Backstage at Oxnard, California's Levity Live comedy club, where Mona Shaikh opened for actor/comedian Patton Oswalt.
L.A. Weekly dubs Mona Shaikh the “naughty Muslim.” As the only Pakistani-born female comic regularly performing standup on American stages, Shaikh is an Angela Davis of funny, setting precedents and shattering boundaries—if not creating outright international incidents. For about seven years Shaikh has been bringing down the house at comedy clubs coast-to-coast, including Manhattan’s Comix and New York Comedy Club, L.A.’s Laugh Factory, Burbank’s Flappers, Ice House Pasadena and, overseas, at Dubai’s The Real Flava and Lisbon’s Ritz-Carlton.
Performing recently at Levity Live north of Los Angeles, where she opened for popular actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, Shaikh quickly won over the packed, 400-seat hall describing Pakistan as a land of virgins—“because the men there can’t stand criticism.”
“You know, one thing you never see is a handsome suicide bomber,” she followed up. “If you’re good looking you don’t have to blow yourself up to get some ass, you can get some right here on earth.”
Shaik, who relocated from New York to L.A. in 2011, became Hollywood Improv’s first Pakistani female headliner and later formed Minority Reportz, a group of ethnically and gender diverse comics, performing at Sunset Strip’s famed Comedy Store. The thirty-six-year-old moved to the East Coast from Pakistan when she was fifteen, and her New York English is mixed with slight British inflections (an inheritance of Britain’s colonial role in Pakistan).
Shaikh combines a South Asian sensibility with Americanized values cherishing the First Amendment—the right to bear big mouths. And her fresh, fearless, free speech has raised eyebrows. With her offbeat sense of humor Shaikh is a tightrope walker striving to maintain equilibrium while dealing with conflicting forces.
On the one hand, Shaikh has to navigate virulent anti-Muslim sentiment. Shortly after 9/11 and before she had acquired U.S. citizenship, Shaikh—youngest of five and the only daughter—was unable to fly back to Karachi to see her dying father. A couple of years ago she was physically assaulted by a raving racist at a Beverly Hills mall, causing her serious injuries she still treats with physical therapy.
“What I do breaks stereotypes,” she asserts. “My focus is to talk about the things that I’m passionate about and mean a lot to me—religion, sex, politics, being a Pakistani woman or just a woman.”
The iconoclastic comic bridles at the notion that religion is an untouchable topic. “I live in a country that grants me freedom of speech,” she told The Progressive. “That’s what makes America great and beautiful.”
“People are going to get pissed off at me, try and put a bull’s eye on my back,” she observes matter of factly. “Muslims like myself are crushed between two kinds of people. Islamic extremists and right wing Christian conservatives—they come from the exact same school of thought. They’re no different—one is white, one is brown: They’re the same exact people.”
'Muslims like myself are crushed between two kinds of people. Islamic extremists and right wing Christian conservatives—they come from the exact same school of thought. They’re no different—one is white, one is brown: They’re the same exact people.'
No wonder she believes, as she put it, “if religion was a drug they would have banned it a long time ago, because of the amount of deaths it has caused. More people have died in the name of religion than any other cause in human history.”
Throwing political caution to the wind, Shaikh insists, “I grew up in Pakistan and I can tell you Islam is not ‘a religion of peace.’ It has some crazy stuff . . . some of the most violent things are happening in Muslim nations. Did I agree with [Charlie Hebdo’s] cartoonists? No. But did they have the right to [mock Mohammed]? Absolutely. And they shouldn’t have been killed for it . . . These same people commit these terrible crimes and then claim themselves to be ‘peaceful’ Muslims. If you are peaceful, that’s not how peaceful people behave.”
“I believe Islam is going through the Dark Ages now,” Shaikh reflects. “If Muslim nations want to progress and stop the violence they have to separate church and state.”
Shaikh is an equal opportunity mocker, ridiculing Kellyanne Conway, Melania, Ivanka, Donald Trump and jihadists alike. And she doesn’t shy away from frank discussions about sex, which can be hilariously disconcerting for her audience, coming from a Muslim woman.
Calling Trump “the Orange Hitler,” she quips: “I hope Melania will make some magic happen, take him to Slovenia and we’ll never hear from him again. Or Putin can come and get him and give him a place in Moscow for their golden showers parties . . . ”
Shaikh unveiled Minority Reportz in 2015 to showcase herself and other nonwhite and women standup comics, because “as a female brown comedienne there are not a lot of opportunities for someone like me in comedy clubs. They don’t look at me like I’m a moneymaker. I wanted to create a niche, a space for people like me.”
“Trump’s election has really done something wonderful for the artists’ world, especially comedy, Shaikh adds. “The whole Muslim ban thing has spiked my demand quite a bit!”