I sneak into Mehran Khaghani’s weekly comedy show surreptitiously, thinking that I’ve successfully avoided attention. But, like anyone else seated in Pink’s that night, he gleefully calls me out in an elaborate, zesty dressing-down that is yet not unkind. I had emailed the comic about a week prior, to no response, but endeavored to see him perform at his weekly event as he always does: Monday nights, with a cadre of handpicked comics (which regularly feature recognizable pulls like Negin Farsad and Jena Friedman), free and unhindered at a small downtown bar.
Mehran is elemental and loud, explicit, bedecked in sweat, and gut-wrenchingly hilarious. He has an energy that is incredibly focused, but not necessarily high-strung or adenoidal, with a flowingly creative grasp of the English language. A Canadian out-of-towner is seated nearby at the bar top, and he casually remarks on their displayed “genital confidence” in a let’s-call-it wide stance. He then professes his complex appreciation for Second Lady Karen Pence, and her comparative self-sheltered demeanor positioned astride Melania’s alpha-essence (Mehran will refer to her below, with forgiving subtext, as a “cat-faced prostitute”).
I sometimes meet Iranian creatives who are slightly withheld in their innermost feelings and criticisms of their nation. I believe—compassionately—that this often directly regards any family members who reside in the country, and a feared risk of reprisal against them for their own casual comments. Mehran Khaghani, as I would come to find out, is thankfully unburdened by such concern, and his sordidly insightful, caustically sarcastic and serrated tongue is hungry for the blood earned by wit.
I spent an hour with Mehran and, in that time, legitimately laughed myself hoarse. I’m sure that the resultant text is slightly denatured, by design, but I guarantee that any and all will find profundities and food for thought below, on everything from trust-fund kids (“Trumpian nepotistic bullshit”), teaching comedy to MIT students, and his specifically personal relationship to the divine feminine, and Iran.
You can find out more about Mehran at his website here.
The Iranian: Does a scarcity of gay male comics exist?
Mehran Khaghani: There’s only four of us. There’s four gay comics. Me, Brad Loekle, Matteo Lane, Joel Kim Booster; we’re probably the “workingest homos.” There’s plenty of gay women.
The Iranian: What is that about, do you think?
Mehran Khaghani: It’s a certain way that the patriarchy embraces anything that objectifies women, right? Especially if the woman is sorta’ butch and rejects her own femininity, that’s going to increase her value in a male or machismo-driven system because, at the end of the day, the crime is being a girl. For this woman, dad’s her hero, not mom. At the end of the day, that’s how strong it is. That’s at the heart of machismo, that’s at the heart of Iran, that’s at the heart of so much that’s wrong with this world. It’s this real fear, and this real vitriol for the divine feminine. You’d call it a conspiracy against women, but it’s not a secret; it’s a high-order consensus to just continually put women at the bottom of the pile, so that they couldn’t possibly climb up and effect good into this world.
America had Liberace? We had Andy and Kouros. We had fags, right? Like, Liberace still pretended he was into chicks, but Andy and Kouros made no such bones.
The Iranian: Do you think any of this impresses a kind of self-deprecation into successful women comics?
Mehran Khaghani: At the end of the day, stand-up is the aggressor’s craft. Whoever goes up there and says what they say, with the most conviction, and a joke in it, they win. That’s the winner. It doesn’t have to be self-deprecation. I know lots of very sexually-bold women who land their jokes with impeccable consistency. I think of all the women I know in comedy, and I bet you that they would say that there is some credibility to the idea of a warmer reception for meeker comedians, who might get up and do self-deprecating humor, versus empowered females throwing out truly challenging ideas. I think the former will have an easier time opening for other comics, getting work at random clubs. There’s probably some truth in that.
In my show [at Pink’s], I live for female comics. Female comics shaped so much of what I care about in comedy. It’s usually half or more, female, on my show. In addition to being ethically super important to me, it’s also self-indulgent. I truly appreciate the female comedic voice. I try to keep the lineups as diverse as possible, but I tend to work with the same 100 or so people. It’s awful, but I pretty much stick to my Manhattan clubs! Somebody asks me to do a show in Brooklyn? I’m like, “Who’s dying?” Someone will have to be dying. It has to be a benefit, somebody’s life has to really be hanging in the balance, to be on a train for an hour, then play to a bunch of trust funded hipsters staring at me in their fucking rompers. I won’t do it, and as a result I’m not always on top of who’s new out there, doing exciting work! But then too often when I DO make the trek and see the latest hipsters on stage, I’m left wishing that their parents had perhaps started a scholarship to bankroll a young artist with more promise than their offspring.
I’m obviously mistrusting of people who come from supportive backgrounds in comedy. It’s like, if the worst you had to get past was just basic innate anxiety, I don’t have time for you. You need to be poor and abused and deeply and importantly damaged. Trust-fund kids should have to work for their endowments, fight not to lose them their whole lives. No more of this Trumpian, nepotistic bullshit. Being born on third base and acting like you hit a triple? Like Lena Dunham. Lena Dunham’s parents could have started a fund for anyone who wasn’t Lena Dunham who would have, maybe, created a show with a cast of truly undiscovered talent.
The Iranian: They could’ve started a fund for two better Lena Dunhams!
Mehran Khaghani: A hundred of them! The cast of Girls was literally heiress after heiress after heiress. It’s the story of four heiresses pretending they’re poor in the last semi-gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s madness. There’s another white, straight, male stand up who is on his third lukewarm deal. His third. Deal. They’re throwing him a third chance. They’re like, “We really believe in this guy.” Don’t get me wrong, he’s a capable stand up, but THREE DEALS? There are like 500 acrobatic comics who are fighting tooth and nail every single day, without any trace of darling, white social advantage or a generational financial security who would be blacklisted in the industry if their first project did even semi-impressive numbers.
The Iranian: Aren’t there ones who were born into a certain advantage, and have an awareness of that advantage, but aren’t dicks?
Mehran Khaghani: Oh sure, sure. And I look forward to meeting them.
[note: this entire paragraph and preceding line, were delivered with sarcasm I’d dignify as theatrically impressive]
Their wealth isn’t their fault, I know, I know. We should all hold hands. There should be a prayer circle. Ugh, I feel terrible now. They were born with personal trainers, they’ve been in peak physical condition since they were six years old. It’s hard work, and they put in the hours. I shouldn’t poopoo that, really.
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The Iranian: Tell me about the weekly show at Pink’s, and about Last Comic Standing. I actually stopped watching LCS very early on; I thought it was great, but I wanted to hear more jokes. When everyone was supposed to live in a mansion together I was done with it.
Mehran Khaghani: They actually took all that stuff out. They took all of the weird challenges out of it. Now it’s just like, I’m doing stand up and you’re doing standup. There are amazing comics that came out of that.
You know, when you get cast, it’s all very hush-hush. You’re not supposed to tell people you’re on and you’re not supposed to know who else is on your season. But then you check into the hotel, go into the wardrobe room and you see your face on the clothes rack, you see all the faces of everyone who’s on your taping schedule and, like, these are my coworkers! Of course I know them!
The Iranian: So how long have you been a working comedian, all told?
I’ve been a comic for 10 years, it’ll be 10 years this November 1st. It’s been my main job for probably 5 or 6 [years]. There were a handful of gigs that came along that really did pay well. There was an ad-writing agency that paid well. MIT hired me to teach there…
The Iranian: Wait, really?
Mehran: Yeah, I taught standup at MIT for seven years.
The Iranian: Wow, that’s amazing!
Mehran Khaghani: It was actually amazing. So, [the class] was born when MIT did a survey with companies who hired new MIT grads. The feedback that they got was: these hires made inappropriate jokes at work, they ate like animals, and made their female coworkers uncomfortable. Women’s groups and various sorts of sexual harassment awareness stuff got a bunch of funding. They created a big ol’ finishing school type of thing, where kids could learn which fork and what knife was needed, how not to eat in a disgusting way. And, they threw a tiny little bit of money at me. They threw the least money at the jokes.
It probably shouldn’t have been me by any account, though; I’m far and away the most offensive of my peers. Like, not in terms of gender politics, because I think that’s hack. There are C-level comedians who get B+ money just because they’re assholes about women. But aside from that stuff, when it comes to saying the gross thing? It’s my favorite thing to be explicit. Like, philosophically, morally—it’s my calling to be explicit. We need people to talk about the exact mechanics of what makes this world good or bad. We don’t have a lot of that. So I feel very strongly that I have to say things so they’re sayable.
I trained between 70 and 80 students in those years. Winter terms only, about ten kids per class. Funny enough, a few of them have gone on to actually pursue comedy.
The Iranian: What could one do with an MIT degree other than go into comedy? [this is sarcasm, BTW]
Mehran Khaghani: One actually left the tech world to become a clown. He was always a juggler, though. He lives in Germany now and does all kinds of acrobatics.
Another one got the Montreal Comedy Festival—ten years before I did!
Another one is in med school right now, but she wrestles with just wanting to be a comic.
The Iranian: She wants to be a Ken Jeong type.
Mehran Khaghani: I’m like, finish your med degree and then do whatever you want!
The Iranian: [At this point, Mehran scrutinizes my tattoos, and asks if I’m a fan of magic. “Like, rabbits in a hat?” I reply. He says “No, no, like, real magic.”]
Mehran Khaghani: I actually come from a long line of female mystics in Iran.
The Iranian: Really?
Mehran Khaghani: Soothsayers, precogs, down the whole line. My mother was kidnapped and raised by my great-grandmother and grandmother.
The Iranian: What?
Mehran Khaghani: My mother’s father died when she was two, of tuberculosis. By Iranian law, she was supposed to go to his parents. My grandmother and great-grandmother rolled up on her in a horse-drawn carriage in an orchard and said, “Do you want to come with us?” They kidnapped the girl and raised her within this sort of sacred, empowered, female lineage.
The Iranian: That’s remarkable.
Mehran Khaghani: Yeah! Later on, the way my mother selected her husband—normally it would be very transactional, between her mother and my father, or her father and my father—instead, she made every man that proposed to her recite Rumi, and the man who recited it best, she married. I found this out when I came home from college, I was a stoner for the first time in my life, taking all this acid, I was like “Who is this Rumi guy, and why haven’t you told me about him my whole life?” They were like “Funny you should bring this up; it’s why you exist!”
The Iranian: That’s quite a story.
Mehran Khaghani: I find that throughout my whole life that I was drawn to the ecstatic poets: Dickinson, Frost, Rumi. The only nice thing my father ever said to me was: “You know, the Russians are building these little stations, which are like steps to the moon. Rumi’s poetry is like that.” I was like, “Oh, fuck.” That idea of spirit being directional and transportive, that words can take a person into a particular direction, in a celestial sense? That’s just about as warm and lovely as it gets.
We never really spoke again. The rest of our relationship was pure evil, such that when he died I was like “Woooooooo he’s off the planet! He’s finally off the planet!” He was actually in such deep dementia by the end of the life that I was getting phone calls during shows to like, talk him down.
It’s an impermanent life. Our survival mechanisms are the best and worst things about us. We’re a funny breed.
The Iranian: So let’s get back to where you were born.
Mehran Khaghani: I was born in London, after my family escaped the Iranian Revolution. My father saw my mother going into the women’s lineup of an Iranian bath. He asked his friend in the military to find out who that was. He went and looked her up, found her, and went to propose. He took his financial portfolio, because that’s how you got married. It’s like “I’ll be pretty nice to your daughter, I’ll hit her ‘x’ number of times, max…if she’s infertile, twice that amount.” That’s normally how that kind of thing goes.
Instead he goes there, and they were like, “recite the poetry.”
He did have the heart of a poet, somewhere in there, but revolution breaks everyone. I think the hardest thing are those looming questions: What if we had just been allowed to thrive? What if Iran stayed a relatively cosmopolitan state, albeit under the thumb of the United States and British governments, all very crooked and lamentable, but what if it stayed cosmopolitan? What if we just got to thrive intellectually and culturally? Like, Euro Disney was going to be in Iran, it was plotted for Iran. We were a tourist destination; people would look to us for style, to influence music. The music of the 60s? It’s not just India. You hear these electric organ noises which are pure us, all day.
So, there’s no knowing. If the revolution didn’t happen, if Iran didn’t then turn into a theocratic fascist state, what would my relationship with my father had been? Because we had to scramble. They were killing intellectuals. My mother was on a list to be executed, because she had written an article about this guy who was running for office who said that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. Her reply to that was: any man who denigrates Iranian women, spits on Iran. If you’re coming for Iranian women, you’re coming for Iran. He became unelectable. But then, when they were rounding up all the forward-thinking progressive troublemakers, her name was there. It destroyed our family, destroyed our wealth. We weren’t those greatly sheisty people who liquidated all of their assets and got the hell out; we waited, like dummies, and the money rotted on the vine. It became 1/700th of its value within five years.
The economy collapses. All the intellectuals leave. So now, this country that was thriving, full of fun, fabulous people—and speaking of, we had superfags in music. America has never had them. America had Liberace? We had Andy and Kouros. We had fags, right? Like, Liberace still pretended he was into chicks, but Andy and Kouros made no such bones.
Our pop stars were like 60-70% female, 30% men. Iranian women were strong, smart, painted up for the back row. So much eye makeup. Like, what if it all never happened?
But no one gets to do that. This isn’t a game of time probability field alteration, this is what we are. There is this outrageous diaspora, we’re spread out all over the place and, you know, my parent’s relationship got weaker and weaker. The way taffy would get weaker, if it were stretched so thin.
Iran is that. It’s a disastrous, dysfunctional, patriarchal, fascist state. A militarized, fascist state. The people live in fear.
The Iranian: So, they’re in Iran, but leave prior to the revolution?
Mehran Khaghani: My mother insisted on getting us out. Not only because we were on the list.
One day, my brother came home and bragged about how fast he had assembled and disassembled a gun in class. He was twelve. My mom was like, “It’s a wrap. We’re getting out of here.” My father was like “Honey, baby, things might change!” Which I think, if we saw more of this alt-right gaining momentum, and if Trump gets elected for a second term, I wonder if there are going to be people like “You don’t have to leave the United States, it’ll bounce back!”
It might not. We didn’t. We didn’t bounce back. Theocratic fascists, backwards ugly men who cosign child molestation, but would love to see it if women couldn’t vote. These are the people in charge. What were once janitors, custodians—and I don’t mean to describe this in a class-sense, but in an education-sense—unimaginative people, those are the people who were put into positions of authority. Like, if you were the lowest of the low and could barely read, but you turned in your forward-thinking cousin, you were now put in charge of some division of oversight in the country.
The Iranian: Like Trump’s cabinet. The worst of the worst.
Mehran Khaghani: Iran is that. It’s a disastrous, dysfunctional, patriarchal, fascist state. A militarized, fascist state. The people live in fear.
The Iranian: Do you have family still in Iran?
Mehran Khaghani: Thank goodness, no! The last one died. Didn’t that feel good! You can’t imagine the weight that lifts off of one’s shoulders.
My dad told me to kill myself at fifteen, when I told him I was a homo. My father was a neuropsychiatrist, and he did a lot of pro-bono neuropsychiatry work, because he came from outrageous poverty. Some villagers brought their kid in, and were like, “He’s a homo.” My father was like, “There’s no medication for that, there’s nothing I can do. His only option is abstinence, to not act on it.”
Two months later, the mother and father came back by themselves, they told him that their kid killed themself. My father said, “It’s for the best.” That was the story he told me when I came out to him.
The Iranian: Wow. Do you have any siblings?
Mehran Khaghani: I do, two older siblings. Both male, both straight, eight and ten years my senior. One of them was incredibly violent with me, the other one just let it happen. Both of them married Americans. The violent one married a wispy Christian. No one sees that one coming right? A person with no impulse control and a tendency towards violence would marry a subservient? Someone who was sort of religiously and culturally had given herself to sub ordinance? Great idea.
I know the general ethic is that we’re supposed to continue loving our parents, rendering everything under-rug-swept. Like, oh yeah, it was cool that I was beaten in my teens. I hate looking you people in the eye, but after all this, we’re doing thanksgiving? I’d rather not look at you.
Staying at home with my husband who I love, with my dog who I love, we’re playing video games; everything is great! We’re beating a Zelda game. Everything is super awesome!
Now all this being said: I don’t think that revolution would have necessarily changed my family [or people like them]. I think they would’ve been those kinds of assholes regardless of what country they lived in.
The Iranian: Okay. So an important clarification: you’re not seating all this behavior entirely on the revolution.
Mehran Khaghani: No, no. I think they’re assholes, they’re independently assholes. There are plenty of revolutionary Iranian families who were able to accept each other. They were like, “Go to school, don’t go to school, give a shit, don’t give a shit—live your best life. You have to be happy.” I’ve met Iranians like that.
The Iranian: Okay, so back to your story. Had you gone back to Iran since leaving?
Mehran Khaghani: We went back when I was nine. My parents wanted to give their relationship one last chance. It was at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein pirated Iranian radio, Tabrizi radio.
The Iranian: Two artists I spoke with a few days ago were born in Tabriz.
Mehran Khaghani: They’re Tabrizi? We’re fun. We have some of the best senses of humor in the country, we’re known for it.
So, Saddam pirated our radio, said he was going to bomb schools and hospitals every day at 6:00 in the morning, as a kind of “alarm clock” for the kids. He delivered on that. He bombed the hospital behind our school, and that was when we were like, “Ok, we give up. They bombed the school. He just missed the school and hit a hospital.” That was enough.
We went to Turkey to get out. Everyone in my family had papers but me—I was “the Brit”—which was so bizarre. I should have been able to get papers easier than anyone. Instead, My father kept pulling all this Iranian shit, this zerangi shit, which means slyness or calculation. He wanted me to tell them a million lies. I went in there lying, and I was denied a visa. The second time I went there, I was honest with them, told them my father wanted me to say some other stuff, but I just wanted to see my family. I was still denied, but I noted the denial number getting filled out on my application. My mother then called Ted Kennedy’s office. He made a phone call, and I was in America a week later.
That’s the thing: there are overrides. As much as I’m complaining, as much as I’m saying “What would we have been if the revolution hadn’t destroyed us?” It also breeds strength, resilience, craftiness, resourcefulness, right? I wouldn’t have as much of a sense of mission to be a voice for people who are otherwise discouraged from having one, if I didn’t have to fight for my own voice. And if I didn’t come into this world ready to sacrifice all for [my voice]. I was like, fuck my relationship with my family, fuck people at school I could meet; let’s set it all on fire, I can’t walk on eggshells my whole life. It’s by virtue of adversity that I have the strength to do that.
The Iranian: I think we’re informed by our stresses, especially when we’re young. You’ve had a journey that others might feel is unusually difficult.
Mehran Khaghani: You know, I couldn’t go back to Iran for my father’s funeral, because I’m a homo. And I’m on a list as a homo. And I’ve worked with entertainers who are on much bigger lists than me.
At the same time, I went to the Iranian consulate a few times, to fill out paperwork. They were super-nice to me. They were very warm, like “You’re our compatriot, come have some tea.” They were incredibly nice and warm, but that’s not what I remember about Iran. I remember it being damned inhospitable.
I remember once, my mother’s bangs were sticking out too far out of her chador in an airport, and they took our tickets and tore them up, being like, “Sinners aren’t allowed on airplanes.” My mother turned into Dark Phoenix, ate a planet…and then we were on the plane.
And now, with the travel ban? Do you know how many international gigs I had to say “no” to? Holiday gigs, in like Mexico and Australia? Like “Come out and do comedy for a bunch of guys in speedos, then spend the rest of the week tanning.” I had to say no. Twice.
It’s all very ugly and dirty. This world is ugly and dirty, and it’s in the hands of ugly and dirty men. Our only chance at salvation is if we surrender all authority and sovereignty 100% to women; just not to Melania, because she’s a cat-faced prostitute. Just not her. [editor’s note: Mehran made a point here to distinguish this estimation, but it’s hard to print. Suffice to say: he clarifies a position that is supportive of sex-work, and is ardently against slut-shaming…and believes that Melania is “top of her class” in this vertical.]
We’ve got Elizabeth Warren, she’s standing right there with her catcher’s mitt on, like “Give me some regulatory authority, and I promise you I will make some good in the world.”
The Iranian: Right, not people like DeVos. He’s really involved some of the worst women available, hasn’t he?
Mehran: Omarosa? She’s literally a professional wrestling heel. She could be wearing a curly moustache and a monocle, that’s how evil a character she is. She’s a caricature. And he’s like “No, no, she has White House clearance.” It’s all a cartoon vomiting on itself.
Which, honestly…I prefer that to the Iranian Revolution, which took itself even more seriously. They were like “This is our field of martyrs. Let there be red tulips everywhere, so that you know that good Muslim men died so that the forward-thinking could be snuffed out.” That’s very much the tone in Iran. Men and women can’t make art together. They can’t make music together.
It’s laughable that these people, who are supposed to be so strong, are so fragile that they can’t have lunch with a woman. Like, “We are the strongest men in the world, our masculinity cannot be threatened,” and yet…
The Iranian: Like Mike Pence.
Mehran: It is Mike Pence. Which is why I’m more scared for America than maybe the average person is: I watched them win. I watched Mike Pence win. These religious authorities in Iran are just as stupid, if not stupider. They’re actual idiots. These people lack intellectual horsepower, and they have an uncontested divine authority.
So, anyone who subscribes to that, or pulls for that? I have no bandwidth for it. I look forward to shining a flashlight on their sinking coffin. I can’t wait until the world is rid of them. I pray to my gods that they are struck with a slow-acting ailment, like syphilitic neuropathy. I’m excited for that.
I want those fates for them, because they have inflicted such worse harm. They’ve separated mothers from their children. They’ve stifled female sexuality. They’ve stifled female creativity and art. They’ve made three generations of people terrified. That’s their legacy in this world. It’s fear.
After all that, somehow, the assertion is that they’re the ones with divine authority. They can put it all on God’s tab. That’s the tragedy.
Mehran Khaghani: ‘Last Comic Standing’
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