Friday, May 27, 2011

Guest Blogger: Lucas Lewis Interviews Mehran

The final installment of Lucas Lewis Week, wherin Mr. Lewis interviews Mehran, one of Boston's rising stars of stand-up. I've spoken with Mehran for this blog and the Boston Globe before, and when you've covered someone for a while, there are questions you might stop asking because you think you already know the story. That's where an interview like this is refreshing -- I get to see someone else approach Mehran from a different perspective. There's a lot here to chew on, so dig in. And remember, Lewis is at The Gas tonight, and Mehran is hosting Criscoteque Two: Preaching for the Choir at Oberon. The Gas starts at 7:30, and Criscoteque at 9:30, so you should be able to make both. Thanks again, Lucas! - Nick  

Mehran hosts Criscoteque 2 tonight
at Oberon in Harvard Square
When and why did you start doing standup comedy?

I had just been laid off from my job at Harvard University where I’d worked in a number of different offices doing high-level admin work for three and a half years. I started temping at Harvard because I’d pretty successfully burned every bridge I had in the hospitality industry (rat fucking bastards) and I needed to not live on the street. I figured I could write, had strong computer skills and needed to explore potential career-paths that came with some degree of job security. My first temp role had me licking envelopes for three days. On my second contract, I happened to luck out and caught the fancy of one of the University’s top managers and, with her personal and professional mentorship, I moved up the ladder at rocket speed. Within 18 months, I was the Project Manager to the Office of the President and Provost, sitting across the hall from Larry Summers in what was his last year before his forced resignation. It was a circus.

You have to understand that up until that point, I had always fancied myself something of a boozy, acidy, weedy, comedic performer. I emceed underground arts shows and concerts, did some BIZARRE performance art, directed some funny one-acts, studied theater and acted wherever I could… so the transition to a desk job, especially one in such an occasionally austere environment, was both jarring and, in a sense, deeply depressing. Something of my family’s voice in me was pushing me toward a sustainable life-long career and I was, in listening to that voice, ready to accept that entertainment wasn’t going to happen for me beyond a hobby. Then in my last year at HU, working at the School of Public Health, my department saw some pretty severe budget cuts as a result of Bush-era slashes in federal public health funding and I was let go.

I collected unemployment and kept looking for work back at the University, but everything just felt too damn unhappy or underpaying to commit to. So to make my job-search time less agonizing, I decided to connect to my performance roots and signed up for the first standup comedy class in Boston that came up on Google. Standup was just about my favorite entertainment medium, but I thought that it was the kind of thing that you were either born doing or it wasn’t meant for you. I actually believed that. I hadn’t committed to writing material, EVER, and I thought that standup wasn’t for me because I didn’t open my mouth and instantly sound like Janeane Garofalo’s HBO special.

Debate on the merits of comedy classes to one side, that leap motivated me to write my first five minutes and, most importantly, it assured me to the fact that development was a process. Our final showcase was on November 1, 2007. That was my first time performing my own standup material in front of a seated audience and, accepting that this is going to sound unbearably trite despite its truth, I FELT my life change in that moment. Everything clicked. Walking home with my friends from that performance, I’m not even kidding, it’s the walk I’m still on. My life has been clearer to me since that night.

Can you give me a quick summary of how you went from newbie to Boston's best comic (per The Phoenix)?

Well it’s the Phoenix Best of Boston POLL. It’s a voting campaign driven thing—it’s really not about THE BEST. For Christ’s sake, the other nominated comics on my year were ALL frigging legends. I just happened to mobilize my facebook army the best into voting for me. Period. It had and has nothing to do with any qualitative measure of comedic superiority. Me, in my second year of comedy, a better standup than Kelly MacFarland? It’s an insane suggestion.

But if this question is about how quickly I rose in the ranks or how I manage to do alright in Boston’s entertainment landscape, then we’re looking at a whole different set of factors. For one thing, I’ve worked. I’ve put in my time, eaten it HARD in venues large and small and have seen humbling levels of support. Also, and here’s where personal opinion comes in, I brought myself to the table. I have material, sure, but I’m also the culmination of a pretty interesting life and I think people tune into that. I rarely take the blessing of getting to perform for people for granted and my audiences and I trade a lot of love.

You obviously have a unique voice; how did your act develop, and how deliberate was it?

I told the truth and I told it in my real voice—who I am onstage and who I am offstage are the exact same person. Also, I didn’t start at 21. I probably could have—the core sense of humor is still the same—but at 31, I’d already done the bulk of my soul searching, unleashed myself on the world in a million different ways and survived multiple crises of depression and identity. I think that’s a huge part of the standup experience for an audience, witnessing that specific human being in communication and tuning into her or his unique take on life. For the performer, standup can almost serve a function of social instruction and to do that, she or he has to have some degree of intimate self knowledge and mastery… something that I couldn’t claim to have had ten years ago when I was still licking the wounds of my troubled adolescence and embarking on the life I wanted.

My act started where so many acts start… toilet humor. The difference with me being that there it has remained. Somewhat kidding. My life is always mineable for material because it’s loaded with outrageous shit.
As for deliberateness, sure there were some deliberate moves. I started with the Iranian homo thing… in part because it’s my unique angle and in part because I’m a fucking Iranian homo. The rest, like most comics, I think, has been a process of discovering how I, in the medium of standup comedy, would shape what I find to be funny. The only thing really deliberate about a discovery process is the commitment to keep showing up and see it through. I can say that in that process, I took risks, shared myself and made some of my bigger mistakes earlier than most.

What are the venues or people that helped in your development?

How long have you got? Jesus.

The Comedy Studio, Rick Jenkins, Erin Judge, Tim McIntire, Mottley’s Comedy Club, Kelly MacFarland, Maz Jobrani, The Wilbur Theater, Jim and Helen McCue… Robby Roadsteamer/Potylo… they’ve all represented opportunity, mentorship, guidance, support, ENDORSEMENT… deeply, deeply humbling generosity and I hope to be able to repay them all someday.
Then there’s the community of local comics who have been incredible to watch and learn from. I remember my first nights going to the Studio—they have a policy where you have to attend three shows before you can take their stage—I remember thinking “how am I ever going to do that??” Lamont Price, Tom Dustin, Myq Kaplan, Dan Crohn, Ira Proctor, Micah Sherman, Ken Reid, Renata Tutko… there’s no way to start naming them all without leaving key people off the list or repeating names I mentioned earlier. It’s a very impressive group of inspiring, original talents who blew me away at day one and continually renew my resolve/anxiety to improve. Hell, some of the newer comics these days are bringing it hard, too.

Development is a big topic. There’s the slow climb of improvement—that’s facilitated by regular stage time and, again, we don’t have enough ink to thank all the bookers, local hosts and open mic organizers who make it possible. The other side of development, I think, has to do with the opportunities where you’re challenged to take on higher-stakes gigs. These are evolutionary jumps for a performer. The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, performing in front of your comedy heroes, the Boston Comedy Festival, playing packed theaters like The Wilbur, The Berkeley Performance Center, The Lisner Auditorium… you learn a lot about who you are and what you’re made of as an entertainer in those moments… where you might fit, practically, in the greater comedy landscape.

Have you experienced discrimination in comedy? If so, in what ways was it similar or different than the discrimination you've encountered in everyday life?

Listen, my shit-kicking and shit-detecting skills were engaged at a very early age because they had to be (I’ve been out of the closet in a fairly conservative Iranian home since I was 15) and to that end, I’ve been lucky to know how to shut a lot of bullshit down before it ever gets a chance to start. I’m a big, fun extroverted gay man who self-identifies as Iranian, sure, but above all, I’m a strong, real, present person who doesn’t let iniquity slide. People tend to ascertain that quickly enough to preempt nonsense and spare themselves significant pain and misery. I don’t bring a victim mentality to the table and, no, discrimination has never been an issue.

The other side of this is that in the year 2011, the gays have pretty much won the war of visibility. I don’t have to fight that much anymore because people who would be stupid enough to air their prejudice in public are in the statistical minority and most likely fear being summarily shut down. I’m fine with bigotry being silenced by fear. I’ll take if from there and show them the light.

MIND YOU, I’m not being booked for Elks Lodges or to entertain the troops… but that has more to do with demographics and propriety than anything else. You wouldn’t hire GWAR to play a conservative corporate concert unless you wanted to watch a bunch of terrible people melt down. Which I happen to love doing.

Why do so many great standups come from the suburbs of Boston? You went to high school with Eugene Mirman, right?

Eugene and I went to high school together, indeed. That was Lexington, MA and for all of Lexington’s white moneyed shittiness and separation from the real world, we mostly got to be the trippy lifeforms we were there. I look for that in comedy—the trippiness of the source. The Eugene I know today is pretty much the exact same guy from 1992. Only he’s everyone’s idol and deservedly so.

Boston is a thinking person’s town and it’s counterbalanced with a rich and delicious tradition of assholeism. The right Bostonian will point out exactly why you don’t need to be so psyched to be alive, tell you to go fuck yourself and somehow invigorate your day with that information. I love it. Also, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, Boston isn’t where you “make it.” That takes a certain pressure off of development. A comic can discover her or his voice with less pressure and temptation to compromise to more formulaic templates here—if just for lack of example. This creates a culture of unstrained, unforced individuality and that’s a huge gift, particularly in one’s starting years.

You're notorious for having feuds — you even did a show featuring comedians you'd had "issues" with. How much of this is serious?

Notorious? FEUDS? Really? I mean… there’s probably some reputation there for being outspoken and not shying away from conflict but “notorious feuds” is tabloid exaggeration. I withhold less than the average person. It’s that simple. I also believe in the fundamental value of the truth as an agent to bring about positive change… and truth is typically in rare supply in environments where networking plays such a pivotal role in scoring work. Fuck all, do I hate networking. Give me honest, trustable dialogue and relationships any day.

Some of this perceived quarrel is also hazing, which I own. I was hazed on my initiation into comedy and trust it to be an essential ritual. It trains one to think more critically and respect the institution of comedy that preceded one’s involvement. Most of the folks who put me through the wringer in this city have since either moved on or diminished in their social presence on the scene. Giving newcomers a modicum of grief is a service I perform mostly out of necessity. The veterans aren’t around that much to do it anymore and we can’t go throwing a bunch of bladder-headed babies into the fray.

In the rare instance that I have a real issue with someone, sure, it gets to be serious. But I’m not an agent of seriousness, I’m an agent of laughter. There isn’t a bridge that can be burned that can’t be rebuilt stronger, smarter and funnier. Hence the capacity to mend relationships and book a show entirely with comics I’ve at some point driven mad. That was a great show, by the way. I’m glad I was able to get back on the good foot with all those talented people.

Generally speaking, what is your take on the Boston comedy scene? The good, the bad and the ugly.

Good: the support network, the general originality of voice that happens here, the opportunities for mentorship and development, the ease with which one can fall into the scene and find stagetime, the possibility of being a big fish in a small pond.

Bad: small pond. you reach a critical capacity here and have to move to New York or Los Angeles to make a play at greater distribution. we can’t retain our talent.

Ugly: Tom Dustin. (I love you, Tom)

Alternative comedy is a blanket if not meaningless term often used to describe an array of different acts. What, if anything, does the term mean to you? Are you an "alternative" comic?

In my experience, alternative comedy is just poster short-hand for shows booked with hipper, non-traditionally dressed, potentially disenfranchised comics whose acts are marked by greater absurdism, sexual weirdness, politically leftist incredulity and/or references to marijuana/psychotropic drug culture. I happen to fall into all of that and who doesn’t like playing to an audience that’s on open to all of one’s eccentricities and peccadilloes? So in that regard, sure, I’m an alternative comic. Still, one has to broaden the scope. Comedy is comedy. Funny is funny. Some of my most rewarding comedy experiences have been in rooms where the audience didn’t see me coming and you can come out of those situations with some die-hard fans and advocates.

Tell me about Quiet D — the genesis, your involvement and your takeaway.

It started as a phone conversation between Robby Roadsteamer (nĂ© Potylo) and myself. We were talking about how fun it would be to film a show about our talks and interactions (both of us being pro-drug and, well, awesomely damaged funny people) but to pump up the absurdity. Robby took it a step further to suggest that the show could really showcase some of the city’s talent so that, perhaps, not so many of us would have to defect to NYC or LA.

Robby’s tremendously motivated and what could have been just a flight of fancy idea between two friends, quickly became a steady stream of shoots featuring dozens of Boston comics with Joe Madaus behind the camera. Over the course of about nine months we shot thirteen or fourteen webisodes. Rob and I continued to talk daily and batted some of the ideas around but the vision, the coordination, the direction, was almost entirely Rob’s. (Except for my scenes, which Rob would rush and butcher in editing.)
With each passing webisode, it became clearer that we had very different ideas about where the show needed to go—I felt that there were too many cameos and that we had to get more organized, loyal to plot lines, etc., if the show was ever to transition to a 22-minute televised format. I did my best to communicate these ideas delicately, but Robby ultimately took my concerns more as artistic criticism than collaborative feedback. Tensions escalated for months until Rob couldn’t bear me socially and I couldn’t bear him professionally. The partnership caved.

After about nine months of radio silence, Robby was approached by a production company and they bought the broadcast time on MyTV and I was invited back. I agreed, under the condition that I’d be able to exercise a degree of creative control to, by my standards, increase the value of the show. I didn’t want to be associated with something that I didn’t agree with aesthetically or otherwise and wouldn’t lend my image without the assurance that I wouldn’t have to tip-toe around changes and suggestions. This time, I was unabashedly forward in communicating all the work that I thought the show needed. Robby was on board for about a month and we saw some great strides but, yet again, things turned hostile. This time, after roughly two weeks of insurmountable disagreement and rabid barking on both our parts, I decided to back away from the show sooner rather than later. I didn’t want the craziness to negatively impact my work in standup and that worked out for the best. I haven’t watched since episode three.
Lessons: Know when to bow out of something when you know you disagree with it and it isn’t going to change. Pull the trigger before things get heated. Never go back to a stubborn situation, no matter how great you think it could be. GET YOUR CONTRACT UP FRONT, otherwise, prepare to toss in a boatload of effort for pure grief. Define your boundaries and be honest about how you work. That, at least, I did get right the second time around.

What are your feelings on Rick and The Comedy Studio?

I love Rick Jenkins. Personally, I have all the warmth in the world for him and professionally, I don’t know that I have too many people in comedy to thank more. He gave me key advice and asked me deep questions up front that absolutely accelerated my development. He’s absolutely a mentor and I can count on him for good and precise advice when I need it. People joke that he likes to take credit for comics once they go on to succeed in the business. Me, I look forward to being able to thank him for all of his support and guidance. I can experience some catastrophic comedy failure somewhere and as soon as I walk into The Comedy Studio, I know I’m home. If you knew me better, you’d understand how welcome, rare and meaningful a feeling like that is for me.

Do you feel like you'll need to move to New York or LA to take the next step? Why or why not?

Yes, I will have to move to one or the other. I’m still weighing my options. I don’t know LA. I’ve never been but Lord knows I would prefer the weather. New York is a taxing bitch of a city where I play regularly enough and already and know a host of SUPER-talented comics. It’s certainly the easier of the two, transition-wise. The biggest factor is that I’m not rich. Moving is going to be expensive, as is living in either city. I also don’t look forward to liquidating my life in Boston. I’ve accumulated a metric fuckton of crap.

I have to move because I want to do big things and I want to up my game. There are just more greats, by sheer numbers, in NYC and LA. If you’re going to try and jump over the bar, you have to put yourself in front of it

What IS the next step for you?

I mean… I love doing standup and I love producing shows that showcase standup in new and interesting ways. I’m super proud of Boston and deeply in love with some of my fellow comics. To find a way to bring what I do now to its next level… to increase its reach and viewership… to drive my own personal agenda in comedy and spread my unique signature of joy… help some people while I do it… that’s the dream.

I’ve been doing these rave/standup comedy hybrid shows that are a hoot. Next one is at Club Oberon in Cambridge on May 27th and it’s a benefit for this AMAZING choir in town, Coro Allegro.

And on May 14th, I’m in the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival final audition round in NYC.

We’ll see!

What's the worst show you've ever done?

There have been some doozies. Like the one where a Latina lesbian chased me off the stage while the audience was like, “she’s right!” I had made a joke about the blind children of Mexico being more violent than their blind peers from other countries… because they think everything is full of candy. It was a shitty drag show and most of the audience was made up of these white-guilt liberals who didn’t cotton to my political incorrectness. The host was off somewhere not giving a fuck about the show. Meanwhile, I was doing my residency that month at the Comedy Studio AND I was on my second day of waking up at 3AM to film 20 spastic episodes of Deal or No Deal (if you look them up, I will find you and kill you.) So I was at the end of my rope anyhow and having some crazy Latina all up in my grill on a shitty runway stage was more than I was interested in for the night. I promptly collected my shit and got the fuck out of Dodge. Mind you, I felt FINE about leaving and never really thought about it again. If we’re talking about shows where I’ve hated myself afterward and/or hidden in public toilets and/or not left my apartment for a week over… well… that’s a whole other interview.

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