"Off Color" is an occasional series exploring the intersection of race and comedy in Asian America.
It is fair to say, there is no one quite like Sabrina Jalees. The comedian/actor/writer has taken her particularly unique upbringing - growing up as the bi-racial daughter of immigrants, as a Muslim, and gay - and translated it into a particularly unique blend of straight-talking, side-splitting, inspired-by-true-events comedy.
"I think I grew up just sort of being cool with being the fish out of water," said Jalees. "And in humor, a fish out of water perspective is generally a good one."
With a Swiss mother and Pakistani father, Jalees was raised in Toronto, Canada. She stumbled into, and fell in love with comedy at a young age.
“At 15, I started going to comedy clubs and that’s where I learned about stand-up. I’d sit in the front row and hope they made fun of my friends and me," recalled Jalees. "We wanted mad attention."
She moved from the crowd to the stage by performing during amateur nights at a Toronto club called Yak Yak’s.
“It seemed so low risk to me because I was already performing at my high school assembly," said Jalees. "And in high school, if you bomb, all the cool girls knew it, but performing for a bunch of drunk bankers was a lot easier.”
For Jalees, who never quite felt like she fit in, the lure of the stage and microphone, with a chance to command her own narrative, was strong.
“Because I was talking about Islam right after 9/11, the stars were kind of aligned for me,” she said. “And growing up as a half brown kid among white people and then a half white kid among my brown relatives immediately gave me an outsider’s view. So, I made observations that I wouldn’t if I wasn’t biracial.”
After graduating from the Radio and Television Arts program at Toronto's Ryerson University in 2007, Jalees quickly established herself as a voice to be reckoned with in Canada. A few years later, when she made the move to New York City, she has had to re-learn the ropes. In many ways, she said, she was starting over.
“As an aspiring comedian in New York, you have to be out most nights, working and grinding," recalled Jalees.
Eventually, the grind paid off. Jalees became known on the stand-up circuit. That name recognition led to tours across the U.S. and Canada, and appearances in England and South Africa. In comedy, jobs beget jobs, and Jalees took advantage of every opportunity that came her way.
She's held recurring guest slots on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and appeared on Adam Devine's House Party. Her weekly podcast, My Sexy Podcast, has over 300K listeners, and a new video project - launched with Comedy Central's digital house - called How Many Questions, allows her even more creative room to play. Jalees was recently hired to write for a new NBC sitcom called "Crowded."
In a crowded industry packed with talented, hungry performers, Jalees says tackling and balancing multiple projects is a must.
“I want to live comfortably," she said. "I’m not interested in the starving artist life."
“It’s embarrassing to not be honest about who you are."
But success was not a given for Jalees. Before the phones rang with international tour offers and network gigs, Jalees had to come to terms with how much of her personal life would make it into her sets.
“When I realized I was gay, it was a setback and I shied away from writing about it," she said. "The last place I came out was on stage. I was scared of losing well-respected, well-paying jobs. For example, I performed for a group of South Asian doctors once and I felt that if I revealed that I was gay I would be unidentifiable to these kinds of people."
Before she could talk about it with strangers, Jalees struggled with how to reveal the truth to her own family.
“People from my parent’s generation don’t have an example of a gay white picket fence," she said. "You want your kid is to have a happy life and if all you see in your experience is gay people being ridiculed and laws being passed against equality then of course you’re going to say God, I hope she grows out of this.”
But her parents, especially her Muslim Pakistani father, surprised Jalees with their support.
“My dad stepped up as a leader and said we’re just going to deal with this," Jalees said. "But that male approach also took a lot longer for him to truly accept it. Luckily my parents are just smart people who love me and want my happiness and in the process, they’ve become gay rights activists!”
Over time, Jalees says she's come to realize that the more honest she was with herself, the more honest she could be in her comedy - and that authenticity resonated with audiences. In a 2014 TedxToronto talk, she opened up about her decision to come out, her extended family's poor reaction, and how she came to peace with it all.
“It’s embarrassing to not be honest about who you are," said Jalees. "But it’s also terrifying until you realize that the more confident you are in who you are, the less of a big deal it is and easier it is for people to accept it."
Using stand-up as her creative base, Jalees says she wants to experiment across the industry -- writing, producing, and directing. She cites powerhouses like Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and the women behind Broad City as inspiration for her ideal career. But one thing she'll never lose, she says, is the love of being on stage.
“The coolest part about stand-up is the power to influence, to make someone laugh," said Jalees, "to fly off somewhere like the deep south or Midwest where they are literally shocked to see me cause of my skin color and then check it out guys, I’m gay and my father is Muslim, so let’s hang!”
Jalees is currently working on a book and has a show in development with Comedy Central. Though the territory ahead is uncharted, she says her confidence comes from walking the honest path.
“You truly you can’t argue with talent," said Jalees. "If you’re really good, you’re going to get somewhere. If you get up on stage and kill it, you’re going to get somewhere."