BY HENRY SAVAGE As an Iranian immigrant, Amir K grew up straddling a language barrier that would later help him craft his outsider wit and deftness with character comedy. With hilarious impressions of his father, people you may find in traffic court, and Mexican St. Patrick’s Day, Amir was able to tackle most topics with a comedic flare. Coming up, Amir K’s worst nightmare was that he would fall short of achieving his dream of becoming a successful stand-up comedian and he’d wind up just being the funny water cooler guy at work, only able to crack jokes during lunch breaks and monotonous meetings. So, after a series of unfortunate events that led to him losing his real estate business, Amir moved to LA with a renewed intent to make his dream a reality. Fast forward 10 years and Amir has landed a supporting role in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo, a season on Mad TV, and appearances on Big Bang Theory, Adam DeVine’s House Party and Comedy Knockout with Damien Lemon. We got him on the horn in advance of his appearances at Punch Line Philly January 10th through 12th.
DISCUSSED: Comedy as a childhood defense mechanism, working on Argo, Iranian-American families, straddling language barriers, learning English, touring and the tender mercy of Ben Affleck.
PHAWKER: What got you interested in comedy?
AMIR K: I was always a class clown type of guy or some shit. And you just develop the wit. For me, I guess it was a defense mechanism. I was always a big kid. So I would just, like, use my words a lot, right? And that was the way I could get the upper hand on somebody, I guess. So, I just became good at roasting people, and coming up with stuff on the fly. Maybe just coming here at an early age too, you know, learning a funny way to get myself to fit in. I don’t know the psychology of it, but it definitely shaped me, because my brother’s totally different, which is weird. He’s a little more reserved, he’s not as quick to like, bust somebody balls, right? I am. I guess being a younger brother, maybe that has something to do with it. But it’s so weird how you find that psychology has to do with a lot of early experiences in your life. The way that you develop your personality in a way.
PHAWKER: How did having to overcome the language barrier impact your comedy?
AMIR K: I do a lot of characters, like different voices. And I think that came for me, learning how to speak English at an early age by mimicking people in my neighborhood. I just started speaking English. How the hell did I pick it up? Because I remember just watching the other kids. I remember their mouths moving and I was like, “What is the shit they’re saying?” Yeah, I remember having that thought as a kid, and then just one day I was talking like them [So that’s probably how] I got that ability to change my voice or adapt to however somebody else’s talking. I think that helped me with the accents and characters. So it’s just weird because I look back on it, my brother was a little older when we moved here, so he got a different experience. I was like five years old. He was like seven. Mentally I think your brain develops at a different rate, right? So I probably was a little more traumatized by the whole experience.
PHAWKER: I always heard that English as a second language is one of the hardest languages to learn because it has like such weird and random rules.
AMIR K: So many rules and exceptions! So I’m glad that I came when I was younger, dude, because it really is a mindfuck when you’re older. When you’re over the threshold of really picking up the language like a sponge, it gets so weird. You hear like weird accents and people not being able to conjugate verbs correctly and all that shit. I’m glad I came when I came.
PHAWKER: Tell me about moving here from Iran.
AMIR K: I was born in Iran, and I came when I was five. You know what’s so crazy, is that it must have been very traumatic as a young kid. Imagine coming from a place where you speak the language, you can understand everybody, and then all of a sudden they just take you and you don’t know what the fuck is going on, you’re a kid. You just come into this other place, and now I’m going to kindergarten with fucking people that I can’t even understand what they’re saying. Like what? And I remember bawling my eyes out the first day. I was just like crying for my mom. It got to the point where my mom had to come and be an assistant there until I got assimilated to being around these other people that I didn’t know. I had separation anxiety. That probably did something to me mentally.
PHAWKER: When did you decide that comedy was what you wanted to do with your life?
AMIR K: I always wanted to do stand-up. From seventh grade or whatever, my teacher would let us do little performances in the class or act out scenes from a book and shit. I remember love just having the attention of everyone. In seventh grade, it happened again, where I was kind of the class clown, and we had a talent show. My Spanish teacher was like, really supportive of it. Even to the point where he let me teach the class, like a lesson that was simple just because it would it would be fun for the kids. It was teachers like that, that really motivated us to do these creative things. So he was like, “Come host the talent show.” I’m like, “Hell yeah.” So my buddy and I wrote all the sketches and then we performed in front of the school. We wrote the interstitial, sketches in between the acts. We’d come up and say something or make like a little funny segment. Then we’d bring up the next act.
They were laughing and shit, and I got hooked then. Afterward, I was trying to figure out a way to do that again, like I would do like theater or any sort of elective classes, I chose theater. After high school, I was like, “What do I do now?” I just started looking at open mics and shit like that. But then also being Middle Eastern and all that, school is very important. So you have that in your head, and I would just use that as my excuse not to do stand-up forever. I did stand up so I knew I could do it, but I didn’t go gung ho, just like, commit to it. There was still that whole thing of like, “I gotta do this cool thing for my parents.” Realistically I could have just started then and never looked back, but I just didn’t have the balls. I think that’s what it takes. It’s that personal thing of just like, fucking go for it.
PHAWKER: Telling your parents you want to go into something risky like comedy with no guarantee that you will be able to support yourself is an uphill battle no matter your situation, but it must be doubly hard for first generation immigrants trying to get an economic foothold in a strange new country.
AMIR K: Yeah. I’m not the first brown dude to talk about this in an interview. Realistically, it’s not about the parents not wanting you to do the arts or something. They just just want financial stability for you and your future. They know coming from an immigrant experience, you work hard and study. You study to be a doctor, a lawyer, something that’s going to be a fruitful career because if you study, you do these certain things, you get to do the job. Then what comes with that is financial stability later on in your life. And that’s all they want. It doesn’t come from a place like maliciousness or whatever. There is a little respect level to it to, especially in the Iranian culture. “All the the doctors are very well respected and a good member of society,” or whatever. So, that’s why they do push that thing, but when I started stand up, I kind of became my own man at that point. When I started when I was 27, they were like it’s your life, do your thing. So, it never was a thing that I’m still trying to prove myself to my parents to this day. They kind of were over that when I when I started.
PHAWKER: So what happened a couple years after college? You’re like, “All right, I’m gonna try to stand up again?”
AMIR K: So I was doing real estate appraisals because the market was really hot. All my buddies are making all this money, and so I lied to myself again. I was like, “I’ll just go and save some money to go to law school. I started to work at an appraisal company, making money doing real estate. Money started getting really good, so I’m like, “Holy shit this is never going to end.” That was kind of keeping me away from getting into stand-up. So all this money is coming in and it’s great. Then all of a sudden, the market turned and in one month, I lost like, 70-80% of my business. My girlfriend at the time, she got a job in LA and I’m like, “All right, I’m starting stand-up, fuck it.” My biggest nightmare was being the funny guy at the water cooler at 40 years old. You know like just looking forward to lunch breaks or meetings where I can crack a joke. Even after moving to LA it still took me a year to get into it. Because like I said, getting the balls to go all in is the hardest thing to do. Literally going, this is it and not having a backup plan is the hardest thing to do.
PHAWKER: You had a role in Argo. Can you tell me about that experience.
AMIR K: I mean, it’s cool. Because it was my first acting gig, and to be in an Oscar-winning film is amazing. By no means was this a huge part. It got cut down to just a few close ups, and they cut the lines and all that. It was still a very cool experience to be on set with those guys. You know, just learning that world. And I was like, “Holy shit, I’m in a scene with Ben Affleck.” For my first gig, it was pretty, pretty crazy.
The way I got that was just somebody knew I was an Iranian American comedian. They knew this movie was coming out where they needed Iranian American actors. I went in, had a conversation with Ben Affleck after a few initial auditions. I sat down with him and Grant Heslov and they liked me. I was reading for some other role that was a little bit bigger, and I didn’t have any acting experience or anything on my resume. So they were like, “We like you,” but I don’t think they could trust me, it’s a multimillion dollar budget, and put somebody that has no experience in front of the cameras. If I was to freeze up that’s production dollars down the drain, so, they were like, “we like you, we’re going to find you something in this.”