Paul Elia champions 'immigrant hustle' of Arab Americans in first comedy special

Iraqi-American speaks to The National about his close friend Ramy Youssef and paying tribute to his home city in new show Detroit Player

Iraqi-American comedian Paul Elia. His first stand-up special Detroit Player is streaming on YouTube. Photo: Brian Sevald
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There was an affecting moment in Ramy Youssef’s recent opening monologue on Saturday Night Live. The American-Egyptian comedian seemingly broke out of character to express heartache over the Palestinian lives lost in the Israel-Gaza war.

It was a risky career move, considering how the conflict polarises opinions across Hollywood, but Youssef’s anguish was undoubtedly moving and cathartic for many watching worldwide.

It’s a feeling Paul Elia, his Iraqi-American friend and comedic collaborator, knows well. Earlier this year, he stated his own sorrow surrounding the conflict in front of 5,000 during a US show. Speaking to The National, he explains the comedy stage has become a therapeutic space to come to terms with the trauma of the conflict.

"I remember stepping on stage and I just had this urge to talk about what is happening in Palestine and Gaza right now," he says. "It was something the crowd didn't really expect but they were very dialled in and they were appreciative. It wasn’t something that I planned on but I just had this yearning to express myself and I felt that if I was too scared to do that then I shouldn’t be in comedy.”

That commitment to authenticity has served Elia well, from his first stand-up gig 13 years ago to his debut special Detroit Player. Released last month, it is a warm tribute to his home city of Detroit where he grew up amid its multicultural and pluralistic Arab communities. Available on YouTube, Detroit Player is replete with colourful anecdotes as Elia explains the kind of “immigrant hustle” propelling Arab American families to financial independence.

In Elia’s case, that road included excelling at his studies while honing his work ethic at his family’s supermarket after school. "I really didn't have a lot of insight into my own identity when I was younger because my parents placed a great emphasis on education," he says. "They were like: 'You are going to school and the language that you are going to speak is money.'"

In Detroit Player, Elia describes how he reconnected with his Chaldean heritage in his teens, from the Assyrian Empire that spawned the community more than 5,000 years ago to the Sureth language his parents speak at home.

"We had our little community in Detroit and we all went to the local Chaldean Catholic Church," Elia says. "But I definitely feel the Arab sensibilities and culture in Detroit. I think both Chaldean and Arab culture do go hand in hand while retaining its own character at the same time.”

Infusing that rich personal detail into his comedy is a necessity, he notes.

In a time where the arrival of new online formats is testing the appeal of stand-up comedy, Elia says finding his own voice as a comedian is essential to stand out from the pack.

"There are way too many memes out there that are way funnier than anything I would ever say or do and that can feed a certain type of comedy," he says. "But what a meme can't do is really get personal and draw you in through humour and honesty. I mean, someone can write a joke about Middle Eastern people but not many can write it from the personal point of view like I can, so it's just so important to be real and honest.”

This is why Elia is not surprised by the television success of former roommate Youssef, whose semi-biographical comedy series Ramy – which, according to reports, will finish after the coming fourth season – is credited for its realistic portrayal of Muslim Arabs in America.

Elia made a guest appearance in an episode during the second season in 2020. "When we met years ago we became fast friends and I am so proud of him," he says. "I admire his storytelling and the bravery that is behind that. To be part of a show that is really impacting culture and saying something that I really care about is just amazing."

Elia confirms he is in the early stages of developing his own series inspired by life experiences. In the meantime, he is content that Detroit Player is out there to speak his truth.

"We are living in an age where I feel that anyone can be a celebrity," he says. "But to be successful in comedy that's not enough because people need to feel like they really know you. These are the people that will go buy tickets to see you because they know what you stand for.”

Detroit Player by Paul Elia is available to stream now on YouTube

Updated: April 02, 2024, 10:27 AM