BRANDON ASH- MOHAMMED’S BIG BREAKTHROUGH
Oprah Winfrey and Fefe Dobson were inspirations. Now the founder of The Ethnic Rainbow is changing the face of Canadian comedy.
BY GLENN SUMI
HOT SUMMER GUIDE
Stand- up Brandon Ash- Mohammed has Hermione Granger, Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey to thank for his comedy career. At summer camp for children with learning disabilities ( he grew up with ADD and ADHD), kids initially made fun of him for his high- pitched voice. So he put on a British accent to distract them, which made him sound like Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. “They would ask me to say dirty things as Hermione,” says Ash- Mohammed. “And suddenly I got laughs. I became popular. I also did a great Michael Jackson, but I lost that at puberty.” Comedy and impersonation as a queer survival mechanism? Makes sense if you’re going to grow up to become Canada’s first openly gay Black male comic. When he was in grade five, a racist teacher sat him and the class’s only other Black kid in the back, facing a wall. “The thing is,” explains Ash- Mohammed, “on the back of the wall was someone’s project on Oprah: her whole bio. I remember reading her story and all the things she accomplished practically every day. And it was so inspiring. I remember thinking, ‘ If she could live through that, I can live through this crazy man and get through grade five.’” We’re sitting in the courtyard outside Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, where in a few days Ash- Mohammed will tell jokes at Pridezilla, the flagship queer comedy event this Pride month. In April, he won a Canadian Screen Award for writing an episode of Canada’s Drag Race, where he’s head writer. He’s a regular Toronto correspondent on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He’s written for the CBC comedy series Tallboyz, which reunited him with his former sketch troupe members Guled Abdi and Franco Nguyen. And a few months ago, he made it to the final leg of LOL: Last One Laughing Canada, a major coup for the youngest comic on the show. Get through grade five? Oh yeah, and he hasn’t looked back. FRANK AND FEARLESS Watching an Ash- Mohammed show is unforgettable. As he paces the stage, occasionally striking model- like poses, he exudes a frankness and fearlessness that is liberating to watch. He is completely himself. At the top, he’ll usually riff on the assumptions people make about him because of his Muslim- sounding name ( he wasn’t raised Muslim). Unlike queer comics from, say, 15 years ago, he doesn’t even have to bother coming out; he assumes the audience has figured it out. He’ll then deal with his plus- sized build. After all this, the audience is ready to cheer him on. “Except once when I was in Kitchener/ Waterloo, and I started making Doug Ford jokes,” he says. “I completely lost the crowd and bombed for the next 10 minutes.” “Brandon is just very unapologetic speaking about race and how it relates to being gay,” says Rob Watson, the co- host and co- producer of the Pridezilla show, in a separate interview. “For someone like me, a cis, white man, that’s incredibly refreshing. He’s definitely someone people need to hear more of.” Not bad for a guy who sort of stumbled into the profession. The part- Trinidadian, part- white Ash- Mohammed grew up at Weston and Eglinton near Toronto’s Little Jamaica, but then his family moved to the Junction and Bloor West before moving back to Weston. He stayed in the Junction school. He was mostly raised by his no- nonsense, tough- talking Trinidadian grandmother, with whom he still lives (“She lives with me. I’m paying the bills now,” he quips.) “My early years were me living in a very Black area but then going to a very white school and being, like, ‘ What is going on? Why is everyone so strange?’ It was the hood, and then not the hood.” Ash- Mohammed relates all this in a guileless, spontaneous way. He remembers seeing and liking comics like Wanda Sykes, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Mo’nique and Bernie Mac. But he says he didn’t really understand what they were doing. “I didn’t know stand- up was an art form,” he says. “I just thought they were actors going on stages and talking.” TINA FEY MOMENT Something clicked when he was watching the Emmy Awards one year and Tina Fey won an Emmy for writing on 30 Rock. “I thought, ‘ I’d like to do that.’” But how? After learning that Rachel Mcadams had gone to York University for theatre, and being a Mean Girls fan, he thought of applying there. “Hell yeah, I was into becoming the next Regina George,” he says, laughing. But then he saw that there was a comedy program at Humber College, researched it and saw that Debra Digiovanni had gone there. “I’d seen her on Video On Trial and loved her. So I thought I’d apply to that.” ( Ash- Mohammed would have been perfect for VOT.) He did, and got in, an experience he says was the best of times and the worst of times. “A lot of it was white dudes doing bits at me all day, and me feeling, ‘ I’m done. You do not exist for me right now,’” he laughs. “I was still a teenager when I finished,” he says. “It was a big learning experience. It taught me what the comedy scene in general was going to be like. When I started doing comedy, I didn’t know that there weren’t a lot of people like me out there doing it. So yeah, it prepared me for the real world.” He assumed he would be a comedy writer – remember his Tina Fey moment. But soon he started doing stand- up, and he was killing it. “I remember I went on stage thinking, ‘ I don’t know what I’m doing, but I think these jokes are funny, so let’s see what happens,’” he says. Instructor and Yuk Yuk’s co- founder Larry Horowitz encouraged him to keep at it, saying it was his calling, even though Ash- Mohammed had doubts. One of his big issues, it turns out, was that he didn’t see many people like him on stages. He took a three- year break from stand- up in the mid- 2010s, mostly to look after his mental health. And when he returned, the comedy scene had changed so much. ETHNIC RAINBOW He began the Ethnic Rainbow in 2018 to showcase the growing group of LGBTQ+ comics of colour. Most POC rooms featured straight acts, while most queer rooms were white. “I asked Natalie Norman and Jess Beaulieu of The Crimson Wave if I could use their space at Comedy Bar in February to try it out, and I did it. It was a big success, it changed my life. It opened doors not just for me but for others. Tamara Shevon told me it got her to come out to her mother. Comedy Bar said people kept calling the box office about the show and they didn’t know what to tell them. It became so successful that we added a second show.” Ash- Mohammed is thrilled that Spice is headlining Pride ( see related story, page 26), because, he says, a lot of Caribbean people feel disconnected from Pride. He’s thinking of compiling a special Ethnic Rainbow show for the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, because lots of LGBTQ+ people don’t feel part of the festivities. As for his writing, things are turning out just fine. His CSA- winning episode of Canada’s Drag Race got him to meet Fefe Dobson, whom he’s been obsessed with since he was a teen and going through his own “weird emo punk rock phase ( I’ve deleted most of the photos).” Dobson guest- directed a mock horror movie segment for the show that Ash- Mohammed wrote; plus was a judge. “In grade seven, I discovered Fefe Dobson and Rupaul. And to write for both of them in that episode was a crazy full- circle moment.” LOOKING SOUTH There’s only so much you can achieve in Canada, however. And now Ash- Mohammed is looking to the U. S. Andrew Johnston, his friend and co- host of their podcast Sittin’ Up In Our Room ( named after the Brandy song, naturally), made the move several years ago. So have dozens of others. “In New York right now there are so many queer BIPOC comics who are killing it,” he says. “I want to be with these people! There’s Larry Owens ( from the hit Broadway show A Strange Loop), Bowen Yang ( from SNL and Fire Island), Julio Torres. I want to be able to live up to my full potential.” And maybe one day he can tell his Oprah Winfrey story to Oprah herself.