four decades after leaving Cambodia — first for Canada, and then the United States.
“Language has so many levels. My mother learned most of her French-Canadian while working at our ‘inconvenience’ store in Montreal,” Ker said, adding that her mother spoke a creole “street Quebecois.”
“This made me realize the bulk of my English was learned at comedy shows,” Ker added. “I guess I speak ‘English-Comedian’s Banter.’ Like DC millennials speak “College-students-who-just-discovered-new-ideas.”
Ker said her set entails the travails of being an immigrant, genocide survivor, a woman and a “proud citizen.” “I make people laugh with stories wrapped in the art of comedy and storytelling. I raise consciousness through my personal story,” said Ker, who is also a singer and chef.
One such act of consciousness-raising is that Ker, who said she does not discuss immigration’s political ramifications in her set, encounters other comedians still making jokes about Asians with some frequency. “Today, most folks seem more sensitive about racial slurs and racist topics,” she said. “I call them out on it, make the point, the audience and comics in the room laugh, and I move on.”
Simone, however, doesn’t hesitate to tackle U.S. policy on immigration head-on in his routine. “American immigration policy should ensure that America honors the ‘land of immigrants’ mindset,” he said. “There are needed improvements, but these changes will need to be humane and not result in family separations.”
Simone, who performs five to seven times a week and maintains the website Leftistpanda.com, said that audiences are bright enough to realize that the United States is a land of immigrants; however, some crowds he encounters are “not as receptive” to that sentiment. “Hostile crowds can occur at any comedic show. As a result, I tend to tease the tension and riff jokes and blend the conflict into the material,” he said, adding that most of the time, that approach is successful.
Matta, who hasn’t yet made the transition to comedy full-time, said he typically shies away from political or “blue” humor, and will regale audiences Jan. 12 with tales of his marriage, job, children and more everyday topics. “Almost all of my material is in storytelling form,” he said. “I also try to only write ‘clean’ material…because I feel awkward working blue.
“Revising and improving my act comes with tons and tons of writing and trying out the new bits to see if they hit or miss. The important thing is to deliver with the same energy at every show.”
“Comedy is like shampoo instructions: Open your mouth, pour out the jokes, create laughter,” Ker observed. “Keep it clean if you’d rather. Be dirty, but find the right soap. Just as we never stop showering, write and rewrite relentlessly.”
Ker also hopes that her onstage storytelling may help “raise consciousness” by sharing her personal truth. “I don’t speak about immigration to trigger anyone. I speak about immigration because it is my truth,” she said, “and compassion is drawn from understanding other people’s truths.”
As far as a comedy scene that may have become more politically correct in the era of YouTube and Twitter — where one “wrong” joke can trigger an online protest or even a boycott — Ker finds it somewhat odd that comedians are “held to a higher standard” than the notoriously politically incorrect 45th president.
“I try not to offend anyone; however, if you bring your small child to a comedy show late at night, that’s just bad parenting,” said Ker, whose aim is to “heal the world” one joke at a time. “Although at least the kid may pick up some ‘Comedian’s Banter English,’ so we still made the world a better place.”
As for her hopes for the future of immigration to the United States, Ker’s thoughts are simple yet direct: “Don’t build walls, build malls. People love malls and buying stuff,” she said. “Build bridges also — to get to those malls.”
Improbable Comedy presents “Comedy as a Second Language” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Silver Spring Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets range from $18 to $22. For information, call 301-351-2069 or visit www.improbablecomedy.com/comedy-as-a-second-language.