Meet the Southern Christian Comedian Making a Living Performing at Muslim Festivals
Jeremy McLellan's brand of liberal-advocacy humor has found him playing both Muslim festivals and Libertarian conferences.
Muslims love him. Trump supporters want to kill him. That's South Carolina comic Jeremy McLellan's schtick.
With more than 100,000 followers on Facebook, McLellan has become a staple at Muslim festivals and events around North America. In the upcoming months, McLellan's gigs include Muslim Students' Association events at universities across the US, a nonprofit for Syrian refugees in Boston, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations annual banquet in Oklahoma and Los Angeles.
McLellan says he never set out to gain a Muslim following. "As a comedian, you just tell jokes that you think are funny and talk about issues you think are important."
McLellan, 30, grew up in Charleston in a conservative Christian household, but his comedy has always been focused on liberal-minded takes on immigration, race, religion, Islamophobia, politics, and disabilities.
"One of the reasons I'm so passionate about the rights of Muslims is because my wife is Catholic. It's hard to imagine now, but years ago, politicians would have called her [a] disloyal, hateful, intemperate, angry, un-American barbarian. And you know what? They would have been right. But NOT because she's Catholic," is a typical joke from a McLellan set.
He started about three years ago, trying his luck at some open-mic nights around Charleston. He won the 2015 and 2016 Charleston Standup Comedy Competition and was named the best local comic in the Charleston City Paper. Comedy is now his full-time gig.
McLellan, however, doesn't like labels—well, some labels. "I try to correct people when they label me a Libertarian comedian or a Christian comedian. But I guess you could call me a political comedian because I do that a lot."
By now, McLellan is a pro at navigating Muslim events, understanding the unspoken do's and don'ts: Do not shake hands with the women (unless they initiate the gesture); do tell jokes about how diverse the Muslim community is; do not say "Moslem."
I recently met up with him at Muslimfest in Mississauga, Ontario, where we talked about Trump, death threats, and Desis (a person of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi descent).
VICE: You've gained a lot of popularity with Muslims and Southeast Asians. Why do you think that is?
Jeremy McLellan: I don't set out and think, How do I write a joke to appeal to Muslims and Desi people? It's more like I see it in the news, it is important, and I talk about it. Think of it like this: You open up a fruit stand, and you love all the different types of fruit, but it turns out everyone loves your oranges. So what do you do? You sell oranges. You become the orange king. That's what happened to me. I tell a lot of jokes about a lot of things—race, immigration, police brutality—all these hot-button topics that I love addressing. But Islamophobia seems to be the thing that everyone wants to hear me talk about.
Did you grow up in a diverse neighborhood?
No. Well our next-door neighbors were from Iran—the mom wore a hijab, but we didn't know much about it. I grew up in a very conservative Christian household. I am still Christian but much more liberal than how I grew up. Before I was a comic, I worked with people with intellectual disabilities. I met a Pakistani guy there, his family invited me over and fed me biryani, and that was my first exposure to Muslim culture, as well as Pakistani and Desi culture. Then later in comedy, I started meeting more Muslims.
Why are your jokes so heavily centered on law, politics, and other social issues?
I've always been interested in religion, religion in public life, and how spirituality affects people and their approach to politics. And I've always talked about social issues, but in the past year, a lot of stuff I was saying started going viral among Muslims.
Do you change your routine when you are playing to a Muslim audience?
No. That is a big misconception. I don't do two separate acts. I perform for non-Muslims all the time, and I will use those jokes for Muslim audiences. I do change up the routine if the organizers have told me it has to be "family friendly." I would tailor the jokes to the audience, of course, like there are some jokes that maybe only Muslim audiences would get, but it's not like I have a joke that I tell elsewhere, and it might offend Muslims, so I won't tell it. Like, you wouldn't tell a joke about sex at any family-friendly event. But you might tell an alcohol joke. And I've told alcohol jokes to both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, and it's been fine. There was one time that a contract had a clause not to tell any jokes about the difference between Sunni and Shia. As if I would have a lot of material about that.
What have you learned about the Muslim community?
It is diverse. I think non-Muslims, both on the right and the left, treat Muslims as just one thing. You see it even with the hijab debate. People on the right will be like, "Oh, all Muslim women are being subjugated and being dominated by their husbands, and we need to ban the hijab." Then, on the left, you have people who are well intentioned who support the hijab, but the way they talk they make it sound like every single Muslim woman wears it. They will make it sound like a Saudi is the same as a Pakistani or a Malaysian. And they just aren't, and I wouldn't want someone generalizing like that about Christians.
What has the response to your comedy been from right-wing conservatives?
The actual Christians that I know are great and very supportive, like my parents. The backlash varies. It ranges from friends who tease me, to people who kind of know me and hate me, to people who just want me to die.
So you've actually received death threats?
I have, yeah. Whenever I do get one, I screenshot it and report it to Facebook. I get a lot of "I hope you die." The stuff that bothers me, though, is people wishing ill on my wife. It's just people saying really harsh things that want me to have a rude awakening. They are hoping I get killed by a Muslim or things like that.
Have you ever feared for your life?
No. Most of the time I know they are trolling. It's not credible. And as long as they don't kill me, whatever they did will help me. If someone beat me up, I would be in the news, and that's just how I have to think as an entertainer.
Many people outside of the United States are fascinated by how far Trump has managed to get in the election. What are your thoughts of his campaign?
I think he is an opportunist. I think he is an entertainer, and he is using whatever to gain popularity. Let's say 99 percent of the country hated me, and 1 percent loved me enough to send me ten bucks a year. I would make 32 million a year. As an entertainer, you don't care about the 99 percent. You want to hit your demographic and go on. Right now, Trump is not doing well. I don't think Trump cares. He just sees people who support him and come to his rallies, because he is an entertainer. And like an entertainer, he counts his fans. The others aren't costing him anything.
What is the goal of comedy for you?
There are some people who are like, "I just want to make people laugh." Comedy for me is the healthiest way to wrestle with important issues; it is a part of my intellectual life.