When comedian Mona Shaikh was younger, her father always made sure she drank milk — not because it was supposed to make her bones stronger, but because he believed it would whiten her skin and make her beautiful.
“It’s hilarious when I see white people in America going to tanning salons, while people across continents and South Asia are dying to be white and they don’t want [to] sit in the sun,” Shaikh, 36, told NBC News. “My mom would freak out if I played in the sun because she didn’t want me to be dark. Those things are hilarious to me because ultimately it’s saying humans are never happy with what they have.”
Personal experiences like those are one area that the Los Angeles-based Shaikh draws from for her stand-up comedy sets. Others include religion, sex, and politics.
“I always say this: Comedy is so intimate and personal. It’s such a specific point of view, so I talk about things that I find funny,” she said.
Shaikh was 8 years old when she knew she wanted to become a performer after watching Indian actress Madhuri Dixit.
“You can literally have the world on your finger, spinning, because of so much charisma and charm and funny that you bring to the table, and I just loved her,” Shaikh said.
She was 15 when she narrowed her interest to stand-up comedy, the same year she immigrated to the United States from Pakistan with her parents and four older brothers.
Shaikh spent much of her youth in Pakistan alone because her mother was frequently in America to get treatment for two of her brothers who suffered from polio. She credits her early life as having contributed to the foundation she needed to become an artist and to the perspectives she shares through comedy.
“I think it really kicked off my imagination and it just gave me this opportunity to dream and think what would it be like to be a performer. To travel the world, to connect with so many people who don’t share the same background as you, but to bring these people together and convey to them artistically?” she said. “I think it really fed the artist that needed to be fed as a kid.”
Although Shaikh knew early on what she wanted to do with her life, she didn’t share her dreams with her family until she was 18. They didn’t support her, Shaikh said, and she was given an ultimatum of either studying physical therapy or being sent back to Pakistan to get married.
She rejected both options, moved to New York, dropped out of college and invested her money into acting classes with no backup plan.
“Here’s the thing: if you don’t burn your boats, you never know what you’re capable of,” she said. “With a backup plan, you’re not going to give it your all because at the back of your mind, you always think you can always go back to that other life. I didn’t want to do that. I burned my boats and it’s not easy, but it’s working out.”
Since then, Shaikh has become the first Pakistani female comedian selected for the Laugh Factory’s Funniest Person in the World Competition and to headline Hollywood Improv. In 2015, she launched a diverse comedy show called Minority Reportz, which features a diverse slate of comedians.
Across Los Angeles, she has performed at multiple venues, including The Ice House in Pasadena and Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank.
With the recent presidential election, Shaikh has incorporated current political events into her set and has been vocal about her dislike of President Donald Trump. As a Muslim, she joked that she’s OK with the Muslim registry Trump had proposed, but that she would have her rear end photographed for it.
Despite the fact that politics can be a sensitive subject, Shaikh said having lived in Pakistan is why she includes the topic in her routines.
“I grew up in a politically unstable country so politics is weaved into my fabric,” she said. “I can’t be an artist now and not talk about things that impact people.”
But Shaikh isn’t always able to include that subject in her shows. During a set in Dubai, she was censored from discussing human rights violations or criticizing the government of Saudi Arabia, which is an ally of the United Arab Emirates, she said. Had she violated that instruction, she was told she would have been banned from going back to the country.
While she wasn’t able to make those jokes live, Shaikh has taken to YouTube to poke fun at how women in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive and how some Muslims imams have sanctioned domestic violence. In one clip, she jokes about how Pakistani men are obsessed with virgins because they don’t like criticism. Shaikh's material has earned her the nickname "the naughty Muslim comedian."
Sometime in 2012 or 2013, Shaikh said she was notified via email by her fans that her website website had been banned in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Last year, she received an email from YouTube saying her channel had been banned in the two countries, she said.
Shaikh said she has even received death threats via email, but said she isn’t fazed and hasn’t been deterred from continually bringing up those topics.
“They don’t like the fact that I talk about these things, but when I see my fellow Pakistani sisters being physically assaulted or murdered by their own family for honor killings and such backward cultural things, how do you as a human being not speak up against that, especially as an artist? Especially if you have a platform?” she said.
“If the Pakistani government doesn’t like it, maybe they can start changing their laws and start treating minorities, women, transgender and gay people with some more love and respect,” she added.
Shaikh noted that either way, some people will take offense to her content and disagree with it, so she would rather talk about things that matter.
“I’ve seen when people don’t speak up and they don’t provide resistance against tyrants or evildoers,” she said. “There’s a big price to pay for that, and I think artistically and as a human, I try to be on the right side of history. I guess there’s a price for that, too.”
Through comedy, Shaikh says she hopes to do for audiences what two of her role models, comedians George Carlin and Chris Rock, did for theirs.
“What they did for people is they made them think,” she said. “That’s my goal.”