Comedian Mimi Shaheen
Stand-up comic Mimi Shaheen lights a cigarette under a sphinx that overlooks the eponymously named hotel in Geelong. “It’s been a big week and my vape fluid has run out,” she says, taking a drag.
I have joined Mimi on the hour-long drive from Melbourne to watch her perform in the ironically titled collaboration show The United Nations Comedy Gala. It features three Italians, a Greek, a Spaniard and her. “Basically I cover the whole Middle East,” she says flicking her black hair theatrically.
She puffs out a steady stream of smoke and says this is her 15th attempt at quitting this year. Pinpointing whether her stand-up or her nine-to-five as a social worker is to blame for her stress levels proves challenging. She maintains one is a good release from the other.
“If I’m still thinking about a yucky case at night, I have to switch off from that when I go on stage, so it’s a good reason to look after myself.”
She muses that her passion to follow childhood idols Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Richard Pryor was sparked by a mixture of realising how contagious other people’s laughter is and her experiences of racism in Australia as a Syrian migrant.
“Without ranting, I fucking hate people who say racism doesn’t exist. It does exist and it’s everywhere. I’ve copped it for a long time. I’m not the only one.”
After stubbing out her cigarette, Shaheen recounts an incident that occurred 10 years ago. She was shopping at a supermarket with other “ethnic” friends in a country town when the attendant who was about to serve them spat out that her register was closed. After finding another lane, they saw the woman reopen her register and resume serving other customers.
“It was beyond me. I was disgusted,” Mimi says.
“I realised that the only way to handle it is to laugh about it. It gives you power back when you can laugh at people’s ignorance instead of taking it to heart and feeling like shit. Some stuff that is said, and some stuff that is done to minority cultures, it’s really painful.”
Shaheen has milked her experiences for stand-up material. “I like to give people the chance to laugh at stuff they’re thinking anyway. And I love it when there are racist people in the audience, because they’re the ones that need to relax. If they laugh at it, it might be a good outlet for them. And it’s good for people in our community too, who say, ‘Yeah, I’ve totally noticed that too.’ ”
I ask her if she is concerned about encountering any racists tonight. She admits that when she performed in Geelong for the first time two years ago, she was petrified because she didn’t know how the audience would react.
“It’s changed to the point that it’s so PC,” she explains.
“When I opened my set, I said the last time I was here, I was told to go back to my own country. So I can’t tell you how excited I am to be back. And instead of a laugh, a woman in the front row gasped and said, ‘Who would say that?’ ”
We pass a pyramid marked with a faded eye of Ra, which is buttressed by a children’s playroom with a tangle of slides. The image rustles up nostalgia of McDonald’s birthday parties from my childhood. Mimi strides through the hotel’s gilded entrance hall that matches her large gold hoop earrings and thick band across her wrist.
The walls are lined with cartouches and, inside the hotel, hieroglyphs glint along the length of the bar. We reach the Luxor Room, where, oddly, the room’s name is the only trace of tacky Egyptian novelty on loan from Vegas.
We decide to order a quick drink before the performance. Mimi tells me she will be the only female talent on stage, but she jokes, “People say that I look like my dad.
“I know a lot of people say that the women aren’t getting booked as much as the men – but personally I haven’t felt that,” she says. “The comedy scene in Melbourne is unlike any other scene that I can think of, but probably the same in a thousand ways as well. It’s cliquey. People say it’s not, but it is.”
After nine soldout shows with two fellow comedians at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Mimi shows no sign of hubris. She is adamant she can improve. Her schedule is crammed with open mic nights at venues across greater Melbourne in order to refine her craft and test her material on different audiences.
“Sometimes comedy can be so uncertain. It can be like a family violence relationship because you never know if you’re gonna rock up and if he’s going to give you a hug or a slap in the face. Audiences are so ruthless. And that’s why comedy is so addictive; it’s a game of chance.”
Mimi departs backstage and shortly after the MC disrupts the eager chatter in the room. He surveys the crowd to discover the majority are Italians and a quarter are “Aussies”.
“I hope you’re not easily offended. I hope you’re not one of those crowds,” he says.
Later he introduces Mimi on stage. She recounts experiences of “accidental racists” who slip out with “innocent” insults that the audience audibly identify with. She quips about being a hairy ethnic woman and toys with the terrorist stereotype. The room flares up with shrieks and cackles at some of her Seinfeld-esque dating anecdotes.
As we return to the car I congratulate her on a great night. She explains how the drive home can be fraught with melancholia after tearing herself from a crowded environment. There is a rush that accompanies the act of garnering laughs from a crowd, and she grapples with the moments afterwards when the high drains from her body.
“Every time I’ve tried to stop comedy I can’t do it,” she says. “Even just to take a little break. Even after three or four days, I’m itching to go back on stage to get laughs again.” She winds down her window and lights another cigarette.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "In it for the laughs". Subscribe here.