Photos by Oriana Koren
It only takes 15 minutes. That’s the length of Sabrina Jalees’ set on Netflix’s “The Comedy Lineup” and the exact amount of time it will take for you to realize the comedy world needs her voice.
The 34-year-old Toronto native never shies away from the things that make her comedy personal: She’s queer, half Pakistani, half Swiss and has been open throughout her career about coming out of the closet — initially getting rejected by some members of her extended Muslim family — all while navigating a post-9/11 world.
More recently, she and her wife, Shauna McCann, moved to Los Angeles and had a son named Wolfie. Jalees has been refreshingly open about Wolfie’s birth — so much so that her Instagram account serves as a sort of quasi-docuseries that fellow queer women like myself profoundly crave and rarely find. Jalees often admits she’s been a resource to other LGBTQ couples looking to have children, too.
Beyond the magic Jalees conjures onstage, she writes for smart comedies with big hearts, like TBS’s “Search Party” and Netflix’s “Big Mouth.” She also just snagged an acting role as a (“casually gay!”) medical intern on the upcoming CBS sitcom “Carol’s Second Act” (no, not that Carol, lesbians!) alongside powerhouses Patricia Heaton and Kyle MacLachlan. The comedy will premiere in the fall.
Regardless of the medium, Jalees continues to sprinkle her wit with vulnerability and honesty that should inspire anyone tiptoeing toward professional comedy. HuffPost caught up with Jalees to talk about her career, her son, leaving New York and what pride means to her.
One of the things that I like about your comedy is that you bring up parts of your identity in ways that are super authentic. But you don’t over-explain. For example, in Netflix’s “Comedy Lineup,” you assume your audience understands that sexuality is fluid. Has that been a particular challenge for you?
That’s a good question. I’ve been doing stand-up for a really long time. I just turned 34, and I started when I was 16, so I’ve certainly gone through a lot of different chapters. The way that I have reflected my identity back at the audience has always been reflective of what I was going through.
When I started to do stand-up, it was kind of a reaction to post-9/11 Islamophobia, and I was this half Pakistani, half Swiss girl that read as like, Italian or Puerto Rican ... So people would say these racist things in front of me. I was getting paid to show up at these South Asian benefits and I was performing on all-Muslim lineups.
Once I realized I was gay, it felt more difficult (more so than telling my parents) to come out onstage, because I didn’t see how those two things could reconcile. So there was definitely a period in my life where I was closeted onstage.
Then I was touring colleges in the South, and I would see some gay kids in the audience and I was like, “I could be the only gay person that comes to their college and talks about it in a proud way. Why am I holding back on that?”
The more I came out onstage, the more natural it became ... The more I do stand-up, the closer I am to just me being me onstage. The “Comedy Lineup” thing ... it was filmed in Atlanta, [and that] night, I asked, “Can anyone really say in this room that they are 100% straight?” And nobody clapped.
Has an audience member ever come up to you after a set to say, “I never thought of sexuality or gender that way before”?
Totally. I think stand-up is one of things where because people speak so freely when it’s done right and are speaking about these taboo things –– there’s a likelihood that someone’s never really heard it that way. To me, that’s one of the big, amazing parts about storytelling in general.
It’s interesting you started stand-up so young. Did you ever have an “Aha!” moment that inspired you to pursue comedy, or was it a slow realization?
I’d probably gone to a few shows and I just had this feeling –– this urgency of wanting to be onstage. [A venue] gave out fliers promoting amateur night ... To me, going downtown and performing for a bunch of drunk strangers was way lower stakes than potentially bombing in front of my whole high school, so I was like, “Oh, I could do this.”
I tried it ... and I fell completely in love. I loved the power of it. I loved the fact that in that moment, it was my time to talk. Everybody had to listen. I mean, when you’re 16, you never really get that kind of power.
We always read those essays, “Why I Left New York.” I grew up in New Jersey, so New York is very familiar to me. The West Coast –– I feel like Don Draper every time I go –– and I’m always “finding myself” there. What made you say “Peace out New York, I gotta go” and move to LA?
I wrote a spec script that was based on if my wife and I moved in with my in-laws in Virginia. My father-in-law is ex-military –– they go to church every Sunday. So it was kind of this reverse “Everybody Loves Raymond” situational comedy. I got a good manager, and then she hooked me up with these agents, and then shortly after, they sent my pilot around to showrunners in LA and I had all these interviews.
I got my first staffing job on an NBC multi-cam called “Crowded.” My wife and I had our place in Brooklyn and I was like, “I’m going to go to LA for four or five months, write on the show, and then come back to New York, the best place in the world and the only place we’ll ever live.”
Once I came over here, you know, palm trees are gorgeous. Palm Springs is an hour and a half drive away. We decided we’d move out here pretty soon after. It’s all about growing, and LA has this incubator here –– it goes beyond stand-up. We’ve got this amazing baby now and there’s just something really nice about no snow suits. It’s like, December, and we’re outside in T-shirts playing in the playground.
Have you been to Dinah Shore?
I have been to Dinah Shore.
I’ve never been! I ask this because you mentioned Palm Springs...
I actually was just at Dinah Shore for the third time ––
Oh, my God.
... a couple weeks ago, with our baby. Dinah Shore with baby is much different than Dinah Shore without baby.
Oh, I’m sure, I’m sure.
But it was so fun. Shauna [Jalees’ wife] was like, “I’m going to go check on the baby.” And we lost her forever. She was asleep in the bedroom. But yeah, Dinah Shore is pretty amazing.
One of these days... So, I definitely want to talk about the baby!
Oh, my God. Incredible baby.
Can this just be about your baby, Wolfie? I love how you bring up the fact that people still get pretty shook when they see two woman having a baby together, and they’re like, “How does it happen?” Do you often find yourself offering advice to other soon-to-be LGBTQ parents?
Constantly, constantly, constantly, constantly. Very, very proudly ... The great benefit about being gay is that you go into that journey knowing that it’s not going to be this specific story ... People do look at you when you’re a gay couple with a baby like you’re two pigeons with a hat. How did those two pigeons get that cool hat? And how did they decide which one would wear it?
Wolfie’s story is super beautiful. I first heard about it on the podcast “Las Culturistas.”
Ricky, our donor, he’s just so awesome. He wrote me on my birthday and was like,“I’m so grateful that we met and that we’re on this adventure together.”
We never anticipated that ... a surf lesson in Mexico would lead us to the biggest treasure of our life. I loved stumbling upon this amazing soul that was so generous and sweet and open from the minute that I asked him to go on this adventure with us. His mother came to visit. We’d never bargained for having that amazing new element, a biological grandma for Wolfie. She is this amazing, smart chemist professor. Beautiful, sweet, loving, obsessed with Wolfie.
And Ricky, I mean, all we asked for really was that he would be open to donating to us ... My wife had this shrine that she’d made with candles and Wolfie’s name written down, and it was all very intentional and open and warm and romantic, and I think there’s something to that.
Another moment on the “Las Culturistas” podcast episode that really touched me: You were talking about not wanting to use the word “blessed,” but you were often finding yourself in moments where something magical is happening and you would ask yourself, “What is the word for this?” That really struck a chord with me. I’m wondering if you’ve found a word for that thing?
Someone sneezed today in the writers room and –– I’m sure most people [in the room] are pretty atheist –– but everyone [said], “Bless you.” And in my mind I was like, “That’s so funny.”
I was raised with Islam ... My mother didn’t convert to Islam, but by religious standards, my mom is probably a gold star. She just doesn’t go to a church. But with the birth of Wolfie and all the signs that connected –– it’s fine to say that the universe has blessed us. I have this beautiful baby ... We had him in such a blessed, miraculous way that it’s safe to say for me that there are aspects of religion that are doing it right, you know? We don’t have to be robbed of those benefits –– I don’t have to tie it to a specific club.
Definitely. So you’re rebranding the word “blessed.”
Yeah, or just reclaiming it.
“Blessed” can mean different things to different people. When someone sneezes, I say, “Bless you.” Why don’t we do it when people cough? It’s just a custom. But there’s something nice about customs, you know?
Definitely. I want to talk about your projects, specifically “Big Mouth.” I’m sure you probably get this all the time, but I’m wondering if you could touch upon the differences between writing for live-action and animation that are maybe not so obvious, especially when it comes to comedy.
Sure. I mean, there’s a limitless aspect to writing for animation and you can go for jokes that don’t necessarily have to be super grounded, you know? Like the thing that I just said about the two pigeons with a hat –– that scenario could easily be translated into animation ... I get excited for both, and it’s really fun to be in the “Big Mouth” room. They have really smart, funny people in the room. Queer people. Gabe Liedman and Patti Harrison and Mitra Jouhari. The room is stacked with people that I would be stoked to have a drink with, so being able to giggle and doodle with them all day is fun.
The other thing that is happening right now is that I got cast in this CBS multi-cam called “Carol’s Second Act” and it stars Patricia Heaton and Kyle MacLachlan. I am a doctor in this hospital, and I’m one of leads in this show ... I could be Ray Romano. I could be lesbian Ray Romano.
That’s just going to be my headline. And I’m not going to explain it either.
And I’m casually gay on the show.
That’s the most important thing!
Yeah, which is huge for a show on CBS. That’s like millions of eyeballs that wouldn’t necessarily maybe tune in to a show that centered around a gay couple, but [they might say] “Who’s that cute little lesbian Ray Romano in a doctor’s coat? I think I’m falling in love with her.”
Has it started filming?
We shot the pilot and it was super fun. Multi-cam is like this perfect blend of stand-up and acting and writing. It was shot in front of a live studio audience. It felt really good and we should find out in the next couple weeks [if it’s happening]. Before this piece comes out, we’ll find out if I’m going to be on a sitcom.
What does pride mean to you? And it doesn’t have to necessarily be about the month of June or a Pride event. It can just be about living authentically.
I think that all queer people have to go through this rite of passage, where it can feel really lonely and feel a lot like you’re not normal, or you’re not the way you’re supposed to be. I think the celebration of Pride is the realization that your queerness is perfect and your queerness makes you special and your queerness is something to be proud of.
I remember when I was younger and closeted-ish, coming into the realization that I was attracted to women. There was this part of me that saw Gay Pride as this big, flamboyant symbol that made me kind of uncomfortable. Because I was young and I was still hooked on this idea that my best self is someone that blends.
And now that I’ve come into myself and realized that every single part of me that was once something that I was embarrassed of is this treasured part of my identity: It’s the part of me that makes me special. I realize how important it is for Pride to be this big, flamboyant, fun, colorful, loud celebration.
This interview was edited for clarity.