Stop me if you've heard this one already. What do you get when you cross a gay man with an Armenian? Apparently, you get Movses Shakarian.
A lawyer by day, Shakarian spends his nights hitting the mics at comedy venues across Los Angeles. This month, the openly gay comic is working double duty, both producing and performing in a pair of shows, Armenian Allstars and That’s So Wrong, which aim to give a voice to the often invisible queer Armenian community.
"We exist!" Shakarian exclaims in a recent preshow interview. "Despite what many Armenian people will say, we do come in gay. There are more of us than anyone would know, and I would like to add that we are not all log-cabin Republicans." Always one to end with a punch line, the Los Angeles native quips, "That aside, the biggest myth I would like to dispel is that not all gay Armenians have perfect eyebrows."
Although Shakarian can shrug it off with a laugh, the Armenian community has long been a target of negative stereotyping. When Movses was 3 years old, his family moved out of L.A., which according to the 2000 census was home to 40 percent of the nation's Armenian-American populace, the highest concentration of that ethnicity in the United States. He was often the only student with Armenian origins in his school, and he developed his comedy skills as a form of self-defense.
"Growing up as an overweight, gay, brown kid, I used comedy to make fun of myself before others had the chance to," Shakarian says.
In 2010, he moved back to L.A. and was confronted by unprecedented prejudice.
"I was shocked at the racism and generalizations I now face," Shakarian recounts. "Stereotypes which I had never experienced before, such as people assuming I am involved in fraud, that I am somehow tied to criminal activity and that I cannot be trusted in my profession as an attorney. Last but not least, the assumption that just because I am Armenian, I live in Glendale, which I don’t," he adds, invoking the Los Angeles city closely associated with its sizable Armenian population. "Because I can’t afford it. Glendale is expensive!"
Dispelling myths about Armenian culture is a primary goal of Armenian Allstars, which takes place on the second Sunday of every month at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank. Now in its third year, this comedy show co-produced by Mary Basmadjian and Michael Passion showcases a variety of comics, sketches, improv, musical acts and even magicians to comment on topical issues, as well as endorse the rights of women and the LGBT community, two demographics often marginalized by a traditionally conservative culture.
"One of the goals of Armenian Allstars is to bridge the gap between Armenians and non-Armenians," Shakarian explains. "It is personally important to me to communicate to Armenian LGBTQ people that there is support within our community, and provide an environment that allows everyone to let loose and feel comfortable."
Shakarian isn't above a bit of elbowing when it comes to his culture.
“I’m a gay Armenian, which makes me different from most Armenian men, because I don’t dress as gay as they do," says Shakarian, quoting from his stand-up act. "When I get dressed I look like a man. I don’t look like Lawrence of Arabia fucked Liberace.”
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If Armenian Allstars mingles the waters of Armenian and LGBT cultures, That's So Wrong cannonballs into the deep end of the gay swimming pool. Running the last Wednesday of every month on the stage of DTLA's Precinct, this queer cabaret co-produced by Levi Packer and hosted by Shawn Morales features comedy, drag, performance art, go-go boys and political satire, while aiming to create a safe haven for LGBT Armenians. Most importantly, it's a venue where Shakarian can fag out as hard as he wants.
"For Allstars, the difficulty is when Armenian audiences think that I’m joking about being gay," Shakarian says. "That I pretend, for the sake of comedy, I am a homosexual. Because nothing gets a crowd laughing harder than awkward homophobia. That’s So Wrong, on the other hand, is almost the inverse of Armenian Allstars. The crowd is not in shock that I’m gay or that I’m addressing LGBTQ issues, they embrace it."
Similar to how Armenian Allstars strives to bridge the gap between Armenians and the LGBT community, That's So Wrong endeavors to create a supportive hub for comedians and the disparate factions of L.A.'s queer culture.
"That’s So Wrong provides a safe space where comics and audience members can express themselves regarding LGBTQ and other issues without censorship or the fear of being labeled. [The show] uses humor as a form of bonding and comradery, trying to unite all factions of the LGBTQ community, including twinks and otters," Shakarian, always wrapping with a joke, adds, "and tigers and bears ... oh my!"