Local comedians find laughs in their foreign roots

Mona Concepcion performs at the Rendezvous in Belltown. (Photo by Sara McCaslin)

Seattle’s comedy scene is on the rise, and a surprising number of local comedians trace their humor back to an international upbringing.

“We poop in water cleaner than the water that some people drink, I had that thought at 12,” says local comedian Yogi Paliwal, “But it took me a while to figure out how to tell that to an audience.”

The brutal truths of global inequality might not seem like obvious fodder for jokes, but for Paliwal — who grew up in Bellevue with Indian parents — comedy was one of the best ways to reconcile life in an American suburb with the village in Rajasthan where he spent his summers.

“When I was growing up and I saw poverty… I told myself, ‘I don’t care what I do when I grow up, I just want to be funny,’” explains Paliwal, 24, who says he thinks of comedy as something that anyone can related to “whether they’re rich or poor.”

Seattle’s comedy scene is on the upswing. Open mics are cropping up all over the city and comedians with Seattle ties have started gaining national recognition.  And a number of these young comedians have international roots — their comedy drawing on global themes that reflect the increasing diversity of their city and their generation.

“I’m Chamorro [an indigenous people from the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific] and I know I’m the only female Chamorro comedian on the planet,” jokes Mona Concepcion, 30, who grew up on the tiny island of Saipan and says a culture of storytelling (and being the youngest of five kids) turned her into a “joke teller.”

The first generation immigrant experience is also a theme for many of these comedians. Concepcion peppers her routines with imitations of her mother’s creative English and reflections on bridging multiple cultures.

“You see two different worlds, the old one where your parents are from and the new one where you’re… pushing yourself into places where your parents haven’t been before,” she says, framed by a high maroon velvet booth at The Rendezvous in Belltown where she’s waiting for her turn at a female-centered open mic called (no joke) the “Comedy Womb.”

Comedian Aisha Farhoud performs at the Comedy Womb, a female centered open mic at The Rendezvous in Belltown. (Photo by Sara McCaslin)Comedian Aisha Farhoud performs at the Comedy Womb, a female centered open mic at The Rendezvous in Belltown. (Photo by Sara McCaslin)

Aisha Farhoud, another regular at the Comedy Womb, also draws material from her family (her father is from Palestine and her mother is Mexican-American) and says the harder “more negative…meaner in a way” humor of her mother’s culture guides a lot of her comedy.

You can sense that sharper edge as Farhoud, 28, takes the small stage in the basement of The Rendezvous, where she performs a bit that urges immigrants learning English to “stick to [their] native tongue” when angry (or suffer the hilariously profane results).

The audience is into it tonight, but both Farhoud and Concepcion say that Seattle can be shy about humor that pushes the boundaries of our famous politeness or that frankly discusses diversity.

But all three comedians feel these topics are crucial to their work, helping them stand out and perhaps even to articulate the spirit of a new generation of comedians.

“It feels good that I’m not saying the same stuff as other comedians, dudes who get on stage and do ‘online dating jokes,’ or ‘I’m broke jokes’” says Concepcion “Because I come from a different background I have a different presentation that I can always tap into.”

Paliwal agrees that his international orientation helps him stand out as a comedian, whether he’s making audiences cringe-laugh about poverty in the developing world or complaining about how “pompous” the American flag is (it has too many stars).

For Farhoud the very point of comedy is to push people up against what makes them uncomfortable.

“Television and a lot of performing arts are censored, but comedy is raw,” she says explaining what draws her to it,  “As long as it’s funny, it’ll get people thinking about things they wouldn’t otherwise think about.”

If you like thinking (and laughing), check out Concepcion and Farhoud at “Just Laugh It Off” at the Feedback Lounge on December 18th and Paliwal at “The Early Late Show with Yogi Paliwal” at The Rendezvous on January 17th

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
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