Mohanad Elshieky is a Portland-based, Libyan-born stand-up comic who wants you to think he’s funny, but doesn’t want you getting too chummy. He likes to twist preconceived notions into punchlines, and then you’ll probably feel a little guilty about that first laugh. But don’t worry—it’s what you’re supposed to do.
He’s been calling Portland home since 2014, after seeking asylum from the Libyan Civil War (he makes this funny), but judging by the increase in national attention surrounding his stand-up, he may not be calling any one place home for long. In 2018, a very famous redhead by the nickname Coco added Elshieky to his “Comics to Watch” list at the New York Comedy Festival. (For those not familiar with the late-night scene, Coco is code for Conan O’Brien.) Elshieky has also been featured on shows like Lovett or Leave It and Pod Save America.
Now he’s on tour with Pop-Up Magazine, and you can catch him at Revolution Hall in Portland on Monday, May 13, and Tuesday, May 14. Expect to hear about that time when he went for a drive in Benghazi with a knife-wielding drug dealer (funny, right?), a bloodied woman (still funny), and others (one with an AK-47), and how he still prefers a high-stakes drive through a war-ridden country than a chatty Uber driver in Portland.
You were a radio host at a station in Benghazi during the Libyan revolution, and now you’re doing stand-up in your new hometown of Portland. How did that tremendous transition impact you creatively?
Hosting a radio show three times a week where we mostly winged it has helped a lot. It was great coming up with ideas on the spot. We approached every episode the same way: we had a topic, and then went from there, which is different from stand-up because you have to actually prepare. But it helped with crowd interactions when I’ve needed to come up with something in response to an audience member.
As for the location change, being in Portland—which was the first city I moved to—has given me a lot of things to write about. Compared to Benghazi, Portland is very different, but compared to the rest of America, Portland is even more different. I tried to combine my background and where I came from with observations about this new city that became my home, and people loved it. But it might also have to do with the fact that I was funny, too! Apparently, that’s required in stand-up.
How do you approach writing a set, especially during a time when there is seemingly an endless supply of social and political material?
It’s true that there is so much happening that can possibly be used as material, but everyone is talking about the same topics. So to find an angle that no one has covered isn’t easy, because you don’t want to sound like everyone else. My approach is to make the set personal. I tend to talk about myself and what happens in my day-to-day life, and leave topical social and political material to Twitter. No one wants to hear a comedian stand on stage and talk to people about their thoughts on today’s news. People want to hear about you, and the more personal, the better.
I write my jokes verbally. I don’t really have a notebook where I put stuff down. I just take long walks and talk to myself out loud. I like to imagine that I’m on stage at all times and talk to myself as if I were addressing a crowd. That has always been my way, and probably always will be because I can’t sit still for more than 20 minutes.
In what ways have you most evolved as a writer and performer since you began?
I’ve become more comfortable on stage, and I’ve developed my own way of delivering jokes. I learned to slow down my delivery and write smarter, shorter jokes before jumping into the next topic. I spent the first few years trying to find my voice, and since I have, my performances have gotten much better. I now know my strengths and focus on those, instead of assuming the topics other comedians talk about will work for me.
What’s the range of reactions you get to the personal experiences you share in your set?
I’ve always loved movies with plot twists, and I have integrated that into my comedy. I start most of my jokes with a topic that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a joke, but then I find a way to make it more relatable. When you go on stage and talk about being stopped at a checkpoint by ISIS, everyone is sitting there wondering how you are going to make that funny, and if you can, the reaction is always big.
That being said, because my comedy is personal, a lot of people come up to me after my set, and they want to “talk.” I prefer people to just say, “Great set,” instead of telling me about their personal history and all of the places they’ve traveled and how they feel about politics and the world, or apologize to me and say, “We are not all like this.” Because I truly couldn’t care less.
You’ve said that you “want to write jokes people can reference and remember.” What do you want to be remembered for?
More than anything, I want people to remember me for how good my hair was.