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Between regularly appearing on Comedy Central, developing a web series, writing for shows like Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” raising a child and an upcoming debut as a TV doctor in “Carol’s Second Act” (premiering Sept. 26 at 9:30 on CBS), one would think comedian Sabrina Jalees would be too swamped to do much touring, but fans can look forward to her taking the stage at the Motor City Comedy Festival in Detroit on Friday, Sept. 20.
Fans of the Festival will know it’s focused not only on showcasing comics from the Midwest and beyond but highlighting a variety of unique voices. Jalees herself is a queer, half Pakistani, half Swiss, Toronto native whose blend of jokes cover all aspects of her identity. For example, during her 15-minute special on Netflix’s “The Comedy Lineup” she talks about everything from the fluidity of sexuality, coming out to her family and the process of having a son with her wife.
Between The Lines got in touch with Jalees in advance of the Detroit show to talk about what inspires her comedy, how she got her start and the value of creative authenticity.
I was excited when I learned I was going to be interviewing you because I saw your Netflix set and I was like, “150 is my goal weight, too!”
(Laughs) It’s so wild, everyone’s relationship with their body and what makes one person feel bloated is what makes another person feel like a supermodel.
(Laughs) Exactly! So, what drew you to standup comedy? Were you always a funny kid growing up?
Yeah, I was 16 when I started doing standup. And yeah, I definitely always craved attention — attention not detention though it got me in detention (laughs). I was just one of those kids that I would be constantly thinking of ways to get kids in the class to look in my direction. So teachers loved me, and when I discovered standup it was because we realized that going to comedy club A) that we were allowed in and B) that it was cheaper than even seeing a movie — and way more satisfying because if you sat in the front row they would talk to you. And I think it was probably the first time that I went to Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club that I had this real urge to be on stage. For me, I thought of standup in the beginning as this extracurricular activity, and I remember looking at 30-year-olds being like, “You’re still doing this children’s sport?” (Laughs) And now here I am, 34, and I don’t think I’ll ever not be a standup. There aren’t many mediums where you can reach your audience directly and immediately with the stories you want to tell.
Right, if it’s funny they’ll laugh.
Yeah. And there was something deep, too, about it for me with identity, with sort of claiming who I was. Over the years I’ll look at some of my jokes and I’ll kind of cringe because it doesn’t speak to who I am now. But this idea of kind of reflecting on your beliefs — and, certainly, when I started doing standup it was kind of a reaction to Islamophobia. A lot of my material was about being brown in this time where it was OK to not trust brown people. It was right after 9/11 and there was something so freeing about taking this thing that I was supposed to be embarrassed about, or that I certainly had felt embarrassed about, and talking about it on stage and turning it into humor. It became this empowering thing.
I’m glad you brought that up, too, because on a podcast you once talked about how self-awareness and reflection is something that is really important as a comic. How do you continue to keep that self-reflection and self-awareness alive in your comedy?
I think that one way to stay self-aware is talking about things that you truly are passionate about. And I guess what I mean by self-awareness is not saying that I’m the queen of self-awareness, but I think facing adversity — I feel like if I was talking about self-awareness it might be the type of comic that bombs and says, “Well these bitches suck!” I think there’s something — your magazine’s gay, right?
Yeah, it is.
Well, I think that one of the gifts of being queer is you didn’t fit into this box that society told you [that] you should have fit into. And from dealing with what that means and moving through the process of still loving yourself. Not in spite of this abnormality but realizing that that is the essence of life: claiming your identity regardless of what the expectations are. And that, I think, is an advantage of being a queer comic or a female comic that you have just in existing done a lot of self-examination and you don’t take it for granted. So, it’s really exciting for me now to see all these gay comics emerging and it’s no longer in a phase where there’s so much explaining that sexuality is the butt of the joke, but we’re understanding that we’re all different and all the same. So, talking about my marriage, talking about even the way Shauna and I conceived the baby, that resonates just beyond a lesbian couple.
Right. And your take on the fluidity of sexuality is really refreshing. I think even within the LGBTQ community a lot of people say you’re this or that, gay or straight.
It’s so binary. And it’s interesting that we go through this forest of finding ourselves and then we kind of identify ourselves as liars for pretending to be straight rather than saying, “Well, I was really leaning into this part of myself that, at the end of the day, isn’t the part of myself where I’m truly happiest.” But it’s not to say that we were lying. We were just sold this false manual of what our options were in life.
That seems like a healthy perspective to have on it now, but how did you get to that place?
I think in always being on the outside — never being fully brown or fully white — and being in a family where my extended family was all Muslim, but my mother never converted to Islam. You start to see cultures from the outside and I think homosexuality or the gay community, we have our own culture. But it’s just always been so clear to me that my mom didn’t have to be Muslim to be a good person. There wasn’t this binary kind of clubs that were good and clubs that were bad. And all clubs, whether you want it or not, there’s going to be shame involved in being on the outside. It’s really tough to claim your gay identity. And then, once you claim it, you don’t really want to think about a spectrum a lot of the time if you’ve done all this work. You’ve climbed this gay mountain and then it’s like, “I’m going to claim my homosexuality.” And then I think also, a lot of times people don’t claim their homosexuality unless they are on one side, kind of close to the polar. So, and I’ve gotten flak from people for not saying the word bisexual, but I think that as we evolve, I think bisexual is a great way to identify. And I think fluidity speaks to where we’re at now: sexually fluid.
You mentioned once, too, that a really famous comedian once told you that coming out would be detrimental to your career, so you didn’t for a long time. Could you expand on how that impacted you?
I think we’re lucky that things, as grim as things seem politically sometimes, that when I look back 10 years ago to what it felt like to be gay in the comedy scene and then when I started almost 20 years ago it’s almost black and white — now that I said non-binary (laughs). I don’t think anything’s fixed, but we’re heading in a direction where people are understanding the value of diversity. The true value. And that goes for black comics that are not just being viewed as the black best friend and gay comics who are not just like the gay best friend or the butt of the joke. It’s like our stories, not only do they matter, not only do they appeal to our community, but they appeal to the world. That person that told me not to come out, they were speaking from their experience. The thing that I’m kind of realizing is that everyone’s advice is just a Bible story from their life. Like you turn 30 and someone’s like, “Oh my God, that’s the best age, you’re going to get to know yourself so well and you’re going to fall in love, you’re going to get divorced, you’re going to move to Morocco.” And it’s like, “Bitch, that’s just specifically what happened to you at 30.” So that comic that told me not to come out, I know them, they’re very restricted in their life and what they would let on to the public about who they are and really just played toward being perceived as normal. Whereas in my journey, what I’ve perceived is there is no normal. And people, the more they bend over and twist and contort themselves to be this sort of version of themselves that they thought they needed to be, the further they are from their core and their voice. Both as an artist and as a person.
Has the way you’re inspired to write comedy changed since you’ve made that realization? Where do you start when writing?
My heart and my mind. I love talking about the way that we named [our son] Wolfie and being a parent now, because that’s where my heart and my mind are at. And it’s kind of this North Star that I’ve been able to count on. The rule for me is if it’s something I care about in real life. Like, if we were at a party and this is what I would be talking about, then it fits on stage. Definitely, throughout my career, I’ve had these ideas of what I should be talking about, and that’s always when I’m led astray, is when we fall for a perception of yourself that is outside of what is truly speaking to you. It’s like even for you, for writing. If you were writing this piece on someone that you didn’t care about, it’d be just like a cookie-cutter piece. Now, hopefully, you care to talk to me and we’re having an interesting conversation and it becomes more than that. What I’m saying is that this piece is going to win you tons of awards. Get ready.
Of course (laughs)! But I think that’s well-put. If your passion isn’t there, if you’re not talking about something authentic, the audience can sniff that out. Have you found that your material changes as you travel more on tour and encounter different audiences?
I think for me, rather than finding local jokes it’s more about really dropping in and connecting with who is in the room. I like to talk to the audience, and as far as what I’m talking about on stage, I’m going to come and I’m going to talk about the things that are on my mind, regardless of whether we’re in a city or in a small town. The biggest lesson for me over the years has been making sure that I’m really connecting with the audience and not just shifting it into autopilot. I like chatting with people, which is a dangerous thing to say because then you definitely run into the hazard of turning on a faucet that you can’t turn off (laughs). But I’ll take the risk.
Speaking of autopilot, do you ever start saying a joke and you don’t remember why you started talking in the first place?
Yeah, definitely. I’m a pretty willy-nilly person and I can definitely take an audience into a forest and see a shiny berry and stop talking about the trip we were going to take, but I guess that’s also a sign that you’re in something. There’s also moments where you start a sentence and you say, “Wait, I don’t even know why I’m talking about this.” Don’t you wish you could jump out of your body and say, “You’re on your own, bitch!”
(Laughs) Yes, all the time! Do you feel like bouncing back from that makes the audience appreciate you more?
I think just owning it. Own it! Be honest. If you started a topic that you don’t care about then the most gratifying thing, because other people are there with you, is to say, “Wait a second, I don’t give a shit. Let’s talk about something interesting.” It’s like admitting there’s nothing better than honesty in the moment.
Jalees will perform on Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. at Ant Hall. Ant Hall is located at 2320 Caniff St. in Hamtramck. Find out more online at motorcitycomedyfest.com.