WASHINGTON, DC — “We’re kind of like UGG boots: brown, fury, and sweaty… and nobody can figure out why we’re so damn trendy,” quips the skiing/snowboarding Iranian-American comedienne and regular E! commentator Nadine Rajabi in a segment of her Showtime Comedy Special, Hot Tamales about being Persian. “I’m moving back home because my mom’s been having trouble paying both [of] our rents,” says the riotous and multitasking modern Persian-beauty.
Easily capable of sharing any stage (and then some) with some of the best Iranian-American comedians around, like Maz Jobrani and Max Amini, the part-time professor once took her aunt’s best friend, Googoosh (yes, the real one) to a Gwen Stefani concert. (She had “pit” seats. Cue the visual(s) in your head.)
As the youngest paid “regular” at the Improv clubs – thanks to Improv manager Reeta Piazza who “found” her when she was only 19 years old, at a bar trying out jokes underage – the playful Rajabi, who tells us that she’s trying to be the “Iranian Seacrest”, can now add a “producer” title, for her work on MTV’s Daddy’s Girls (a spinoff from Run’s House), to her overflowing resume. This California-raised Persian girl, is not just hilariously funny, but she’s cool and smart. She’s the type of “Persian-chick” you want to be friends with, whether you’re female or male, Persian or not.
While contemplating a PhD. in the near future, Rajabi tells us that she started to feel an “insane sense of patriotism towards my culture,” due to the on the recent events in Iran, and that she was disappointed at the media for “letting the Michael Jackson story take over the headlines completely, it became, Iran who?” She says. “At first all my American friends were “green” and out there attending the protests, then Michael Jackson’s death seemed to take away from that energy and focus on Iran. I just wish we could do more.”
Enjoy our chat with the deliciously raw and first Iranian-American comedienne, Nadine Rajabi whose edgy and unfiltered comedic style (and Gucci shoes) is bound to send you into an uncontrollable and perhaps teary (or snorty for some) daze of gut-busting laughter. We know we did!
* Nadine will be in Vegas tonight until Sunday (July 21-26) at the Harrah’s Improv at 8:30 and 10:30. Next she’ll be at the House of Blues Houston on August 1st, and at the House of Blues Dallas on August 2nd. The House of Blues shows are with the Hot Tamales from the Showtime Special.
SKS: Where did you grow up?
NR: Orange county California, product of southern California – there weren’t many Persians and I went to catholic school because [my parents] thought they should send me to private school. Took years for Iranians to take over the OC.
When did you move to the US?
I was born in La Alamitos CA andraised in Anaheim Hills, my grand parents raised me, because my parents were studying. I was also my grandparents’ translator.
Have you been to Iran?
Went to Iran once 2 years ago, I wasn’t used to it but had such a great time. I was scared to go to Iran because of what I saw on TV, when I got there I had to cover. I’m loud and I have no censor and was constantly thinking, “what if I say something and get in trouble?” It was amazing though. And if you go to the “baazaar“, it’s like a training camp for business.
When did you realize comedy was your calling?
Grew up watching Benny Hill, I was always such a fan, at 8 I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live (SNL). I was a huge Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner fan. I was 14 when I saw my first stand-up show, I had never laughed so hard for an hour, and wanted to make people laugh too. That’s when I felt most present andwanted to give the same to others.
What else have you done/do besides comedy?
I started stand-up when I was in college and of course was a biology major because my parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I always knew that wasn’t my path…so, as soon as I graduated I started doing stand-up full time, and had a copy writing job. I was writing all the trailers for movies and doing promos for TV shows, but my dad wanted me to go back and get my Master’s when he realized I wasn’t going to be a doctor, just so that they could say their daughter had a Master’s. He still wants me to go back and get my PhD, which is a whole other story. So basically he said go back and get your Master’s and you can do you comedy, you can do whatever you want. So I went and got my Master’s, andwhile I wasn’t studying, which there really isn’t that much studying in a Master’s program, just a lot of papers–so that gaveme an opportunity to hit the road with my stand-up. So I was on the road and doing a lot of stand-up and as soon as I graduated, within that year I got a radio show on XM. And I started off being the Gossip Girl where I was making fun of celebs. I did that for a year because I had no radio experience but they just liked me as a personality and then they gave me my own 3-hour show, Monday-Friday – although right now we’re on hiatus – which is crazy because I’m not a journalist, just a stand-up and I can talk to a wall pretty much. So I did that, andI still do a lot of stuff for E!, where I’m just doing a lot of the commenting and making fun of people on the countdown shows. And in between that I had a deal with Fox, where I was at a think-tank, where I would literally sit in this conference room every week and I would give them my show ideas and or fix shows that needed help. I was one of the voices in the think tank, coming up with TVshow ideas for them. I had this idea about these shallow girls doing a news show and they said, “why don’t we do this for the web, we want to expand our web business,” so I said, “Ok.” They gave me a digital show, “The Skinny Fat-Free News“ this past year and they built the whole digital studio after my show and now they’re doing a bunch of web shows. And I’ve been doing stand-up this whole because I was getting so much other work and I had the radio show everyday and I was kind of bored of stand-up. They say it takes 10 years to become a known name. And I never really realized that because I think I started so young and got so much attention so quickly, I was like “oh that’s not my road, that’s not my path,” but guess what? I’m going on year 9 now. And it’s crazy because it really has taken that long. Then, when I was asked to do the special (Showtime’s Hot Tamales Comedy Special) and I kind of felt inspired again to do stand-up. Even though I was doing stand-up the whole time, I felt I wanted to go back to the art form that I started out with, because you get lost when you’re doing radio and interviewing everyone.
Has your Persian family been supportive of your choice to go into comedy?
Yes. Especially after I got my MBA. And I;m really glad that I did because now I see myself more as a business versus just going out there and telling jokes. I think everything has a business side to it. They didn’t support it at first. They wanted me to go to med school, but when they finally saw that I was getting some attention, they loved it. I teach a college class one semester a year because I like to give back. And you know it’s funny because when my family introduces me they’ll say “she’s a professor,” and I’m like “I make a lot of money being a comedian.”
What class do you teach?
I teach copy-writing and storyboarding and I teach kids how to write ads, or now due to new media: how to do brand-integration, and how to write for that. I also teach how to write trailers for movies. A lot of broadcast advertising and web stuff, because it was day job for so many years. And I love it. It’s really fulfilling.
What’s been the reaction from the Iranian-American community?
Well, you know I’m loud, and have generally what’s funny to me, I talk about drinking and like to tell fart jokes… and within the IA community there’s a certain generation where that laughter in that ends. In fact I did this show at The House of Blues and it smelled like a cologne factory in there first of all, and it was a mixed crowd but the older crowd was talking back to me in my act, as if I’m talking to them, and I’m like, “no, no, no, this is a stand-up show. You’re supposed to listen to me,” They weren’t heckling me. I was talking about my mom naming me Negar (pronounced neh-gaar), and that’s really a good name in English, and the lady in front goes, “Aakhay, mashallah, that’s so cute. I love that name,” I think they’re just not used to seeing a female comedian. It’s funny because my mom’s the same way. When we had people visiting from Iran, she said to me “don’t tell them what you do. They’ll think you’re a dalghak (clown),” Meanwhile I was going to a lot of shows and spending a week or so at my parents’ house while her visitors were there and I’d leave every night and I’d come home at 2:00 AM, and the next day we’d be having breakfast, and they’d ask me, “what did you do last night?” and I’d say, “work,” so then they’d ask, “what did you do at work?” and I’d reply, “nothing,”. They must think I’m a prostitute.
How have general audiences reacted?
They love it. My voice in my stand-up, I don’t make fun of Iranians because I’m one of them (at least on paper) but in my mentality I’m so much an American because I was raised here. I’m able to make fun it without crossing the lines. And let’s face it people like to laugh, and a lot of the non-Iranians will be like, “Oh my gosh, my best friend’s Persian. I can so relate.” But I would love to be introduced to the Persian community. That’s my dream.
Do you act as well?
My goal was to be on SNL for so long, but I was getting so many jobs just being me, though nobody really knows me yet even though I have been working for so long. I have been taking acting classes and have really enjoyed it. My goal however, is to have my own late night talk-show within 10 years. I do have a half-hour show that goes out to all the colleges for National Lampoon once a week. And it’s great training for me. I do a lot of celebrity interviews and feel that I have all the tools, now it’s just getting my name out there. This is the age of being female and ethnic and I think that people embrace that, and America needs it.
If you could play any role in a movie, what would it be?
I always see myself playing the wacky neighbor, or the crazy stalker. I don’t know why I think those awkward characters are really funny.
How hard is the comedy biz to break into, as female, and as an Iranian?
In the beginning, I got a commercial agent and he said, “you know you should change your last name so you don’t get type cast,” and that was the age we were living in, but he was an old agent. Now my manager tells me, “never change your last name.” It was very scary after 9/11, we all became Mexicans or Italians. My had a flag on every window of her car to prove she’s an American. I do think though that now people are a little more aware and knowledgeable about the Middle East, but yes, it is a little hard. In general it’s hard being a female in this business and I think you’ve got another strike against you. People either love it or they hate it. I’m not going to change who I am even though I’m an American, this is also my culture.
How did you get involved with Hot Tamales?
It started at the Improv, and I’m one of the original members. I’m also the youngest member of the show. Kiki Melendez started this thing with Eva Longoria – this is before Eva was on Desperate Housewives – in 2003 or 2003. I remember the manager at the Improv, Rita, said, “Hey there’s this all-girl ethnic show they’re doing. You’d be great for the Persian.”And I didn’t have that much business being on stage then because I was still new, but Kiki really embraced it. Of course when Eva got the part on Desperate Housewives, she became less involved though is still a huge supporter of the show. Ultimately, it’s Kiki’s baby and she always supported me and put me on every single one of the shows. The show itself is really great. We have a lot of diversity. I’m really proud of being a part of it. I love every single one of those girls. I think they’re all so amazing, great, and powerful, They all have such a unique voice, and that’s what so amazing about the show.
Can you share with us a funny story about the the earlier “Tamales” days?
When Eva was on the young and the restless, my mom and my grandmother came to the show but didn’t watch any of it because they were too busy staring at the whole cast of The Young and the Restless, who would come out to support the show and Eva.
What advice do you have for other Iranian girls that aspire to be comediennes?
The biggest thing is to learn to be yourself. It’s hard because you want to censor yourself because you worry about what everyone’s going to think, and what your family is going to think. Still to this day, when my mom brings her friends to the shows she says “harf-haayeh bad nazani,” (don’t say any bad words). So I’d say, really, don’t censor yourself. Don’t try to be anybody else because that’s what makes every comedian unique. You don’t want to be the next Chapelle, you want to be you. Find your own voice.
How has your Iranian background influenced your work and success?
I think so, because without all that hair on my body, I would not be that funny. I went to Catholic School in Orange County, and when I would bring my friends home, I would ask my mom not to cook Ghormeh Sabzi, because I always just wanted to fit in so bad. And the way I’d fit, in my mind, was comedy, humor, and making fun of myself: being self-deprecating. I am very proud of Persian, but as kid, not so much. Now, though since I travel a lot, I just feel really connected to the world because of it, and feel that I have a place.
What’s your favorite Persian food?
I love Fesenjoon, and I love a traditional Soltani Kabob. It’s my favorite thing in the whole world. I can’t get enough of it.
Do you have any role models?
I love Amy Sedaris. She is so funny to me and is absolutely my favorite. I also love Chevy Chase, and if John Ritterwere alive, I loved Jack Tripper. And I also loved Gilda Radner and Benny Hill.
Any Iranian comedian role model?
Parviz Sayyad. He was like the Iranian Charlie Chaplin. I grew up watching Samad.
Are you going to be going on tour?
I think we’re going to be on tour with the Hot Tamales Show. I try to stay in LA as much as I can because of work, but I know I’m going to be hitting the road soon. My schedule is always up on nadinerajabi.comand myspace.com/nadinerajabi.
What do you hope to accomplish in your career in entertainment?
I think being an Iranian female comedian, I feel I’m a pioneer as it is, and I would like to be the person that can inspire people to, especially females, go for it and hopefully open doors for other Iranian females. My biggest goal is to give back that way and maybe pave the way a little to make it easier for people, because it hasn’t been easy. You just got to keep going. If you’re a good person and do good things then everything will come.
I’m going to be hosting an internet talk show for Improv. Which should be up on their site this summer. Go to Improv to see it.