In some cultures being “openly gay” can be difficult to navigate. Yet, gay Persian comedian, Mehran Khaghani, sets the stage for the rest by joyful example(s): Living and thinking fabulously.
Mehran Khaghani–whose only time spent in the “komode” (closet), is to choose an outfit for one of his many gigs–is a former PM for the office of the President of Provost at Harvard, but more importantly: He’s an incredibly funny and proud Iranian-American!
“I’m tied to the most beautiful culture on the planet,” Khaghani proudly tells us. “Our poetry, music, architecture, the beauty of our hearts…And of course, seeing the Iranian people, and their faces, demonstrating against the Iranian election this past summer brought up the most intense feelings of solidarity and love. I just kept crying, sometimes out of sadness and sometimes out of sheer inspiration.”
Ahmadinejad–who’s been acronymed “AN” (which coincidentally means fecal matter in Farsi) for short –famously denied the existence of gay people in Iran during his speech at Columbia University in September, 2007.
“In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in [the US],” Ahmadinejad said then. “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you that we have it.”
We know quite a few lively, proud, and purely Persian gays here in the US. (And abroad). However, maybe their choice to be openly gay has something to do with the fact that they don’t risk being destroyed for doing so. Mehran asserts that this makes him a “mythical creature: Like some fabulous gay Iranian unicorn only visible to the imaginative and faithful.”
“Since the beginning, comedy has been a natural mode of expression for me,” the brainy Khaghani tells us. “Some people process hardship to increase their resolve and seriousness in life, others find the divine absurdity in it. It’s about exploiting your strengths.”
Recommended to Maz Jobrani–who was recruiting local talent in Boston to include in his own set of shows–by Livenation in December of 2007, Khaghani recalls being “overjoyed” to join Maz’s lineup. “It was earlier in my career and in terms of my material development, my act was dirtier. I think I made a mistake in not researching Maz’s audience enough,” says the lovable and exceedingly funny Khaghani. “He was kind enough to give me a second chance to open for him in Washington D.C.: I came prepared and blew the roof off the sucker. I’m eternally grateful to Maz for that opportunity. He’s amazing.”
Maz’s opinion of Mehran? “I think Mehran is great and he’s already come a long way. If he keeps at it he will be a great comedian.”
Enjoy our exclusive interview with the gifted entertainer who hasn’t been back to Iran since 1987 yet grew up listening to Googoosh, Hayedeh and Shahram Shabpareh, and calls himself an “alcohol-enthusiast.”
What are you currently involved in? I do a web-show called Quiet Desperation – I play a debauched, drugged out character, accessory to the Boston music scene. Otherwise, I’m getting onstage a ton in Boston and occasionally in New York. I’d play further out more, but I still keep a day job and faraway travel requires some coordination. In the next two months, I launch two monthly shows in Boston called “Deviant” and “The Mehran Show.” Both will feature some of my favorite comics on the planet. I know I’m going to have to leave Boston in the next couple of years to mark my territory in a bigger comedy market… but for the time being, I love Boston and hate the idea of having to leave it.
Do you act? I studied acting in college but am very disconnected from it. Acting was about maintaining my neutrality to assume another character but as a comedian, my own personality is magnified. I have a good time being a comedian. I’m odd or extreme… bizarre and eccentric… but I’m always me. With that, I still do the occasional acting spot—I’m very entertaining!
Who are your favorite American comedians? There are so many comics I hold in reverence. From an early age, it felt like Janeane Garofalo was speaking directly to me. I admired her willingness to talk about what she didn’t like in the world and to do so charmingly and intelligently. She was willing to talk about tokenism. Kathy Griffin is also amazing. She puts her all into her shows and is just quick as a whip. These comediennes are talking about things that others are being told to be careful about lest they incur the wrath of the industry. The idea of muting your voice to fit in, just doesn’t work for me. I mean, if you’re not going to put yourself and your authenticity and your actual worldview into your work, what’s the point of putting yourself out there in the first place? This isn’t just some flash in the pan medium for me that I’m exploring as one possible avenue to fame. This is my chance to broadcast and maybe have an impact on people who are listening—whether I’m destigmatizing an oppressive issue or just making someone laugh and let go.
Favorite Iranian comedians? Mehran Modiri. He’s unbelievable. I discovered him when I Googled “Mehran” a while back. I was hoping that I’d advanced enough in comedy that my name would come up in earlier in the search, but this Modiri guy really has the monopoly on our name. And for good reason. He’s amazing. Not casually good but hysterically good. My namesake Iranian comedian is a star, so I’m going to have to do some seriously excellent work to move up in the ranks. That or threaten to go public with my longstanding love affair with Eric Schmidt.
Can you speak or read/write in Persian? My reading is probably at 5th grade level; that became evident when I would try to translate protest signs and read things like: “Ya Morgh, Ya Azadi!” I’m like, apparently, these protesters hate chicken. They also think it’s mutually exclusive of freedom. Oh… MARG! Bloody two different g’s… invisible vowels… MARG… DEATH… I get it. Also, my Farsi is really casual—so I’ll run into an Iranian who’s speaking all ta’arofiwith me—very polite—and it’ll sound like I should be smacking my gum. I need to work on it. There’s a hysterical female comic in New York, Asie Mohtarez, who keeps me on my Farsi toes. Seriously, she’s a riot… the things she says in Farsi are so funny, I literally scream.
What’s your favorite Persian dish? My mother’s Fesenjoon and Tahcheen. And Estamboli. I can literally make catering dishes of leftovers disappear over a single episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Is your set mostly based on your Iranian background? Not entirely. My comedy is always true to my life and the truth is that I only have a couple of Iranian friends. With that, I love our culture and, in my mother, grew up with an incredible teacher of our literature, poetry and music. It all comes out. The way I think, the passion with which I feel, the metaphors I draw… everything, in a sense, draws from my Iranianness—but not every experience I’ve had has been through an Iranian lens. My experiences have been Mehranian. Everything that goes into that has been along for the ride.
How was your first experience with an Iranian audience? The community loves Maz and show up for him in droves. He’s unbelievably generous, super kind, and supportive. He has grandmothers and kids in the audience at his shows, and, the first time he had me, he let me know about six minute before I went onstage that I should save some of my more risqué material for later in the act, knowing that shocking his crowd early on would cripple me. Problem was, I was so new to comedy, almost my entire act was comprised of blue humor—and I wasn’t prepared to adjust so quickly. I completely polarized the audience. I could distinctly identify where I was getting howling laughs and where I had completely turned people off. I didn’t go out there to be controversial or to jar his audience. I got off stage and wanted to hurl myself in to the Charles [River.] Maz took risk to include a gay Iranian comic he didn’t know well in his lineup. We went out after the show and just as we were dropping him off at his hotel, he offered me the spot where you saw me in Washington D.C. I didn’t see it coming and accepted immediately, knowing that I had work to do before trying my hand at his audiences again. The opportunities Maz has extended me have been brave and invaluable gifts. He’s really unbelievably kind. His audiences love him. I want to be loved too. Not liked—loved.
Would you perform in Washington, DC again? I absolutely LOVED Washington D.C. and would welcome the chance to play to its good people again. Seriously, it was a beautiful (I mean really good looking!), fun-loving, laughing, clapping, foot-stomping crowd. It’s the stuff every comic dreams of. I can’t wait to be back.
What’s been the Iranian-American community’s general reaction to your routine? God, they really surprised me. I was so nervous performing for Maz’ largely Iranian audience. When I came out to my family, they told me “it’s a phase, keep it a secret,” or “it’ll pass, don’t embarrass us.” There was this constant air of “word can’t spread about this.” So I had this real worry about performing for Iranians and finding myself rejected, but the positive feedback has been overwhelming. The Iranian Americans I meet are hip and, frankly, grateful to see themselves represented. I’ve seen nothing but support from them; they have my sincerest gratitude and appreciation. I’ll make them laugh anytime.
So, when did you realize you were gay? When I discovered the world of male bodybuilding in Turkey where I was working to get a Visa into the United States. It was lust, personified.
How did you come out to your family? I told them in the living room. I started by suggesting that I was bisexual and easing them into gay. I also lied and said that it was because I was molested—I DIDN’T KNOW—SHIT, I WAS TRYING TO MAKE THINGS EASIER ON MYSELF—I WAS FIFTEEN AND HAD NO MORAL COMPASS! It is what anthropologists w of the future will look back on and classify as a strategic error.
Was it difficult growing up gay in an Iranian family? It was difficult growing up in America with a family whose morality was firmly planted in Iranian ideals. It was difficult to be a creature of two cultures. From morning to afternoon, I would go to an American school and thrive in its liberties and in the evening, I would go home and hear about secrets and repression and the restrained dignity that I lacked. My American-based family has mostly evolved since my adolescent years. I have a brother, Farzin, who is just about the greatest person on the planet. He attends my shows and is supportive in a way that I wouldn’t have had the courage to ask for. My mother is bananas, as is often reflected in my act, but she is the source of love. It is for her nurturing that I am good.
My father is another story. I have a strained relationship with my father. He’s in his twilight years and I grew up mostly without him. It’s a sensitive topic. There’s this incredible love there—the way there is in most parent-child relationships—but almost no understanding or acceptance. Jesus, I found a postcard he sent me from Iran when I was a toddler. It was a picture of a horse and on the back, it said, very plainly, something to the effect of “Mehran, my son, my dear… this is a horse.” Just a simple example of something he wished he could share with me as a new life while he was miles away. I bawled. I mean I cried like I could reverse time with tears. Years later, when I told him I was gay, he told me about a patient of his who committed suicide because he couldn’t change his homosexuality. “It was for the best,” he said. To think that love like that which he had for me as a child could get completely buried in intolerance and cultural stubbornness… it is a profound human tragedy that logic shouldn’t have to reconcile. It is a waste. It is one of the reasons why I look to be a part of change in the world.
Do you know of a support group for young Iranian gays? I’ve heard about a number of support networks in Iran. I actually don’t know of any. I’m here for them whenever they should need me.
What advice do you have for young gay Iranians? I remember reading Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. Most people read it in high school or college. It’s a beautiful book in which one of my favorite lines is about how the souls of children “dwell in the house of tomorrow.” God creates each generation to propel civilization forward. Your parents are the bow and you’re the arrow. Trust in your callings and live your life fully. The love you seek is good, even if it falls outside the realm of understanding of generations past. Most governments—and therefore modern cultures—in this world are patriarchal hegemonies. This makes being gay a tough road in many respects, as the lifestyle stands to assert that other ways of being are viable. This is, unto itself, revolutionary. On the other hand, you get to do things like touch boobs without extreme social recourse. Take pleasure in the little things.
Are you single? Single–yes. I would love an Iranian husband. I dated one Iranian boy, he was totally bivafa (unfaithfull) and broke my heart. One time we went to a party and he hooked up with the host. Now, I have my mother’s fire in me and was not trying to be devalued like that. At the end of the day, I’m a big personality with a lot of strong ideas and I tend to hit the fast forward button when it comes to romance. Love and disinterest can see their arc in a matter of weeks. I also have this constant sense of compromising unless I’m chasing someone who is absolutely bloody terrible for me or utterly unavailable. I haven’t broken bad love habits yet. Hence, singleness. I also don’t take exercise enough, which in Gay Land is tantamount to the livery.
What are your career goals? I’m trying to get my hustle on and want to transition into being a solvent comic… give up the day job and focus entirely on my creativity. If any of your readers want to donate… I’m wide open to benefactors. Physically. As an eventuality, I would love a talk show. That’s a good platform for me: casual conversation and play. I’d love to have a show called “In Bed w/ Mehran” have a delicious little conversation on a bed, and invite celebrities to come on the show and lay in bed with me while we converse. Maybe a little chayee (tea). Ghand (Sugar cube). Casual. Weird.
What’s the largest venue you’ve performed in? 1900 with Maz in DC at the Warner Theater. There was big spotlight on me and I couldn’t see the audience – it was, at once, intensely public and private. Nothing like it when 1900 people scream and clap for you. Nothing like it.
What’s next? Upward and onward. I love stand up comedy and speaking to people and as long I’m effective, I’ll open the Superbowl with a gay Iranian schtick.
How can your fans stay up to date on your adventures and show schedule? My website, mehrancomedy.com, is down for renovations right now, but my web designer just got out of the hospital—so it should only be another couple weeks before we’re live again.