eliza berkon is a features writer and musician based in washington d.c. 

Comedians Share Stories From Their Immigrant Families At This Comedy Show

“Dating’s weird for me because I’ve only dated white women,” says Umar Khan in a 2016 stand-up routine at the DC Improv. “When I meet parents, I get nervous. I think most people raise their kids to be open-minded, but when parents meet me, they’re like, ‘Ooh, not thatopen-minded.’”

Khan, a 30-year-old school psychologist from Baltimore whose parents grew up in Pakistan, regularly sprinkles jokes about his experience as a person of color into his routines. On Saturday night, Khan will join a handful of local comedians—all of whom are first- or second-generation American immigrants—for Comedy as a Second Language, a stand-up show in Silver Spring.

The show debuted last March and is part of a series hosted by local production company Improbable Comedy. Company founder Kim Levone modeled the show after a Canadian program of the same name launched in early 2017 by her one-time colleague, Brazilian comedian Carol Zoccoli, an alum of Saturday Night Live Brasil.

Levone says the show provides a platform for comedians whose voices “are not always heard.” And though she is not an immigrant herself, she says her time living abroad in Israel and Brazil gave her a small sense of what that experience might be like.

"Being there not as a tourist, but as someone who has to grocery shop and do doctor's appointments in another language, it makes you vulnerable," Levone told DCist via email. "You have a constant feeling like everyone knows something you don't, and just when you are feeling 'at home' there, then you come back to the U.S. and feel quite out of place here."

On-the-rise local comedian Martin Amini, who produces monthly stand-up show The Overachievers, and co-hosts its weekly companion podcast, will also appear Saturday. Amini's father emigrated from Iran after the 1979 revolution and his mother grew up in Bolivia. The Silver Spring-raised comedian frequently references his heritage on stage.

The comedian, who just wrapped a segment for forthcoming Epix show Unprotected Sets, executive-produced by comic Wanda Sykes, jokes about whether he identifies more as Iranian or Bolivian, saying, "It depends on what Donald Trump's talking about this week—if he's talking about the Muslim ban, then I'm super Bolivian. But if he's talking about building the wall, I'm from Silver Spring, Maryland."

It's "a really interesting city because it’s very diverse," says Amini, 31. "It’s near a major city, and the neighborhood I grew up in—everyone from every ethnicity was in that neighborhood. So I was always exposed to that. And the more I do comedy, the more I travel, I realize the country doesn’t look like that at all."

Some comedians of color have used stereotypes and humor about their races to build their brand, including such marquee names as George Lopez, Margaret Cho, Hari Kondabolu and Chris Rock. But for Suitland-based comedian Jennifer Amo, family heritage is just “one of the ingredients” in her routines.

“I tend to be the biggest butt of my own jokes; I feel like comedy should be more inclusive than targeted against any group of people,” Amo says.

Amo, 29, is a program analyst for the DC National Guard by day and a comedian by night. About two years ago, she entered the world of stand-up with a course from the DC Improv. But as the child of immigrants from Ghana, she says she has long found humor in her own life.

"I was always in weird situations because everything felt like it was lost in translation, like their expectations and how they expected me to be and how I was," Amo says. "It [was] always comical. It always felt like I was [in] some, I don't know, some TV show gone wrong."

After a car accident a few years ago, Amo says she found herself injecting so much humor into her re-telling of the event that her friends were laughing. Inspired by that and the storytelling she admires from comedian Dave Chappelle, who hails from Silver Spring, she decided to give stand-up a shot.

While Amo often ribs herself for awkward encounters with men or challenging moments in pole-dancing class, she says she also peppers her routine with occasional jokes about growing up with Ghanian-born parents, including an instance where she told her dad that her classmates were teasing her at school.

"He looks at me, and I'm thinking he's about to say something really profound, something really deep," Amo recalls. "And then he's like, 'Did I take you to school to make friends, or did I take you to school to learn?'"

Both Amini and Khan caution that leaning too much on one's heritage for humorous material can be a mistake, because it can create distance between the comic and the audience and it can invite criticism from other comedians.

"I always feel like people don’t want you to talk about it, or at least other comics,” Khan says. “Comics are saying now that it’s a crutch."

Some research suggests that comedians' jokes about their ethnicity can be used as a "form of resistance" and potentially combat racism. So could this type of humor perhaps be more vital in today's political climate than in the past?

“I think I’m supposed to say yes, but honestly I feel like nah. I think people just want to laugh,” Khan says. “They don’t care what you’re talking about as long as you’re funny.”

Comedy as a Second Language will be presented Saturday night with shows at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. at Cissel-Saxon American Legion Post 41 and will feature comedians Martin Amini, Jennifer Amo, Sharon Kang, Umar Khan and Fernando Madrigal. Tickets are $10-$20. 

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