A smile, wry and lopsided, grows into a chuckle — which then escalates to a cackle most improper. It then simmers, bubbles and explodes into gut-churning, rib-tickling guffaws that can only end one way — with you clutching your sides, begging for (no) more.
Enjoyed fully, a diverse, global ensemble of comedians can feel a lot like the buildup to a crescendo in a symphony orchestra. And if punch-drunk punchlines are music to your ears, we bring you an 18-comic lineup that will leave you ROFLing, LMAOing and in stitches. Brash, sassy, punny, political, goofy, sarcastic — or the rare master of all things comedy — these talents from around the globe are certainly worth . . . humoring.
Sohini Das Gupta, OZY Reporter
crack (up) culture
1. Mama Does Preach
Lagos-based comedian Chukwudike Akuwudike didn’t have to stray far to dream up his comedy skit. He did what every mom-fearing grown-up living under the reign of a feisty matron does: turn to his mother for inspiration for the character of Mama Chinedu. It turns out that a cheeky, butt-whooping, strict mama has helped the goofball, who goes by the moniker IamDikeh, find global resonance, even if the character’s quirks are taken from local culture and life. Scoring on his animated performances in Nigerian women’s garb, the former soccer player and now jig-worthy musician boasts 450,000 fans on Instagram. For company is younger brother SpecialNedu, who finds himself almost always at the receiving end of Mama Chinedu’s resounding smacks.
2. Reality Bites . . . and Laughs
Filipino American Jo Koy’s sketches are deeply personal, grounded in his experiences navigating a predominantly white cultural milieu with his mixed-race identity. His sardonic humor, laced with squirm-inducing appeal (“Thank you military: If it wasn’t for the army, there wouldn’t be mixed race babies”), has found a large following. With three Netflix specials and a memoir to his name, the 50-year-old, who grew up Joseph Glenn Herbert in Tacoma, Washington, has come a long way. But he has also stayed grounded. His material takes from a childhood racked by confusions around race, an absent father (with whom he’s since reconciled) and a brother suffering from schizophrenia. It also dips into the indignation of token comedy club “ethnic night” spots in the early 2000s. On stage, his struggles translate into head-shaking humor.
3. Girl Just Wanna Smash Stereotypes
As a legal eagle who turned to comedy to find her wings, Faiza Saleem was a nonconformist from the get-go. But that is to say nothing of her role as a galvanizer of female comedy in Pakistan. Saleem has fueled the rise of women on Pakistan’s comedy circuit by organizing ladies’ nights, rip-roaring events “by women, for women,” and dabbling in celebrity roast shows and TEDx events. “Comedy is, undoubtedly, a male dominated field, not just in Pakistan but the world over. Making fun of women is an easy way to get a laugh, sadly. . . . I’m glad that’s changing slowly but surely,” the founder of Pakistan’s all-women improv troupe, The Khawatoons, said in a 2018 interview. OZY profiled Saleem and The Khawatoons in 2017. Since then, the actor and comedian has drawn audiences with her gibes at patriarchy and customs rooted in gender stereotypes and body-shaming. The 31-year-old will put you in your place sooner than you can forward that wife joke on WhatsApp.
4. Ready, Set, Offend
“How can he be so average, yet so full of confidence?” mock-puzzled 29-year-old Yang Li in a stand-up performance last year. It led to the emergence of a catchphrase — “average-yet-confident” — used by Chinese women underwhelmed by testosterone, privilege and mansplaining. Unsurprisingly, Yang, who shot to fame in the television show Rock & Roast, has been accused of “gender opposition” on Chinese microblogging site Weibo. Men’s rights activists have voiced their displeasure at her for cracking down on (read: cracking jokes at) gender and sexism. Yang is not necessarily out to offend. She will, however, not be stopped from joking about “anything that is seen as inappropriate to be talked about by women, such as feces, urine and farts” — a conscious attempt to push her audience’s comfort level. Although gentler than Katherine Ryan’s take (read more below) on society’s double standards around single moms versus single dads, Yang’s barbs are unique for their radical message given China’s repressive cultural environment.
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Realizing that she could be a “lesbian Ray Romano” is exactly the kind of quirk you can expect from Sabrina Jalees. And it’s not too extreme a comparison. Born in Toronto, the L.A.-based queer comedian draws her lines from a pool of private memories — much like the Everybody Loves Raymond star. As a half-Pakistani, half-Swiss lesbian raising a child with her wife, Jalees knows all about the minority existence. Multiple minority existences. But with a talent for dazzling stand-up performances and writing for diversity-rich shows like Netflix’s Big Mouth, Jalees has turned her intersectional experiences into comedic gold. What started as a desire to rein in post-9/11 Islamophobia has evolved into a frank relationship with her audience. The rule of thumb: No amount of sharing is oversharing — whether it’s posting photos of son “Wolfie” on Instagram or wisecracking about who’s the daddy in the couple.
2. Palsy Packs a Punch
As she steps onstage, it’s obvious Rosie Jones is unique. Jones informs her audience that she has ataxic cerebral palsy, which affects her movement and speech. True to the singular nature of her comedy, she uses her hurdles to run smooth sets, crafting breezy one-liners along the way. The 31-year-old’s push for greater representation for disabled people in society led her to stand-up comedy and later a television career. Earlier this year, Jones starred in Channel 4’s four-episodeTrip Hazard: My Great British Adventure. Her working title for the show was “A Great British, Female, Gay, Disabled, COVID-Compliant Adventure.” It didn’t quite stick. The same cannot be said for her humor.
3. Don’t Cry for Me, America
Tig Notaro became one of America’s favorite comedians after her brazen 2012 stand-up routine titled I Have Cancer. The show came just days after her breast cancer diagnosis, and everyone fell in love with her heart-on-her-sleeve manner of dealing with the situation. A double mastectomy and a life-threatening intestinal infection later, Notaro’s ability to turn painful situations into laughable onstage anecdotes with almost deadpan perfection has held her in great stead. The 50-year-old now has four comedy specials to her credit. The most recent HBO special, Tig Notaro: Drawn, sees her taking on an animated role. In the cartoon gig, she pokes fun at everyday occurrences, as her character wonders how life would be if she met pop icons in sundry situations.
4. An Iranian American Walks Into a Bar
In the wake of 9/11, many comedians from minority backgrounds took to the stage to relay stories of discrimination. Several shied away from politics entirely. But not Maz Jobrani. The Tehran-born comic took the opportunity to educate the world about his culture through laughter. In 2005, Jobrani joined the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour — a name derived from then-President George W. Bush’s infamous 2002 speech — and set off on a mission to create levity using a colorful gamut of cultural and political experiences. Topics such as relations between Middle Eastern countries, how someone’s political alliance is revealed by the number of kisses they offer at hello, or how Jobrani’s kept on his toes by his Indian father-in-law and “Guatemalan” son all make it into the comedian’s repertoire.
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A comic who’s up-front about his sociopolitical qualms, Loyiso Gola lays into the mic to make his point, but subtly. From jokes about apartheid to understated British racism, Gola is now poised to become one of the most successful African comedians since fellow South African Trevor Noah. Gola calls out racism with a wide smile and a chuckle in his Netflix special, Unlearning, the streaming platform’s first African comedy special. Whether drawing from experiences of being stopped from swimming at a whites-only beach or as the only Black person at a party, Gola’s humor elicits mild shock, peals of laughter and every un-PC emotion in between.
2. No Laughing Matter. Or Is It?
Well-known across the Spanish-speaking world, Colombian comic Santiago Rivas’ political satire is held in high esteem. While he may not fall into a particular comic style, his forte is targeting politicians vis-à-vis pranks, sketches, skits and other forms of comedy. With the (now off-air) television show Los Puros Criollos, referring to Latin Americans of mostly Spanish descent, and his follow-up YouTube show, Incorregibles, Rivas expresses his political dissent on the small screen. At the core of his message is the need to hold governments accountable. For Rivas, satire and tongue-in-cheek performances are the way to go.
3. A Heart for Change
Unlike those who go the stand-up route for fun and fame, Bassem Youssef took up comedy in 2011 as a way to highlight the massive challenges facing Egypt. At the height of the Arab Spring, Youssef ditched his career as a heart surgeon to dabble in political satire, and his TV show Al Bernameg became the most popular in the country. Dubbed the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” Youssef drew attention to the range of problems his country faced amid political unrest, even inviting the actual Jon Stewart to be a guest on his show. His approach poked fun at conservatives and liberals alike. Youssef was eventually forced to flee Egypt for the U.S. in 2014 after mocking then-presidential candidate and now head of state Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In America, he continues to work as a stand-up comic, author and podcaster.
4. Defined by Haha-bilities
When Maysoon Zayid walks onstage, she promptly addresses the circumstances that make her a “sit-down” stand-up comedian. Zayid has cerebral palsy, which means she performs while seated. She frequently opens the conversation with a little self-deprecating humor, joking that she is a bit like Shakira and a bit like Muhammad Ali. Born to Palestinian parents, Zayid also makes it clear that she is quite possibly the queen of the dispossessed as a Palestinian, Muslim female with palsy . . . who lives in New Jersey. Her quick wit couples with sharp punchlines as she invites audiences into her world, allowing them to imagine that they are living her life. Zayid’s journey into the limelight started with her wanting to be an actor just so Hollywood could cast actual disabled people in roles for disabled characters. But jaded by the lack of support, she turned to comedy where her star kept rising. A big win for her — and us!
5. Thorny Topics
Joyelle Nicole Johnson never needed to make a name for herself — her mother did that for her, giving her a “French-sounding” name because of her own fascination with Paris. While it’s a name that many mispronounce, it’s also one that’s rapidly rising in the comedy charts. The Atlanta-based comedian has opened for Dave Chappelle and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers, while also earning credits for appearances on Comedy Central and HBO Max shows. Next, she’ll star on the fifth season of HBO Max’s Search Party. But Johnson’s greatest strength lies in her ability to use humor to address thorny topics like female reproductive rights and vaccine skepticism, especially among Black Americans.
Katherine Ryan has what it takes to be a single mum, and crack hilarious jokes about it. The Canadian Irish comic with a proper little “British daughter” can make just about anything funny. Singlehood? Funny! Bumbling through Britain? Hilarious. Struggles at the PTA? Fodder for side-splitting Jane jokes. Ryan spares no one — from “young, young, young” dads who put in bare-minimum parenting effort, to Jane’s imaginary husband to her own obsessive love for the musical Hamilton. Perhaps that’s the reason her work has a strangely empowering quality and why she is not as universally adored as some. Which is just as well, considering that her near-autobiographical Netflix comedy-drama The Duchess makes clear that this “bad mama” couldn’t care less about niceties. The show was canned after one season, but it is safe to say that Ryan herself will stick around.
2. Let Me Play My Piano, People
There were few comedians as in tune to their medium as Bo Burnham was when he shot to fame in 2007. Then just a kid behind a piano, Burnham performed haunting melodies about the highs and lows of the internet, with a sprinkling of humor thrown in for his largely millennial audience. Now 30, he’s the author of five comedy specials which lean on a cutthroat, abrasive humor that makes his audience cringe as well as smirk. His latest special, Bo Burnham: Inside, which he shot, directed, edited and produced from the guest room of his home during the pandemic, leaves viewers perplexed by what they’ve witnessed, and what it means in the grand scheme of things.
3. Meet My Favorite Things
Julio Torres threads the line between stand-up and prop comedian. Having written for Saturday Night Live, Torres’ signature style is deadpan humor, whether in stand-up or while inventing lifelike stories for inanimate objects. Among his early work was a mock Fisher-Price advertisement called “Wells for Boys,” which he created with friend Jeremy Beiler. The skit plays on experiencing life differently from “mainstream” society, with Torres having grown up as a homosexual male in El Salvador. He’s known for his wistful imagination and wonderment of the world, particularly visible in his 2019 HBO special, My Favorite Shapes, in which he displays unique shapes and invents hilarious backstories for each of them.
4. Laugh, Then Think
Indian stand-up comedian Kenny Sebastian’s jokes border on goofy, but listen closely and there’s something almost profound going on. The 30-year-old wears a straight face throughout most of his acts, heightening the sense of the absurd in his everyday observations — from the peculiar habits of middle-class Indian parents to questionable nicknames shared between couples. It’s an approach that has earned him a loyal following alongside fellow Indian comics like Kanan Gill, Abish Mathew and Dolly Singh.
The son of a Pakistani British mother from London and a father from Pakistan, Ali Malik’s first comedic turn unfolded in that most nonjudgmental of spaces: the shower. The first-generation American’s experiences have been similar to many others in his shoes, with his parents spending much of their time working to create a secure future for their children. Now 28 and based in Los Angeles, Malik’s upbringing not only features in his material but also contributed to how he discovered his love for comedy in the first place. Rarely allowed to listen to music as a child, “I was able to download comedy albums instead, and I would obsessively listen,” Malik tells OZY, citing legends like Russell Peters, Dane Cook and Gabriel Iglesias as inspiration.