BY TALAR CHAHINIAN
Comedy is the genre that has the most difficulty traveling. The Hollywood filmmaker trying to transcend markets, the stand-up comedian trying to engage a foreign audience, and the comic novelist seeking translation into another language all know that comedy, more than other genres, is bound to the native tastes of the community it represents. This is because comedy is fundamentally a social activity: it’s always conceived with an audience in mind, and it’s always produced based on dominant cultural assumptions.
The transnational reality of the Armenian world means that the Armenian performing arts have a broad audience. This situation allows comedians like Vahe Berberian, for instance, to tour the Middle East, Europe, and North America with sold-out shows. Yet the particularly hybrid Armenian community of Los Angeles seems to be facilitating a new model of comedy, characterized by intra-community travel. The rise of a new wave of young comedians attests to the possibilities occasioned by the intersection of social media, minority culture, and linguistic plurality.
The online work of the comedians Mary Basmadjian (FunnyArmenian Girl), Lory Tatoulian, and Arman Margarian (Antic) satirizes the mannerisms of various sectors of LA’s Armenian community. It’s estimated that Los Angeles is home to over 750,000 Armenians, comprising a diverse immigrant group that represents waves of migration from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and elsewhere. In this culturally pluralistic community of ethnic Armenians, the two distinct linguistic forms, with their many dialects, intersect and coexist. The comic sketches and characters on social media platforms of Basmadjian, Tatoulian, and Margarian produce humor by playing with intra-community difference. In other words, their comic observations at once make sense to the broader hybrid community and confound the expectations of many of its segments. Their comedy often relies on language to highlight inter-cultural difference and, through its hyperbolized performance, reminds us that culture is a social construct.
One of the recurring characters on Basmadjian’s Instagram page is Vartoush Tota, an opinionated immigrant from Armenia, who loves to gossip about her neighbors in the building and offer advice on everything from politics and race relations to dating and sex. In her short auburn wig and “mom” glasses, Vartoush Tota is often seen conversing on the phone with her friend Gayoush or with Lyov, her recently imprisoned husband who has never appeared on screen. In one of the videos, she stands at her window looking out, Armenian coffee cup in hand, and calls her husband to come see: “Lyov, hela ari ste” [Lyov, come here for a sec]. She tells him that their neighbor is cheating on his wife again. In another video that places her in the same window-front position, she calls her husband to see the new Maserati that Gayoush is driving. Knowing of Gayoush’s financial debts, she telephones her friend to inquire about the source of her newfound money. Upon learning the source, she lets out an expression of woe: “Vay koranam yes” [Let me go blind]. We learn that Gayoush’s father-in-law has just passed and left them some money. The rest of her conversation is full of expressions like “mernem janit” [an expression implying loyalty and servitude] and “te vor dents a” [since it’s like that], which leads us to her final, angry demand that Gayoush pay up the two thousand dollars she owes her.
Vartoush Tota speaks in an exaggerated form of colloquial Eastern Armenian, as spoken in Yerevan. Her words are often pronounced in half-syllables and bear a Russian inflection. While performing the particular mannerisms of an immigrant well-versed in the nuances of Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia, Vartoush Tota embodies the figure of the “auntie” recognized within many ethnic communities well beyond the Armenian one. A figure of endearment and fun, the “auntie” gains comedic value within immigrant narratives because of the incongruity produced when the authority granted to her by the extended family structure is questioned in the American reality, which celebrates the nuclear family. In the Armenian realm, the shared figure of the auntie cuts across immigrant sectors. She has various referents: the Iranian-Armenian “morkoor” [short for the Armenian morakuyr], the Lebanese-Armenian “tantig” [from the French tante], and the Armenia-Armenian “tota” [from the Russian tyotya]. Essentially, all Armenian women one generation above are embraced as aunties, regardless of the blood relationships.
Armenians living in Los Angeles would immediately recognize Vartoush Tota as a type. She could be their mom’s friend, their neighbor, or someone they overheard in the waiting room of a dental office or at the mall. But while she is familiar, relatable, and inviting, her exaggerated linguistic mannerisms are undeniably foreign, either because they are too unassimilated into the Anglophone world of the US or because they are radically different from the form or dialect of the listener’s home language. It’s this incongruity of her linguistic performance, coupled with the general familiarity of her figure, that renders Vartoush Tota comical and contributes to the character’s popularity (Vartoush Tota posts garner 20,000-25,000 views on Instagram).
Another popular caricature figure in LA’s Armenian comedy world is Sossi Hayrabedian, the foul-mouthed hairdresser from Pasadena. Developed by Lory Tatoulian, Sossi Hayrabedian appears on the comedian’s YouTube channel and in her live performances of The Big Bad Armo Show. Sossi Hayrabedian is often seen in ads in which she campaigns to become the mayor of Pasadena, arguing that Armenians have contributed greatly to the making of that city. In LA’s landscape, Pasadena has historically been home to Armenian immigrants from Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon and Syria, beginning in the 1970s. Appropriately, Sossi Hayrabedian speaks Western Armenian, but in its ghettoized form, which is the legacy of post-genocide refugee camps and neighborhoods in Beirut and Aleppo. Clad in her usual leopard-print dress and sporting her ’80s-style highlighted mullet and overly pronounced makeup, Sossi Hayrabedian appears in more recent videos with upgraded dreams; she wants to run for president of the United States. In a recent video published on February 6th, she waves a cigarette around in one hand and, in a mix of colloquial Western Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic, comments on the theatricality of President Trump’s State of the Union Address. “Beyns nedets” [I threw my top] and “ghafa artougets” [an expression hinting at being bored by speech], she says about the duration of the speech. “Yeresnen kak ge taper gor” [shit was oozing from their faces], she claims, commenting on the anger of the congresswomen in white. “Ahlen wu sahlen” [Welcome] she exclaims, referring to Mexican immigrants.
Within the logic of her sketches, what makes the figure of Sossi Hayrabedian funny is the incongruity between her low linguistic register and her high aspirations, as well as her unapologetic refusal to assimilate culturally and her desire to infiltrate American political life. Furthermore, her linguistic performance, in its vulgarity, resembles the speech often attributed to a certain class of Middle Eastern Armenian men. The inversions she offers render her funny not only to those who speak Western Armenian, but also to those who do not. In LA’s Armenian community, non-Western Armenian speakers are familiar enough with the language to (at the very least) have stereotypical notions of it. Her comedy, therefore, appeals to a wide audience precisely by performing difference. (Sossi Hayrabedian videos usually receive 6,000-8,000 views on YouTube.)
Arman Margarian, who often performs live shows either solo or with a comedy collective called Demq, does not have a recurring character online. While we sometimes find him in drag, performing roles like “Armenian moms” or Tamar the Lebanese-Armenian fitness instructor, the majority of his Instagram sketches consist of observational comedy performed through the figure of “any Armenian guy.” Facilitated by his versatility in both Western and Eastern Armenian, his sketches often play on his diverse Armenian audience’s perceptions of other Armenians.
In a video post from last year that received nearly 60,000 views, Margarian plays an Iranian-Armenian mother calling out to her son (also played by Margarian), who is playing basketball in the back yard. The mother walks out in her robe, inquiring whether he has completed his homework assignments. To poke fun at the colloquialisms of Iranian-Armenians, who speak a dialectical variant of Eastern Armenian, Margarian has the mother communicate with her son in English letters only. Ignored by the headphone-wearing teenager, she walks out to the backyard with a laptop in hand. With it, she projects her questions in large English letters, displayed one by one. “R B I R B S P T R V R L S R B R EEEE.” Addressing her son Arbi, a name commonly used by Iranian-Armenians, the mother says, “Arbi, ay Arbi, esi piti arvi. Arel es? Arbi, aree!” [Arbi, oh Arbi, this has to be done. Have you done it? Arbi, come here!] The collapsing of Armenian words into English letters hints at the incongruous intersection of languages and phonetics, thus producing humor. Furthermore, because it is also an exaggerated simplification, the collapse ridicules Iranian-Armenian colloquial speech by activating its stereotypical perception.
All three comedians use stereotypes of segments of the Armenian community to produce humor. Their skits suggest that within the space of the Los Angeles community, stereotypical perceptions signal a recognition of shared space rather than offense. In other words, the performance of inter-cultural difference, often expressed through language, simultaneously provokes recognition and a sense of incongruity in the diverse audience, which is well-versed in the stereotypes on display. This performance places the comedians in the position of laughing with diverse Armenians rather than laughing at them. The fluidity of the linguistic identity evident in this new wave of comedy reminds its audience that culture is constructed through social practices. In this way, the new comedy serves as a unifying force in the diasporic space of LA’s Armenian community.
Talar Chahinian holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UCLA and lectures in the Program for Armenian Studies at UC Irvine, where she is also a Research Associate in the Department of Comparative Literature. She is the co-editor of “Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies.” Critics’ Forum is a circle of academics, reviewers, and artists who discuss issues relating to Armenian arts and culture in the Diaspora.