Ahead of the 20th anniversary of September 11, Vulture reached out to 37 comedians to talk about their first time performing onstage after the attacks and how the tragedy has reshaped comedy in the decades since. In the below extended excerpt from our conversation with Nick Youssef, the stand-up looks back on being an open-mic comedian in Los Angeles after 9/11 and how a racist heckler shifted the way he approached his material about being Middle Eastern from that point forward.
Technically I’m from Beirut, Lebanon, and then I moved to Los Angeles when I was a kid. On 9/11, I was living there in the suburbs and I had just turned 19. So I was still living with my parents, and I woke up in the morning to my mom telling me there was something happening in New York on the news.
When you’re a year into comedy, you’re still doing open mics, and there was no real community; it wasn’t very tight-knit because people are very transient that first year. I remember calling another comic or two going, “Did you see what’s on the news? Should we get together and talk? What’s going to happen with comedy this next week or two?” No one knew what to say or do. So that morning and that day was just really nerve-racking in terms of, Can I go outside? Can I go anywhere? What am I going to say if people start asking stuff?
I remember a lot of comments out of the gate took a very patriotic stand — not in depth, but it was very like, “Let’s get them!”, that kind of thing. There were a lot of “If we don’t do blank, the terrorists win” jokes; those were happening immediately. Most comics took the side of “America’s got to get those terrorists,” and then just a wave of jokes about how bad Middle Eastern people look and smell, and the food, and “Maybe if they didn’t beat their women, they wouldn’t want to blow things up,” and all the stuff that’s super hacky now about the Arab world. There were endless amounts of jokes about that kind of stuff, and people loved it. They ate it up.
When I went onstage, I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself in terms of the Arab world at all, which I learned growing up — which I’ve felt very guilty about as an adult. I’ve been trying to undo that stuff in my 30s, and all that introspection that happens after you get sober and you have some years behind you, where you get through your 20s and are just like, What have I failed at? What wrongs do I need to right? I think I went to another couple of open mics, and they were pretty sparsely attended for that next week or two. Most people avoided any critical takes on the U.S. government or anything that kind of started to roll out in the next year.
I had a pretty shitty incident happen to me at a comedy club in the valley. I was on some kind of bringer show or something, and there was this one guy — he was one of those people who couldn’t not say something ignorant, even if he didn’t actively mean it maliciously. He would just say dumb, ignorant stuff. His views were just like, “Well, they’re all like that, aren’t they?” I remember him asking me questions like, “Are you one of those terrorists? Does your family believe what they believe?” A couple of comics came to my defense and were like, “Leave him alone. He’s just a kid,” and he was like, “You don’t know who you can trust,” that kind of thing. And I’ll never forget this: I was onstage. I wasn’t doing well. I was new. And I remember in between a joke that didn’t work and then trying to remember the next one, I heard a voice just call me a “sand n- - - - -.”
I remember just kind of freezing for a second. And that’s not the first time I’ve been called that; it wasn’t like I’ve never heard this term directed at me. I remember the audience getting a little stiff, and I think a couple of comics in the back called him and told him to shut the fuck up by name. I knew it was him; I knew his voice from hearing him at open mics. I don’t remember what I said. I kind of just rambled through it maybe, and just did my last thing and got offstage. I remember my heart racing, because I thought that he was going to come after me after the show. I thought he was building up his anger toward everything that happened, and he was going to follow me outside and maybe say more hateful things and maybe attack me or hurt me. It really messed with me in a couple of ways, because I felt for the first time I was sort of starting to belong to a community. Granted, a lot of these comics were much older than me, but most of them didn’t treat me that way. We all had this struggle in common where we sucked at stand-up and were trying to figure it out, and almost as soon as I started feeling it, I felt like it was snatched away by that one incident.
I made a promise to myself after that happened that I would never allow an audience to get the better of me, whether it’s at an open mic or at the crowd. I probably went too far; I was a pretty angry teenager as it was, but there was a period of time where I was pretty hostile to the audiences for almost no reason — almost like a defense mechanism, really, if a joke didn’t go well or I felt someone was heckling me. I became pretty bulletproof. It gave me a sort of fearlessness onstage that I picked up pretty early on, because the only thing that made me feel secure was being onstage. But I’ll never forget the feeling onstage of a voice coming out of the darkness, and just walking out of the room with that. That’ll be with me forever.
My instinct at the time was to minimize any attention onto myself in direct relation to this thing about me, which is not even “about,” it’s who I am. I was conditioned to always make the joke about myself first that I’m a towelhead or whatever you want to call it and then change the subject and do something else. In a way, I’m glad it happened when it did, and I’m glad I handled it the way I did then. It’s unfortunate that people think that way, and it’s unfortunate that they say that sort of stuff, but those are the things that just build the calluses, and they make you a stronger person, and they teach you the things you can’t really control and how to handle it yourself and get through.
After that incident and in the year after the attack, there was this wave of Arab comics coming out and doing this material like, “Hey, I’m an Arab, and that means X meets Y. And we’re all terrorists.” I found that disgusting. I don’t like that kind of comedy. When comics do that, they say, “We’re breaking down stereotypes, and everyone’s laughing together.” My personal view on it — just having seen that type of humor and the people that would laugh at it — I thought that that sort of garbage only reinforced the stereotype, and a lot of times there was no social commentary attached to it. It made me feel like I was not defending myself, and it was making me feel that way I felt in school where I was just saying this thing to get these guys off my case, and they’re going to go on believing it — and they were pretty much still laughing at me, I was just laughing too. So my promise to myself was: Don’t do any Arab humor unless it’s really relevant and is saying something larger.