Funny Is Funny: Zahra Noorbakhsh

Welcome to “FUNNY IS FUNNY: Development Models for Diverse Voices in Stand-Up Comedy,” by Pop Culture Collaborative Senior Fellow and stand-up comic Zahra Noorbakhsh. Funny Is Funny lays out the systemic challenges facing diverse comedians who are trying to break into the comedy scene and proposes development models that might help them. This is critical “not just for the sake of our careers, but because the future of culture depends on it.”

Noorbakhsh combines her personal story as a stand-up comedian with a sharp analysis of the current pipelines that work against diverse stand-up comics. In the report, she reveals how the bar scene and associated gatekeepers form systemic barriers; breaks down how the traditional joke structure that forces diverse comedians to either “disinherit themselves from their identity” or work with stereotypes; and walks readers through the factors that can make or break a stand-up comedian’s long-term career success.

She also offers recommendations, including how to support artist development, provide alternative performance opportunities, and reframe what defines “successful” comedy.

Noorbakhsh’s analysis comes at a peak time in conversations on the role of comedy and social change, debates about the conflation of comedy and racism, as well as callouts of the systemic discrimination in the comedy ecosystem.


Funny is Funny: So What’s Happening to Stand-Up Comedy (frank, 2019)

Zahra Noorbakhsh will make you laugh so hard you’ll cry. But she’s not joking when she says that the future of culture depends on expanding the comedic talent pool.

SNEAK PREVIEW: Zahra Noorbakhsh’s stand-up special “On Behalf of All Muslims: A Comedy Special”

This sneak preview clip is from the theatrical world premiere of “On Behalf of All Muslims: A Comedy Special,” written and performed by Zahra Noorbakhsh and produced by Golden Thread Productions in association with Brava Theater For Women in the Arts. The show was directed by Lisa Marie Rollins with dramaturgy by Nakissa Etemad.

Special thanks to the Doris Duke Foundation and associate producers Sara Razavi, Murrey Nelson, Babak Sani, and Torange Yeghiazarian.



For additional insights and context, please check out:

  • There’s never been more comedy in pop culture than in 2018 … and never more outrage(Yardbarker, 2018)
    … Speaking of Netflix, it released roughly 6,000 stand-up specials in 2018.
  • The Laughter Effect: The [Serious] Role of Comedy in Social Change (Caty Borum Chattoo, Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) at American University’s School of Communication, 2018)
    Comedy is a form of deviant expression—a new way of looking at a topic. To even laugh at a joke in the first place, comedians present and bend a reality. The incongruence of life as it is, compared to the surprising distortion or truth of life as it exists in a joke construction, is why we laugh. And, as it turns out, when we chuckle, we may consider new possibilities, we might feel more comfortable talking about tricky topics with others, and we create a little community with fellow travelers, even for a moment. (Medium, 2018)
  • Phoebe Robinson: There’s No Excuse For The Lack Of Diversity In Comedy (Fresh Air, 2018)
    A lot of times you would just hear in the industry, “Oh, there just, like, aren’t any funny black women.” That excuse doesn’t fly with me anymore. There are so many talented, amazing people and if you’re not booking them, it’s either out of laziness or the fact you really don’t care.
  • Stand-Up Comedy Is Not Dying, Your Privilege Is (Cristina Ouch, 2018)
    Just because you can’t relate to my experience, it doesn’t make me “not funny” and doesn’t make what I do “bad” or even “not” comedy. Comedy audiences have traditionally been White men and the women who date them. Therefore, White male comics have claimed that their White male experiences are universal human experiences, reminiscent of the same power that White colonists exercised when they stole American land from the natives. Their position as founders and power players in the history of American stand-up have afforded them the same privilege of staking artistic real estate that is not their own.
  • Comedian: Funny isn’t just by and for white guys (Amanda Seales, 2018)
    Times have changed and one thing we all know by now is that white guys may still have the monopoly on monopolies, but they don’t have it on laughs.
  • Shane Gillis and the Privilege of Comedy (Maeve Higgins, 2019)
    Many of my comedy colleagues are up in arms, at least digitally. They are calling Mr. Gillis’s firing “cancel culture” and worrying about what it means for freedom of speech. I’m laughing. These anxious comedians are worrying about the wrong problem. Here’s where the real silencing happens in the comedy world: So many would-be comics—women, people of color, other marginalized groups—are silenced from the beginnings of their careers. Despite their talent and work ethic, they leave the industry and take their brilliance elsewhere, or perhaps nowhere. Reaching a level in their career where they could even get canceled remains a dream for most.