mehranOver the millennia much attention has been paid to the concept of love (a second hand emotion? a stink?), while hate tends to sit, brooding in the corner. Apparently, the line between the two is thin. A wise master once noted, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Beyond this advice for mastering your emotions (and the force), is a call for empathy. Of course, how can one forget the more fatalist flipside: “haters gonna hate.”
So which one should it be? Is “hate” a lost cause, or something to be picked apart, and understood? New York-based comedian Mehran Khaghani is opting for the latter with “Hate Mail.” His new monthly show at Rockwood Music Hall will delve into actual hate mail that guests have received from jilted lovers, rival business owners, and more — “in some instances, even trying to look up who sent the mail,” says Khagani. “Basically, I’m getting all up in their business. And man, the nerve of some people…”
We caught up with Khaghani over the phone to chat a bit about his experiences with hate, and why exactly he’s chosen to make it a vehicle for his comedy.
BB_Q(1)Your family is originally from Iran, did you spend any time there growing up?
BB_A(1) Yeah, after both my brothers went to college, my parents thought, “why don’t we give our marriage another shot in Iran?” So they dragged me – their nine-year-old kid – back to Iran at the height of the Iran/Iraq war…
BB_Q(1) A good time to go back then?
BB_A(1) It was just a terrible time, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The war had already been going for some time, but rather mildly and on the border, it hadn’t escalated into this thing where cities were necessarily getting bombed with any kind of frequency. But, shortly after arriving in Iran, Saddam Hussein pirated Iranian radio and said specifically in my city, Tabriz, he was going to bomb every morning at 6am as an alarm clock for the children. He followed through with it by bombing schools and hospitals, almost exclusively; he bombed a hospital on my walk to school. So, I went from Saturday morning cartoons to what were called “The Red Siren” — you can look the sound up on YouTube, which I recently discovered unfortunately. I was telling someone, it’s the worst sound I’ve ever heard and thought, maybe it’s on YouTube? Everything’s on YouTube.
baby mehranBB_Q(1)How would you say that experience has influenced your comedy?
BB_A(1) People always ask what makes a comedian, a comedian? There’s a documentary out at the moment called Misery Loves Comedy. Is it misery and sadness that forges a comedian? A lot of comedians talk about experiences in life that sort of differentiated them, creating certain awkwardness growing up. When I came back from Iran, I’d certainly lost a carefree quality.
BB_Q(1) How so?
BB_A(1) I had a lot of social handicaps. Kids weren’t socially nice to me about having come from Iran. It was only 1987 and the air was still a little thick with the hostage crisis. My fashion also took a great leap backwards, showing up to school in sweater vests and little leather ankle booties…
BB_Q(1) Sounds like you would have fit in well last weekend in Bushwick?
BB_A(1) Oh yeah, I woulda lead the parade in Bushwick but in this sort of moneyed, white suburb I stuck out like a sore thumb. Kids would say things like, “How’s the ayatollah?” I had to figure out a way to demonstrate my “cool,” and for me it was always comedy.
BB_Q(1) What kind of comedy was 13-year-old Mehran busting out?
BB_A(1) I came back from Iran incredibly polite and submissive. So, I had to break that. My first move was to start swearing and swearing well. I armed myself with cuss words and sort of built out from there. I guess I was also quick to talk about sex, so between talking about sex and swearing a great deal, I kind of armed myself as a way to scare some people back.
BB_Q(1) I guess building up that kind of armor makes for a good comedian?
BB_A(1) Is that what we’re calling it, armor? I think that crusader aspect is probably true. Comedy has a number of social responsibilities. One is that you have to spit in anything’s eye. Another is that you’re teaching people how to be and how to relate. I don’t think that there’s a medium of performance art that so directly takes that didactic role in showing people how to cope. I think comedy is uniquely teed up to do that because it’s just one person speaking their voice and their truth. For me, it’s certainly served that role.
BB_Q(1) And I guess this all kind of relates to your thinking behind “Hate Mail”?
BB_A(1) The idea came from mocking hate mail, which is really designed to get in your head, and instead turn it into a community thing, getting a group of people together to extract the venom from something that was designed to hit you, and you alone.
BB_Q(1) What purpose do you think that serves?
BB_A(1) So much lip service is paid these days to avoiding negativity. I have a friend who teaches her school students about PMA – positive mental attitude. “PMA, what are you doing to nurture your PMA?”
BB_Q(1) Do you not think that’s a good thing?
BB_A(1) No, not specifically. It’s just that there’s this aspect to it all that feels slightly disingenuous. I don’t think it’s avoiding negativity to make the world a better place, it’s almost like avoiding negativity as a method to ensure and assure your success. If you don’t avoid negativity, it’s going to slow you down and you won’t achieve as much. And that appeals to a certain ambition in people as opposed to what’s most healing for people.
BB_Q(1) Face the hate mail head on?
BB_A(1) Exactly. Rather let it in, look at these letters and do a little diagnosis to see what we can do. Part of it all is figuring out where this hate comes from and what people all so full of piss and vinegar about. If you take the mail at face value, it’s designed to hurt you but you know inside that is the mewling pain of the person who sends it. If you can see that, suddenly you’re the person in the position to understand how that person is hurting, that person who attacked you.
BB_Q(1) Where have you sourced your hate mail from?
BB_A(1) I tried looking at my own hate mail first and found that it didn’t work. It was a bit like squatting over a mirror. When it comes to trying to do this alchemy of translating hate into perspective, I find that I have to work with other people’s stuff. So, I opened it up to Facebook and asked outright who had received hate mail and whether they’d be willing to share it. I got a bunch of submissions: photographs of notes from jilted lovers wishing all kind of ills, emails from rival bar owners saying, “I make shits bigger than you,” and all kinds of macho parading. It proved to me that a lot of people have dealt with this.
Hate Mail” starts June 29 at Rockwood Music Hall, featuring Chemda Khalili of “Keith and the Girl,” Kyle Ploof of MTV and Sirius XM, and Josh Gondelman, writer on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”