"Before I came out, I was trying to write about anything but what I was actually going through. Would you believe that created writer’s block? But as soon as I was able to come out, not just about writing about being gay but everything came out. I think that’s the most important thing for a writer is being able to write about the things you know and the things that you think about."
– Sabrina Jalees
Guy MacPherson: Are you in New York?
Sabrina Jalees: I had a show in Ottawa last night and I’m heading to Toronto for a show this afternoon. But I live in Brooklyn now and I’ve got my American phone roving around Canada collecting charges far and wide.
GM: How long have you been in New York?
SJ: I’ve been living there for about four years.
GM: And it’s everything you dreamed it would be?
SJ: Oh, man. I mean, I can’t lie. I had total rose-coloured glasses. I was wearing flowers in my eyes when I moved over there. Because I was very lucky when I started doing comedy in Toronto. I was talking about 9/11 shortly after the tragedy as someone who was brought up Muslim and I got a lot of attention fast. So I sort of had this idea that I would move to New York and get off the plane and Lorne Michaels would roll up on the tarmac with a limousine and invite me to join the cast of Saturday Night Live. I just had this sort of glorious dream of what would happen. And really I never worked harder in my life moving there. I started doing standup at 16 but when I moved there four years ago, that’s when I really started a new chapter with standup. I’ve been doing pretty much at least a show or two a night every night that I’ve been in the city and really working hard.
GM: And maintaining your presence in Canada, too, right?
SJ: Yeah, because I never left Canada because I didn’t like it; I really left to go to New York to become a better comic.
GM: And you still had gigs here, like on CBC or wherever.
SJ: Yeah. Wherever anyone would take me, I’d still come back. That’s the great thing about New York vs LA is that I was still able to maintain my gigs and shows that I worked on out of Toronto. Flying back to Canada was easy.
GM: I met you in 2003. You were 18. I have you on video. We were at Just For Laughs and we played in the basketball game.
SJ: Oh, my God! That was like summer camp for me. Amazing.
GM: I think you did a cartwheel on the court.
SJ: Yes! And George Shapiro, the producer of Seinfeldcomplimented my cartwheel. I was like, ‘Well, this is it, guys! I gotta quit school because I will be the next Seinfeld based on my cartwheel skills!’
GM: When you got to New York, did you pursue Saturday Night Live or those higher profile things you had been dreaming about?
SJ: I’ve put together an audition for Saturday Night Live. I think for me what I’ve learned in trying to do standup in Canada is how many different roads you can go down: as a comedian, a writer, a performer, host. So what I really loved about my career here in Canada is that I’ve been able to host a radio show or host and produce a kids show and all these different things. For me, the dream is to continue to be able to be creative and get paid for it. And if I get bucketloads of money and famous, then that’s just a bigger dream. It means I’ve slept on the right side of the bed.
GM: You’ve always been ambitious, haven’t you?
SJ: I hope so.
GM: Not all comics are.
SJ: Another thing I’ve noticed is comedians like Russell Peters and Gerry Dee, who have this big presence not just in Canada but internationally, it’s a lot of talent and skill but in both of those cases, and in most cases, it’s also paired with this undying drive and ambition. Even the idea of standup, you go on stage and the illusion is that you’re just sort of riffing. A lot of creative people get distracted by that illusion because, yeah, you do improvise a bit but the comics who seem the most natural on stage also worked hour after hour on those jokes. So I’ve just tried to put as much effort into what I do and to be honest, going to New York was another wake-up call. Because I had some credits here in Canada, I was able to sort of at times rest on my laurels. In New York, you can’t show up to shows doing the same seven minutes. You won’t get booked again. A lot of the times, the hottest shows that I’m performing on are booked by comics, and comics are booking people that they’re inspired by, that they find funny. But definitely, maybe it’s a child of immigrant thing, but I’m selling tank tops after the show, I’m emailing everyone I can on Facebook to get on their podcast to promote this tour, whatever I can do. What can I do to get you to my show, Guy?! I don’t know, is it drive or is it desperation? I think it’s a fine blend. If I was a coffee roaster, my coffee would be called Drive and Desperation.
GM: You can do my podcast when you come to town.
SJ: Yeah, can I?
GM: Of course.
SJ: It’s amazing how things change when you produce a show vs someone booking you for a show, where you’re like, ‘I guess I’ll wake up at 8 and do radio interviews.’ Now I’m like offering people handjobs on Facebook to get on their podcast.
GM: Well, great.
SJ: Well, maybe we can change the handjob. I’ll wash their car.
GM: I’ll take it. Anyway, it’s crazy the amount of success you had at such a young age here.
SJ: I was very lucky.
GM: Lucky and talented. There are lots of young comics who would love to have that. What was it? Were you hustling or did things just fall in your lap?
SJ: I think this business is always a mix of talent and luck. Or what do they say? My brother says this to me all the time: Success is a combination of… Aw, man, I wish I knew the right words!
SJ: Preparation and timing!
GM: Something like that, yeah.
SJ: Something like that. Isn’t that tragic that we both forgot the exact recipe? So I think the timing was right for me because it was after 9/11, it was a reaction to this sort of stigma around being brown at that time. And I was young so I was different. So the timing was right for me to get these festivals and I think I did a pretty good job. I loved doing standup and threw myself in it. So I did get a lot of attention young but really what I’ve learned now, over the course of doing this for twelve years, is that whatever luck you get, you’ve got to follow it up with really delivering. And when I moved to New York expecting the moon and the stars, what I didn’t realize was there are people there that have been doing standup every night four or five times for years. And those are the next ones to get their tickets. So I’m in line. I think I’ve moved up in the line. I almost got a job writing for Jimmy Fallon. I’m getting big opportunities and auditioning for big shows. But in the meantime, being able to do this tour… And I’ve had some sold-out shows. What a great blessing. I’m not religious at all but I’ll throw that word around. It’s a blessing.
GM: You’ve never played Vancouver, have you?
SJ: I have, actually. I split headline with Debra DiGiovanni and we rented out a theatre a while ago. This was maybe five or six years ago. And it was a blast.
GM: When I met you in 2003, you gave me your card. You had a business card at 18!
GM: So I was aware of your name and watched for you. And then I started hearing and seeing you on CBC.
SJ: It was that cartwheel, Guy.
GM: You obviously have a national presence here where you can tour the country.
SJ: Yeah, and you know what? Running a tour like this is like planning a huge birthday party and the hours before the party you’re like, ‘Why did I do this? I’ve got all this cake. The streamers are up. And is anyone going to show up?’ And I can’t even tell you how amazing it’s been to see the turn-out. I feel so lucky. It’s been great. In New York, nobody knows who I am really. When I make eye contact with tweens, I’m like, ‘Are you gonna recognize me?’ And inevitably it’s like, ‘Ah, no, you have a booger at the side of your nostril.’ But people recognizing me and having some sort of relationship with me already, it’s an amazing feeling. These shows are so special because of that. Because people know a little bit about my story and so right out of the gate it’s like we’re just hanging out.
GM: Showbiz is highly sexualized and you’re a cute young woman.
SJ: Okay, let’s talk about my body, Guy. Let’s talk about it.
GM: I know it’s sexist, but did you feel any kind of backlash after you came out and then got married?
SJ: I think the cool thing is, and lucky for me, is when I started doing standup – and that was even before I knew I was gay – there was still this vibe in the air about Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her sitcom and her sitcom was cancelled so watch what you say, watch what you do. Cut to today and Ellen is the most liked person on daytime TV. So luckily there have been pioneers before me who have kind of battled through crappier times. I think we’re at a time now where, yeah, I talk about being gay on stage and I talk about gay rights and I talk about race, but the same way I talk about race, there’s a common space there and these are issues that people care about because people care about people. And for me, my standup’s always been biographical.
To answer your question directly, I felt fairly hesitant to come out when I was doing standup in Toronto before I left because of that. I had actually started doing comedy in kind of a different era. I felt like I was going to be pigeon-holed. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I realized this wasn’t a decision; this is who I am. If I’m going to be honest on stage, this is a part of who I am. When I was holding it back, it was affecting my writing. Before I came out, I was trying to write about anything but what I was actually going through. Would you believe I was blocked? Would you believe that created writer’s block? But as soon as I was able to come out, not just about writing about being gay but everything came out. I think that’s the most important thing for a writer is being able to write about the things you know and the things that you think about.
GM: So you came out and then everything came out.
SJ: That’s right. My toilet got unclogged.
GM: And you talk about race, so obviously being Swiss is a big part of that.
SJ: Yes. You would not believe the Toblerone jokes. Every now and then I’ll touch on the Pakistani thing just to make my dad feel okay.
GM: The tour is called Brownlisted. And that refers to being shunned by your father’s family, right?
SJ: Yeah. I’d been debating with my parents for a while whether they want me to come out. I said, ‘Okay, I got married now. What’s your five-year plan with this secret to the family? Just keep on showing up to family things with my white best friend? And pretty soon we’ve got a little kid best friend?’ To me, I was not ashamed of who I was but I knew it would be a big leap for them because of where they land religiously and culturally, but I never imagined they would completely block me out, which is what ended up happening. It was a really difficult thing and I wrote this piece about it for the Huffington Post at my lowest low. Really, I hadn’t reached the point where I was ready to write jokes; I just wrote this honest piece about what I was feeling and what I was going through. And the response from that actually inspired the tour. Because I got these great, huge cyber hugs from people all over the world but especially people from Canada that remembered me fromVideo on Trial or had seen me live and had felt a relationship with me and felt that they needed to reach out and give me a hug. And there’s also people that felt inspired to come out and shared their stories and some of them were similar. And then there were Muslim people who said, ‘I pray to Allah that your family can learn to accept you and congratulations to you and your wife.’ So it was really hugely cathartic.
GM: Any reaction from your family about the tour?
SJ: I haven’t heard from them about the tour, no.
GM: You’re talking about your extended family, not your parents, correct?
SJ: No, my parents have been amazing. I came out to them when I was 20. That was a whole thing as well. My joke in my act about coming out to my dad was it was hard because now he expects me to get ten wives. But when you come out, parents have their expectations of what your life is going to look like and coming out always throws them for a loop. But they couldn’t be prouder of me. They’re awesome. They actually drove to Ottawa from Toronto to check out my show again last night. Really, they’re heroes. They’re standing in front of the family saying, you know, ‘So what? My kid’s gay. Your kid’s got bad breath.’
GM: For the ones that have shunned you, were you pretty close to them before?
SJ: Yeah, I lived with a lot of them because my dad is the eldest of eight brothers and sisters and they all emigrated first to Canada and mostly their first stop would be in our basement. These are cousins and aunts and uncles that were pretty much like brothers and sisters to me at one time. And of course you get older and you grow up, but you never assume that you will lose your family in that way. And honestly, since the Huffington Post piece, as time has gone by, some people have reached out to me. And at the end of the day, anyone that wants to have a relationship with me – this is where the desperation comes in: ‘Anyone that wants me, I’ll take it!’ But really, I get it. I just didn’t know that they would be willing to de-friend me and block me out and stop speaking to me. But whatever. I really wouldn’t have been as vocal about what happened if it wasn’t so horrible the way it was dealt with. I mean, it made me realize why gay kids kill themselves. If I didn’t have my parents in that time, being rejected by your tribe sucks.
GM: Is your dad a religious Muslim or just a cultural one?
SJ: He married a white woman in the ‘70s and it was all downhill for him and religion from there. There’s no bacon in the house and he makes it known that there will be no ordering of any pork. It’s adorable. It’s like he wants to live in a world where he believes that none of us has ever had a slice of pepperoni.
GM: Are you close to your mother’s side of the family?
SJ: Yeah. My mother’s side of the family I am close to. One of my aunts flew in for the wedding. They’re Swiss; they’re not going to make any waves.
GM: Did you develop material for the tour on stages in New York?
SJ: Yeah, pretty much. The tour is everything I’ve been working on in New York the past four years. And also I felt that before the Huffington Post thing happened, I’d been wanting to come back. This is my first national tour. I go back for corporates or whatever and they’ll fly me in but generally speaking I haven’t had the opportunity to invite fans or anyone – fans or anyone; that’s my demographic! – to come see me perform. I’ve been really fucking happy about the turnout and the shows. I feel like I’ve been working so hard and a lot of times when people refer to my comedy, it’s a little bit older jokes and it’s a different era. So I’m excited to show Canada the Sabrina Jalees of 2013.
GM: Married life is good?
SJ: Married life is good, yeah! I’m married to a stylist so that means I’m a trendy type of person.
GM: She leaves your clothes out for you in the morning?
SJ: Oh, yes, for sure. It’s adorable: She took pictures of all the outfits I’m wearing. For each city she’s planned out an outfit. And I have to say Vancouver’s is just delightful.
GM: Where is she from?
SJ: She grew up near DC but she’s from a military family. She was born in Guam and I found her in San Francisco. Very American family I married into. It’s amazing to see their growth through this whole thing, too. They go to church every Sunday and they’re a military family and Republican. Can you imagine what they must have thought was coming to their house the first day I showed up to meet them? Just a lesbian kicking down the door: ‘I’ve stolen your daughter’s heart. And I’ve built a deck out front.’
GM: Are both families in the act?
SJ: Yes. Well, I married into a wealth of material.
GM: That’s why you did it. I get it now.
SJ: Exactly! You gotta pick very wisely.
GM: Your Wikipedia entry says you’re also a dancer. I didn’t know this about you.
SJ: You know what? That’s maybe where you’re not want to write your college papers from. I’m not a dancer! You know what it was? On Video On Trial, under your name they would put some random job and I always got them to put ‘Interpretive Dancer’. I actually got some booking requests (laughs) in the beginning based on that. You know what the best part of the Wikipedia page is? At the bottom, and very dramatically, it says, ‘Jalees is out as a lesbian.’ (laughs) She’s broken out of jail and she will not let go of this lesbian stuff! Like I’m on the prowl.
GM: So lock your daughters inside!
SJ: Hide your plaid shirts!