Like many comedians, Mohanad Elshieky started honing his standup skills long before he ever got onstage—in his case, as a radio host. But few comedians have paid their dues working for a station in Benghazi in the midst of the Libyan revolution.
During his twice-weekly, two-hour show, Elshieky and his co-host riffed on topical subjects and speculated on the country's future.
"A lot of people didn't really like that because they were very anti-change," says Elshieky. "In their mind, it was like, 'These are our traditions and our values, and you don't fuck with that.' And we were like, 'Nah, we're going to talk about whatever the fuck we want.'"
Then, someone burned down the radio station.
"That's when we were like, yeah, we probably need to stop," he says.
It's been only four years since Elshieky moved to Portland from Benghazi, where he was born and raised, and only two years since he performed his first standup set. But he's already achieved more than most local comedians achieve in their entire careers.
Every week, he co-hosts the popular showcase Earthquake Hurricane. He was a runner-up in this year's Portland's Funniest Person contest at Helium. He taught a comedy workshop at an art school and gave a regional TED Talk. When Thrillist recently published an article about the best up-and-coming comedians in each state, Elshieky was the comic it chose to represent Oregon. And earlier this month, he was one of 10 comedians selected to perform at Comics to Watch, an annual showcase in New York that doubles as an audition for a slot on Conan.
Now, his customer service job seems entirely temporary.
"I honestly don't imagine myself doing anything else other than performing and writing comedy," he says. "This New York trip, hopefully something comes out of it."
Sitting in a corner of a cramped downtown Portland coffee shop a few days before his Comics to Watch performance, the 27-year-old comedian is as casually articulate as he is onstage. As a fan of smart, confident humor and plot twists, his influences include both John Mulaney and Sherlock Holmes.
"To make people laugh, it is hard, but also a baby can make you laugh," he says. "I want to write jokes people can reference and remember."
Elshiesky's material meshes poignancy with pure absurdity. In most sets, he mentions that he grew up in Benghazi, pauses until the audience inevitably cheers, then teases them for clapping or simply shoots them down with a quick, "No." His jokes often tackle heavy subjects with a delivery that's so unperturbed it borders on deadpan. That includes a bit about a tweet Elshieky wrote on gun control, to which a troll Elshieky identifies as "Kevin" took offense: "Kevin said, 'You fucking Muslim, I eat bacon 24/7!' Wow, cool. I don't eat bacon, but I think that's super-unhealthy. Also, probably the worst argument against gun control."
There are few subjects Elshieky won't mine for a joke—his material ranges from bits about getting stopped in his car by ISIS to how boring it is in Bloomington, Ind. What he's not interested in, though, are jokes that are self-deprecating or overly self-referential.
"It's just so weird: Once you say where you're from, or they hear you have an accent or something, in their mind, they have this one type of joke you're going to tell," he says. "I'm like, I'll make fun of me, but I'm going to make fun of you, too."
Growing up in Benghazi, Elshieky frequently watched standup on YouTube, but his only comedy-related dream was to see standup live. His radio show, which began in 2011, helped set the basis for his wide-ranging standup sets. According to Elshieky, the death threats he received only added to the rush of running the show. "Part of me likes trolling people, especially people who are closed-minded," he says, "because their rage is built on nothing."
In 2014, Elshieky came to Portland for a six-week exchange program at Portland State University. During the program, he applied for political asylum—his parents had to leave their home in Benghazi after it was broken into twice, and Elshieky feared for his safety if he returned.
While at PSU, Elshieky took a standup class out of curiosity, and then decided to try open mics around the city. At only his second open mic, he booked his first gig. At first, Elshieky tailored his material specifically for a Portland audience. He watched every video of sets by local comedians he could find, and studied what worked and what didn't. But as he gained confidence as a performer, Elshieky quickly developed a voice of his own. "[In the beginning,] I was like, maybe people only want me to talk about where I'm from," he says. "Then it got to the point where I'm like, no, fuck it I'm going to talk about whatever I want to talk about."
Besides, now that there's a chance he could end up on Conan, Elshieky has his sights on a much broader audience. And while Elshieky's material is hardly apolitical, he's not interested in carrying anyone's torch.
"I want you to think I am funny, I don't want you to think every Libyan out there is funny," says Elshieky. "Some of them are boring as fuck, and it's fine."