Tamer Kattan is a stand-up comedian who’s plied his strategy trade at 72andSunny, TBWA\Chiat\Day, and Deutsch.
He was born in Egypt, moved to the USA when he was eight, and then he had to work out how to adapt to an unhappy father and to unpredictable and sometimes violent environments as he grew up. Unfortunate for Tamer but lucky for us–because now he makes jokes about it all.
Mark Pollard: What’s up? Welcome to Sweathead with Mark Pollard.
I have Tamer Kattan, professional stand-up comedian, international brand strategists. It’s not that I’m intimidated, I think I’m feeling more excited than intimidated in having this conversation, especially having just watched and rewatched some of Tamer’s work online.
So Tamer, welcome to Sweathead.
Tamer Kattan: Thanks so much. What a lovely introduction and Sweathead is such a great name for this podcast. I love it. Great to finally meet you.
Mark Pollard: Totally, totally. And it’s really funny because I think it’s almost two years, not to the day, but I’d say to the month, that I found out about you, and it was through Heather LeFevre, we were up in Portland—
Tamer Kattan: I love her. So smart.
Mark Pollard: Yeah, she’s awesome, totally smart, and she’s explored her comedy interests as well, I think, and that’s probably like an ongoing pursuit her, but like—’cause I talk a lot about stand-up comedy and she’s like, “Have you heard of this guy who does strategy, who does comedy, his name is Tamer?” And I looked you up immediately.
And it’s interesting because I’m kind of curious to talk to you about a few themes. One is the power of the outsider. The second—because I didn’t give you these things before, so I’m surprising them on you—the second is finding your voice while working a professional job in which maybe people are uncomfortable with someone having a voice. And through that I think we’ll touch on comedy and strategy as well.
You talk a little bit about being an outsider, and obviously you put that mentality to work for you now. Is it fair to say it’s a journey from feeling like an outsider that doesn’t have power too, You know what? I’ve actually got something to say, stepping into it and then it being pretty central to how you exist and how you put yourself out into the world?
Tamer Kattan: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely a journey. The only caveat is that it’s kind of a passive journey in a sense that I don’t think it’s something that when I initially felt like an outsider that I actively pursued, How do I fit in and how do I figure this out and how do I make this a superpower instead of an anchor. And really it was more just growing through life stages and becoming an adult. And, you know, realizing that a lot of times the things that are most difficult when you’re young actually do become great tools for insight, great tools for empathy when you become older.
So it took a very long time for me to appreciate the wine, you know? When I was a kid, it tasted awful and I just wanted to fit in, I think that’s a very human thing, when you’re a child. I think you’d be an abnormal child if you wanted to be an outsider when you were a preteen .
Mark Pollard: And so you moved to when you were eight years old, is that correct?
Tamer Kattan: Yeah.
Mark Pollard: And I mean, did you arrive feeling like an outsider or did you arrive happy, joyful, and then learned that you were an outsider?
Tamer Kattan: Very much the latter. I think the funny thing, the stereotype for immigrants, especially people from places like Egypt, is that we all come from these, you know, war-torn, dictatorial places. And then we come to America and we’re like, “Oh, this is the Disneyland of humanity.” And really it was the reverse.
In Egypt we lived a great life and we lived in an upper-middle-class-to-upper-class neighborhood. And everybody loved us, I had friends up and down the street, we had lovely neighbors that would visit us every day. But there was a roof that was a little bit too low for my dad in terms of his goals and wants and desires.
And so when we moved to America, it wasn’t because what we get the day we set foot on American soil, it was because what we get after we, you know, put blood and sweat into the country. So when I first came to America, it was a step down rather than the stereotypical image of it being a step up for people.
And it was a shocker to go from being treated so well in Egypt and almost, dare I say, respected. It’s a weird feeling for a child to have, but I felt like I was respected when I was even eight years old in Egypt. And then coming to America and being—you know, it’s really funny, people talk about racism as if it was something that was born post-9/11. And I very clearly remember racism happening because of gas prices in America. You know, like, they talk on the news about gas prices being high, and I’d watch it like it was a weather report for bullies. I’d be like, Oh no, they’re talking about Arabs in the news. They’re talking about gas prices going high, and, you know, I would deconstruct it. And what it felt like to me was happening was these kids’ parents would be at home going, Oh, those goddamn Arabs. And then the kids would come to school and go, I know one of those, and then I’d get a beating. You know what I mean? So it was a very complex, unfair, unjust, you know, a perfect storm for an angry childhood.
Mark Pollard: So when I travel I try to watch stand up comedy, and I was in Léon in—I guess we’ll call it eastern France—last week, and I speak a little bit of French, and I’ve never been to comedy in France, and I’m not fluent anymore. And I went to a club, and I saw a young guy called Reda Sidiki who’s Algerian, and I understood this—I understood about a third of the show—he said, “In Algeria, I’m white.”
Tamer Kattan: [Laughs] That’s fantastic.
Mark Pollard: It was in French.
Tamer Kattan: So funny.
Mark Pollard: Right? But like it’s funny ‘cause you get that, and he’s like, “Now, I mean, ‘cause there’s really complicated history—colonialism and terrorism and all sorts of stuff—between France and Algeria.”
Tamer Kattan: But it’s absolutely—
Mark Pollard: But it came to my mind as you were talking about having a relatively decent life and then coming here and having to work out where you actually fitted in and that maybe where you fitted in wasn’t how you expected.
Tamer Kattan: Oh, absolutely. And even France is such an interesting example for anybody of Arab descent, because I remember going to France as an adult—I was going to Cannes for the advertising awards—and I remember very distinctly feeling like energy from people in the street where—I’m a pretty friendly person, I have a big smile on my face, but I also, you know, I’m sleeved in tattoos and have a big scar next to my eye, and when I’m not smiling, I could be an extra on Sons of Anarchy—and I remember walking down the street and France and people moving away from me. And I’m like, Oh, I guess tattoos are a bigger deal here than they are in Los Angeles in New York. And then I would see these tough-looking kids giving me a head nod and I was like, Oh, the scary kids here are the Arab kids. They’re not intimidated by my tattoos, they’re intimidated by my heritage.
So I was like, Oh, this is what it must feel like to be a black kid in America or to be a Latin kid in America. We’re the ones that are demonized in France. It was interesting. It made me feel like I was in the shoes of brown people in America to be an Arab person in France.
Mark Pollard: Yeah, there’s a whole different vibe in France. I remember—as a teenager I was in Northern Paris at these big markets and just crews of young kids would come through with beatboxes and rottweilers—they were probably like a year older than me at the time—trying to scare everyone, and that’s like the—there’s a different vibe there. It’s hard to explain, it’s kind of moodier than, I think, the U.S.
Tamer Kattan: Well, that’s all fearful, you know? Like, I think, because I was one of those kids, I realize now that the reason why I made myself look so scary is because the scarier I looked, the safer I felt. And even now, when I do comedy and I talk about things like child abuse, there’s always—at least a few times a year—there’s a handful of times where there’ll be these big scary guys waiting in the back of a comedy show at the end of the night, kind of patiently waiting for everybody else to leave just so they can approach me and say, “Hey, you know what? My dad beat me too.” And I’m like, Wow, you look scary as hell. You know? You’re this big buff guy covered in tattoos and you look rough and tough. And I go, Oh, a lot of times these “tough” kids are just the most afraid.
Mark Pollard: Yeah. So what was your coping mechanism for growing up? Like, if you were getting violence in the home and violence…basically everywhere…
Tamer Kattan: [Laughs] Yeah.
Mark Pollard: …were you a violent kid, were you a big kid? Were you lifting weights young and training young, or did that come later?
Tamer Kattan: That came a little bit later. And I think it was very much not even a conscious thing. You know, there’s this quote I really like, it says, “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.” And I think there’s some things that are craft, like boxing or comedy or even, dare I say, strategy, where you could read about it all you want, but until your body learns it, until you instinctively start to go, Yes, that’s right and No, that’s wrong without even thinking, it’s not really in you 100%, you know what I mean?
And I think I found bodybuilding the way a sick dog found, I should now eat grass, you know what I mean? It wasn’t something I did consciously, it was something I did subconsciously or I said, Maybe this will help. And yeah, I mean, I was bullied at home, I was bullied at school, and I think comedy—
I was gifted with comedy in the sense that my grandfather was a very funny person. It skipped a generation with my dad and landed on me. A lot of people talk about that and it seems to be a pretty common story that it skips a generation. I don’t know what that is, but with me, I’ve always been a funny person, and I’ve found the joy of comedy growing up in the house that I grew up in.
And then when I got to America, I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood, and in the Mexican neighborhood there’s this tradition where they give you a nickname that’s the opposite of what you are. So like, tall guys are called “Shorty,” fat guys are called “Skinny,” and I was a little bit too much of a joker—I’d smiled too much and I kept getting jumped. And then this kid that was in a gang said, “Hey man, if you keep smiling, people are going to keep jumping you. It makes you look arrogant. People look at you like, ‘What does he have that I don’t have? What does he have to be happy about?’ And then they’ll jump you.” So I stopped smiling for a really long time, and because of that they gave me the nickname “Joker” because I never joked around.
But it’s still—it was like cinching off a hose. Then when I did have an opportunity, when I was behind closed doors, oh man, it just burst out of me. And I was constantly trying to use comedy to feel better.
Mark Pollard: It’s funny ‘cause, I was just rewatching some of your videos from right now and then from a couple of years ago, and I feel like the energy shift too—and I don’t want to get all weird and spiritual about it, I want to talk about that in a second—but a couple of years ago, the videos that I saw of you, you were basically doing comedy through a very large smile while looking through very large glasses.
Tamer Kattan: Right. Great observation.
Mark Pollard: And is that about you just re-establishing yourself for how you know yourself? Because I think it’s shifted—the last videos I’ve seen—I don’t know if you’ve done it consciously, but it feels a little bit different, whereas the smile was really dominant and consistent in the videos I saw from a couple of years ago.
Tamer Kattan: Yeah, I think you’re right, I think it’s a great observation. I believe that, before, I smiled almost to a point of—I would do it to keep people away or to hide my true feelings. I would talk about dark things but put a big smile on my face, the way an insecure person would make a joke and then say, “Just kidding, just kidding.”
And I think now I’ve settled in. I mean, I even—I wrote a tweet today where somebody commented on the tweet and said just a one word comment. He wrote, “Dark.” And then I wrote a one word comment, and I wrote “Real.” And then my comment got more likes than his. [Laughs]
Mark Pollard: Agh, you’re keeping a school board!
Tamer Kattan: [Laughs]
Mark Pollard: But the thing is like—I did a little bit of therapy last year and I smile a lot and it’s built in to—
Look, I’m going to talk about Australia, but I don’t mean it—yeah, I do mean it a bit stereotypically, but Australia’s pretty—it’s a physical country when you’re growing up as a young guy, a lot of big dudes, a lot of bit muscly dudes, and there is this thing called a shit-eating grin. And that’s a phrase that we use to describe—especially politicians—when they’re just standing there with this huge smile, being kind of condescending to everyone, thinking that they don’t know what they’re talking about. That’s, like, one interpretation of it. ButI don’t think a lot of Aussie men, not all, but a lot—we don’t know how to express ourselves, and expressing ourselves back in the day meant that you weren’t heterosexual, and that meant that you risked getting bashed. And I don’t support these ideas, but these were the ideas in the 1970s and 1980s and it’s horrible, right, it’s horrible.
But I found myself in therapy, and I would say some really horrible stuff, and I would smile, and the therapist would say like, “What’s—why do you keep smiling at this?” And on the one hand I’m like, that’s a fair comment. But on the other hand, like, what’s wrong with smiling at it? [Laughs] Like, there’s obviously an irony I’m struggling with, but also, what’s wrong with smiling?!
Tamer Kattan: Exactly. It’s funny, I explained this to a friend of mine, [he said], “The stereotype is that comedians are dark people.” And I’m going, no, no, it’s the opposite. People are dark. Comedians are light. We’re the ones who shine the light on dark things. And by doing that people say, “Oh, well, you’re dark.” No, that’s like saying firefighters love fire. No, they don’t. They’re the ones who put it out. I think people are dark, and by avoiding the dark things, that doesn’t mean that they go away, you know?
I think there’s a—especially with men, you know, like, we always hear, especially lately, about women and growing up with these impossible physical standards. But so rarely do people talk about the impossible emotional standards that men grow up with. You know, “Boys don’t cry.” That’s an impossibility. Of course you cry. Of course we’re going to cry, of course, things are going to make us sad.
So we’ve got women with impossible physical standards on one end of the spectrum, and men with impossible emotional standards. And it’s no wonder there’s so many stories of men with broken brains popping up in media, nowadays. And I commend you for going to therapy, and I wish more men would go to therapy and more people would understand the value of men having a full emotional experience as opposed to this tiny lens that we’re supposed to live our emotional lives through.
Mark Pollard: Yeah, if you put on your comedian hat, (Oh God, I hate the whole “put on a hat” thing) but when someone says something like, “You’re dark”, or, and I’m sure you’ve heard this, “You’re deep,” I have to admit, for a while I allowed those kinds of comments to push me back, to get me to recede. And then I kinda came to this similar epiphany to you, Wow, that everyone’s a bit dark. Like, most people through their day, whether they’re happy or they’re not, they’re thinking about death, violence, sex, eating, eating while having sex, maybe killing someone—like, all the thoughts happen in the head.
Tamer Kattan: Sure.
Mark Pollard: And then if you say them you’re dark or you’re deep, or you’re complicated or you’re difficult. What’s your take on that?
Tamer Kattan: You’re right. I think if you remind them of the darkness they blame the messenger [laughs] as opposed to the envelope that they have. You know what I mean? It’s like, we’re the ones that get blamed for bringing it up, and we’re the ones that get labeled for the darkness, even though they’re the ones that the letter was addressed to. You know, they have it too, they have the darkness in them, too. I think, you know, what did Maya Angelou say, she said, “It doesn’t matter what you do or say, what people remember most is how you made them feel.” And I think that’s how people respond. It’s not that we are dark. It’s that we made them feel darkness. Therefore we’re the ones labeled with it.
Mark Pollard: I increasingly agree with it, and I’m increasingly confident in calling it out, when someone labels me with something (which doesn’t happen that much anymore) but every now and then someone will say, “I think you’re this.” I’m like, “No, I think you’re talking to yourself,” and you know what happens? They’re like, “…..Yep.”
Tamer Kattan: Isn’t that great? Yeah. I thirst for those conversations, to be honest. You know, there’s a—Hunter S. Thompson used to say, “I don’t believe the truth is ever told between the hours of nine and five.” And I think there’s a real truth to that. There’s this informal form of communication that we use, nine-to-five. It’s like a dog walking on its hind legs; like, it’s cute, but it’s not natural, you know?
And after-five-o’clock-language, when we have those conversations that make us slightly uncomfortable, maybe even slightly combative, I feel like, Oh, thank God. It’s nice to be outdoors. It’s nice to have the leash off that looks like a tie. Like, this is us. These are the conversations we should be having. These are the conversations that the philosophers were having when they were truly free, when us human dogs were human wolves. And I want to maintain that wildness, and I think one way to maintain that wildness is for us to have those conversations. —and to continue to.
Mark Pollard: Do you not feel that you have them? Because I would imagine as someone who is a regular at The Comedy Store and Laugh Factory—I’ve watched a lot of videos from these places and even visited them even in L.A.—but like, you don’t feel that you have like a peer group where you have these conversations all the time? ‘Cause that’s what I would’ve imagined your life would be.
Tamer Kattan: I do now. It’s so fascinating, Mark. You know what’s really blown me away is that I felt when I was in advertising that I really had a great view of the world. Because I had friends that were all sorts of different ethnicities, and I worked in several different cities across the world, and then I hit the road as a comedian doing political comic while Trump was running for office. And I was like, My God, I had no idea what this country was like.
I knew Trump was gonna win two months before the election even went down. Because when I was in advertising, I was in New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, London, Sydney, and I thought I knew the world. And then when I became a comedian, I was going to Little Rock, Arkansas and Oklahoma city and Texas and all these places that advertising didn’t take me too. And the friends that I had, even though they were all different colors and ethnicities, we were all the same socioeconomic class.
And now as a comedian, now I feel like I’ve gotten a good scoop of the soup—where I’ve gotten every piece of society—like, I have friends who literally live in mansions because they’ve done so well with their comedy, and I have friends who sleep in cars. And I can have a conversation with both those friends at the same table, and it flows. And I didn’t realize how many blind spots I had as a strategist at a big ad agency and how much of a cult we have, especially socioeconomically, what a cult we have and what blind spots we have, until I found that group that I could have those conversations with.
Mark Pollard: Interesting. Yeah, I mean, I’ve been around the U.S. a lot in different places and I think, you know, obviously you and I look a little bit different. My experience has been that often middle-aged and older white men try to pull me into conversations about racism. And that really kicked off on a visit to Nashville before Trump—I can’t remember, there was some presidential—there was a debate, a Republican debate, I think—and ever since then, down in Louisiana, in Chicago for my 40th birthday, sitting at the hotel bar, ‘cause my kids were in a chess tournament and went to bed early. And these guys came up from St. Louis and in from Connecticut—one was a dentist—and they’re just talking to me about basically Nazi ideas. I’m like, Oh wow, I’m not here to have these conversations, but also, I am here, and I’m not going to judge it to your face, ‘cause that’s unnecessary, and I’m sure there’s a human in there—
but it’s weird how just after that trip to Nashville during, I don’t know what it was, like, 4th or fifth 5th, maybe the 55th Republican debate [laughs], everywhere I went, I was getting pulled—like Uber; you get in an Uber and everyone’s like, “Agh, immigrants, how’s about that?” And I’m like, Don’t want to have this conversation. I mean, I’m open to it, but like, [laughs] don’t draw me.
Tamer Kattan: Sure. Yeah, it’s a difficult thing because it forces you to realize how big the racism problem is, that it’s not just this small group of guys who, you know, in the khakis and polo shirts, or who hide their faces like, Oh, these guys look like regular guys, and, dare I say, seem like really nice guys, you know, outside of the racist ideologies.
Mark Pollard: Hmm. Yeah. I guess we’re talking about, like, white racism as well, because you travel around the world, there’s racism—not just white. [Laughs]
Tamer Kattan: Of course. Absolutely, and that’s the thing, I mean, I’m so fortunate in a sense that—I mean, my God, the first time anybody said a racial slur towards me was when I was in my mother’s womb. I’m not even exaggerating. Like, I have a Muslim father and a Jewish mother. And so I had family members cursing me as an unborn child.
And I look at them now, you know, as much older versions of themselves with much less testosterone in their bodies, and I look at them and I go, This is a different person, you know? And I realized that holding anger in holding resentment is very bad for me. But I could look at them—
And it gives me an ability to look at the people who say racist things now and do racist things now and have a little bit of empathy towards them. And what I’ve found is that a lot of times when I’m able to have a calm conversation with people who say racist things I think I fractured their ability to stay racist.
You know, like, Ronald Reagan is somebody I used a lot when I spoke to my clients in advertising. And I said, you know, Ronald Reagan—when everybody else was hyper academic, when they talked about the economics—Ronald Reagan realized he doesn’t need to be so highbrow. All he needs to do is create doubt in the existing system. And you know, his comment when he was running for office was, “Ask yourselves: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” That’s all he had to say. He didn’t need to plot all these pie charts and things like that.
And I think when I, as a brown person, look at someone who’s telling me that they hate brown people and look back at them and say, “Well, I don’t hate you, it makes it really hard for them.” It makes it really hard for them when they know just one person who is a brown person who is an immigrant, who doesn’t hate them for their beliefs, then they go, Well, shit. How do I hate back? You know? I don’t think it’s human nature to hate at all. I think we’re soft-wired to be pack animals, and that’s the only way we stayed safe, and I think when someone reminds you that they’re part of your tribe too, they’re just a different color, I think it squashes the hate.
Mark Pollard: Yeah, I’m not, I’m not sure about that particular point, because we are tribal, and we have things to attack, and humans have hated a lot of stuff and destroyed a lot of stuff over the years, but I’d hope that more hardwired for compassion,
but also, my experience of these things is that people—you’ve said a word, or you look at particular part, and you’re just pressing play on somebody else’s internal script. And so, I remember back in my little Chicago incidents with these guys talking about, I don’t know, weird conspiracy theories, and they started to talk about how “America is a place for freedom and liberty.” And I’m listening, and I’m not going to judge it, ‘cause I’m sitting there, I’m just like, “Why did you say ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty,’ are they different things?” And it just glitches the system. And sometimes it leads to a more interesting conversation, and sometimes you’re [just] like, Okay, I now need to move, but we’re basically just on these, like, auto-scripts of things we say because I saw someone—
And the thing that confuses people with the way I look is that I have an Australian accent, so if I’m in a particular place that is a little bit conservative and racist, and then they hear my accent, people are drawn to it, and then they don’t know my political stance. And in some parts of the U.S. now, based on age and how you look and what’s on TV everywhere, they all want to talk to you about these political stances. So that’s a little bit of a glitch there.
But anyway, I don’t want to talk about all that sort of stuff.
How did you come to terms with the power of your outsiderness was that a journey where you always—you know, you’ve mentioned earlier that you had a lot of problems, and then you’d go home and sort of feel alive and feel comedic. Did you have days where you’re like, Oh, I just, I don’t know where to put what I’m thinking. Like, was it a journey for you to get to this comedic perspective that you have now?
Tamer Kattan: Yeah, I mean, listen, I mean, I at a very young age, especially because of my parents’ religious backgrounds—you know, there were people telling me that I wasn’t really Jewish, I wasn’t really Muslim, I wasn’t really Egyptian, I wasn’t really American. And so I talk about a loss of identity, you know, and I learned very young that the strongest human drive is the drive to belong, even before food and shelter. So, Maslow was missing a foundation on his pyramid.
And I think that drive to belong is the underlying story of it all. For even these political things that we’re talking about in racism, it’s all about people wanting to belong, you know, and even not to go back to the racism thing, but the guys in South Carolina kept yelling “We will not be replaced,” but no one’s really talked about that. Nobody in the media has said, “Hey, let’s ask these guys what do they mean by that,” and where does that feeling come from, and why is that happening, and is that the immigrants causing that, or is that a breakdown in our government, that every time one politician wins an office half the country feels like they’re less a part of the country. That’s a broken system.
Mark Pollard: That is. Yeah.
Tamer Kattan: And so at a very early age I started feeling like I was floating in space, you know? That was the visual I would often have in my head—I felt like an alien. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. A lot of times I would start to daydream that I was from another planet, because I was a very creative kid, and—
I was an only child, and also I was a latchkey kid because as immigrants my parents both had to work two jobs each. So, it was very common for me to wake up in an empty house, to a pack lunch with my name written on the outside of the bag and then come home to an empty house until bedtime when my mom would first come. And then my dad would come sometimes after I was already asleep. So, very physically I felt alone, very emotionally I felt alone.
And it was two things—one, it was watching Mork & Mindy—Mork & Mindy was really big because he was literally an alien but still very lovable. And even though he didn’t fit in, and even though he was an outsider, he was still the star of the show. And I think I started to see that even if you are an outsider, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. And I started finding more and more heroes that were outsiders.
And then I found punk rock music, which was huge. I remember listening to this band Suicidal Tendencies, and there’s a song where the kid is yelling at his mom saying, “How can you call me crazy when I went to your schools, your churches, your institutional learning facilities,” and it was, like, a kid fighting back, and the things he was saying resonated with me. And so I felt seen. And that was big.
Mark Pollard: I was going to ask you about music, ‘cause like, rap, for example, and punk and to a lesser extent, say, the 1990s techno, those subcultures definitely provided a place for people who didn’t feel that they fit it in any way to attempt to temporarily fit in some way.
Tamer Kattan: Yeah.
Punk rock was my first citizenship before my American citizenship became valid. You know, and it mattered, it really mattered when you connect with people on an emotional level, especially, you know, that whole “misery loves company?”
Talk about identity, when my dad was going through cancer I used to go with him to chemotherapy, and he’d go on Fridays just so he could go to work on Monday. You know, he was that kind of a guy. And on Fridays I’d go with him to the hospital and I voluntarily told myself, It’s your job to make these guys laugh and nothing else. And I just sat in that room and I would tell them horrible jokes. And it was a group full of men—
Mark Pollard: How old were you?
Tamer Kattan: 38. And I remember very vividly wanting to speak to my dad about some of the issues that I had with him when I was a kid, but because cancer and stress were so closely related, I didn’t.
And there was a black man that was there. And he said, “Wow, you guys are Egyptian?” And he was so excited about it that it filled me with joy because that’s not something that you experience as an Egyptian in America. Very often in the U.K. people are like, “Oh, I’ve been to Egypt, I’ve been to her Hurghada, I’ve been here, I’ve been there, it’s beautiful.” That’s so rare in America. So I felt close to him.
And then my dad passed away. And this black man had another month to go. And his family all lived back East, and he didn’t have a lot of money. So I said, I’m gonna keep going. So for a month I kept going and I became friends with this guy. And at the end of it he said, you know, “Your daddy would be proud of you, and I’m proud of you, you’re like a second son to me,” which was a really nice thing for him to say.
But the thing that rocked me a little bit was he said, “You know, you and your dad really confused me.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he goes, “All my life I’ve thought of myself as an African-American—as a black man. Because whenever I saw another black person, I knew that they understood the source of my greatest struggle. So I would acknowledge them before anybody else in the room. They understood me, they saw me, and they felt me because they saw and felt my greatest struggle. But then I got cancer. And I felt not just like an African-American but like a cancer-American, too. And when I became a cancer-American your dad became like my brother, and you became like my son; you became like my blood.” And I was like, Wow, you know?
And it showed you, like, how powerful—you know, there’s your given family and your chosen family, but I really strongly believe there’s your given nationality and your chosen nationality. And I think brands play a major role in that. And I think it’s not often enough in advertising that we have those conversations.
Mark Pollard: Tamer, what, you landed on the word “brand” after that amazing story? What are you doing? [Laughs]
Tamer Kattan: Look, I was an only child, TV was my sibling!
Mark Pollard: Come on, you’ve got, like, a PR person on your shoulder—what happened there? [Laughs]
Tamer Kattan: I wish I wasn’t so shallow, but when you don’t have a real girlfriend, sometimes you make out with a cantaloupe, you know? And that was me; I didn’t have real siblings, I didn’t have real friends, so to me the TV set was the window into my friends. And brands played a role in that. You know, like, if you wore a certain brand of clothing and you saw somebody else wearing that brand of clothing—especially in the Middle East, denim was a big indicator. If you were wearing Levi’s jeans and you saw another Arabic person wearing Levi’s jeans you knew that they weren’t too conservative.
Mark Pollard: Yeah. There was like some kind of American ideal in them.
I want to ask you about losing a dad. The simple is like, what was that like, but what—what was the hardest part of it, how have you processed it, how do you understand the whole experience, has your relationship in your memory with him changed?
Tamer Kattan: Sure. Well, I mean, I feel like I lost him twice. I think my dad did what a lot of immigrant dads do in that he moved to America first without us. And for two years he saved money and saved money just to make sure that when we came, should they hit a rainy day we wouldn’t be in trouble.
And so for two years—I mean, when he was in Egypt he was this happy-go-lucky guy. He’d carry me around on his shoulders and called me a prince and all this stuff. And then for the next two years his face started to fade from my memory. And my mom used to trace my hand in letters so he could see how much I was growing—you know, this is pre-FaceTime. And so we used every skill we had to maintain memory.
And then I remember getting to the airport in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s and looking at him going, He doesn’t look like my dad. I don’t know who this guy is. And he had a mustache that looked very different than the way he looked in Egypt, he had lost a lot of hair, he looked tired, he looked stressed out, and, quite honestly, he looked angry.
And I think it was a product of racism. You know, there’s a lot of people—you know, he had the name “Mohammed” and there were people that flat out told him right to his face, “We don’t hire Muslims. We don’t hire guys named Muhammad, here.”
And my dad told me a great story where he stood up from a desk and said, “Thank you for your time,” and went to shake the guy’s hand and the guy said, “You’re going to shake my hand after I just said what I said to you?” and my dad goes, “Well, you don’t really know me. And you’re saying that to me based on maybe somebody that made you feel a bad way. So I’m not going to take that personally, and I’m going to maintain my dignity, and I’m going to be a professional.” And the guy just like looks at my dad and he goes, “Okay, thank you.” And then my dad goes, “If you want, you can call me Michael.” And he walked away and he got a call the next day and got the job.
And that was a valuable lesson to me. But it was probably the last father-son kind of a lesson he gave me because I think the stress of life and the inability to look at therapy as an option really boxed him in and turned him into an angry, angry man.
And that’s when I feel like I lost my dad, then. I lost my dad to prejudice and to racism and the effect that it had on his energy. And he became an energy I didn’t want to be around. And then when he got cancer, I think he looked at his mortality in the eyes, and it changed who he was as a human being, and I think his testosterone started to drop…
And I was at the age, too, where I started to look at my dad as a human and understand that it wasn’t his job to be perfect. It was just his job to do the best that he could. And I started to look at him as a victim and understand that he wasn’t just my predator, he was somebody else’s victim. You know, a metaphor that I used in therapy is I feel like my dad was bitten by a vampire, ‘cause he was abused, too. And it turned my dad into a vampire, and then he bit me, and now I have to go to therapy so I can break that cycle—so I could be like one of the vampires on Twilight and have a girlfriend and live in the daylight. [Laughs]
Mark Pollard: Yeah, I mean, it’s—I appreciate you laughing there—I mean, there’s a lot there, Tamer, I mean, how would you describe your relationship with your own mental health over the years?
Tamer Kattan: You know, I think I feel like Keanu Reeves who took the pill that made the world real but ugly. (I think that was the red one. Or maybe it was the blue one.) [Laughs]
I feel good, you know, I feel happy. There are times where I go through dark thoughts and feel disconnected from the world, where I’ll be walking through a supermarket and look at people and go, Is this us? Like, We’re just monkeys in clothes? You know what I mean? Like, it’s just so odd how we got here.
And then there’s times where those thoughts go away. Like, I heard in this study that, you know, around your late forties is the darkest period of your life, “the midlife crisis” era of your life. But I feel really fortunate in the sense that I’ve seen all the dark things and just like anything that human beings tend to experience when they make eye contact with it, it’s not so bad. Fear was bigger than the reality. And I think all of the things that I’ve been afraid of, I’ve made a conscious effort to put eyes on. And when I have it’s been a pleasant surprise to know that—it’s a beautiful journey. It’s a terrible conclusion for us all, but I think there’s beauty in the effort. And there’s beauty in doing the best that you can with what you have.
Mark Pollard: By “conclusion” are you talking about death?
Tamer Kattan: Yeah.
Mark Pollard: What’s your point of view on death, how do you feel about it?
Tamer Kattan: I think we are all collectively terrified of it. And I think that’s why we’ve created all these shared fictions. And these shared fictions where we’re a bandaid so that we don’t have to talk about “dark” things (talk about going full circle to this conversation, right?) I think people are so afraid of talking about death that they’d rather take that other pill, you know, and talk about this beautiful falseness. And we have these shared fictions that we have. You know, whether a shared fiction is a country or a religion or whatever.
Once you strip away those shared fictions, it is a little scary for awhile, but then you start to go, It’s really nice to experience the truth. You know, just like when you’re a kid in college and you stop smoking weed, and you realize I was just smoking weed to numb myself because, because the feelings were overwhelming.
And I’m happy to be in a place now where my feelings don’t overwhelm me and I’m happy to experience the real world. I’m happy to be able to look at another person and be able to empathize with them and to feel what they feel and to truly listen when people speak. And it makes me think the world’s a really beautiful place.
Mark Pollard: How did you find your comedic voice? ‘Cause you know, you’ve worked in a bunch of agencies such as TBWA\Chiat\Day, 72andSunny… A strategy job is kind of all-encompassing, I mean, it takes as much time from you as it can. How did you simultaneously develop a comedic perspective and comedic voice?
Tamer Kattan: Well, to be honest, it was almost the reverse.
You know, as an immigrant, your options are smaller in number than a native-born person. Like, the idea of us immigrating to a new country and me picking comedian as a career was just not an option. And I was in university and a friend of mine was a communications major, and he went to see a Chiat\Day presentation at our school where they showed us the reel. And I went with him because he said they were really funny. Funny was a part of my identity. It was probably the only badge that I wore with confidence. You know, I wasn’t confidently Egyptian or confidently American, but I was confidently funny. And then when I was watching the reel the wheels started turning in my head and I said, Oh, this is how you can get paid to be a funny person. So advertising, to me, was the closest thing to comedy. It was like I was a shadow artist. I wanted to be as close to art as I could but still under the definition of success from my parents terms.
So I got into advertising, but I always—I mean, fortunately for me, I feel like comedy is the most disruptive form of storytelling, and in a quickly-diminishing attention span all around the world, comedy seems to be a smart way to go with a lot of messaging. So even when I worked in advertising, I feel like I was still sharpening my comedic voice and using word economy and figuring out how to get the attention of people that weren’t paying attention 100%. So I think those were transferable skills, but it took awhile for me being a comedian—it took almost six years of learning the craft of stand-up before I could take the equity that I had in advertising and bring it into my stand-up.
Mark Pollard: Ooh, I kind of just want to talk to you about stand-up not the advertising stuff, so I’m going to do that!
Tamer Kattan: Yeah! I’m a hybrid, so that’s perfectly okay, we can keep talking about the comedy.
Mark Pollard: ‘Cause like a reasonable followup question would have been to talk about advertising, but here’s the question I really want to ask is, you know, I did watch you two years ago on the internet. I’ve not seen you live, I’m going to do my best to see you live when you’re—
Tamer Kattan: Yeah, come to a show! It’d be great to meet you in person and—
Mark Pollard: —love it. I’m not gonna annoy you with that meeting-in-person thing, but I’ll definitely try to come to a show.
Tamer Kattan: No, it’s not annoying, it’s actually incredibly valuable to me to have someone tell me something, especially someone who’s developed a great eye for insights, where you could see me from an angle that I don’t see myself in.
Mark Pollard: Well that’s what I want to talk to you about!
I feel, having just watched a video of you from the past month or so, and comparing that to [watching you] two years ago, I feel like your energy shifted. I feel like you’ve been training a lot, first of all, and you look a little bit more alpha, more aggressive, and I feel like you’re carrying a little bit more muscle than two years ago. Is that fair to say?
Tamer Kattan: Yeah. It’s so funny—I started boxing—I was a boxer when I was a kid. And then I stopped boxing a little bit after college. I felt like if I wasn’t going to become pro then why do I want to do it?
Mark Pollard: Oh my God, I had the same thought with, like, kung fu—aaahh!
Tamer Kattan: Really! How fun.
Mark Pollard: Dude! I did it for like 10 years and I’m like, I’m never going to be a pro. Aah. That’s a bad though—
Tamer Kattan: It is a bad thought, but it is kind of sweet that when you’re young you want to have big goals. And I like that, you know?—I remember having this one crazy uncle that would ask me, ”What are you studying?” And I’d be like, “Oh, biology.” He’s like, “That’s not hard enough!” And then he’s like, “I heard you change your major, what are you studying now?” And I go, “Oh, I’m studying radio, television and film,” he goes, “It’s not hard enough!” And I was like, What is this guy talking about? And then later on when I got older I loved what he meant, which is, Push yourself, and challenge yourself, and I think that’s a great thing, it is nice to be a young person that pushes themselves rather than someone who gets satisfied too easily.
Mark Pollard: Totally. And also, as far as martial arts go, the concept of age changed through the UFC late 1990s-early 2000s, because all of a sudden there were world champions who were 35-early-40s, but, you know, we were a bit younger than that at that time.
What’s shifted? I feel like the way you’re delivering your lines—are you conscious of what shifted? Because I don’t want to analyze it to you, ‘cause that’d be weird. But I felt like you were delivering lines two years ago over your glasses and your smile, and now I feel there’s this different sense of maturity in it. It’s like you just—you obviously know what you’re doing, but it doesn’t look—maybe you know what you’re doing in a bigger way, but it looks like you don’t in a bigger way as well. Maybe that’s what’s going on. I don’t know.
Tamer Kattan: Yeah, that’s really…
Mark Pollard: That’s not that interesting. [Laughs]
Tamer Kattan: No, it is, it is because look, I mean, you’re giving me a perspective that I don’t often get to see, you know? I think what’s happened for me is—this is another one of those things that shows you the beauty of life.
When I was making my first comedy album I would feel like a fraud, especially someone growing up with punk rock music and having a tendency to root for the indians instead of the cowboys, in movies, you know what I mean? And the robbers instead of the cops. I would have felt like a fraud if I’d made a political comedy album, or even an album where I talk about being an immigrant and recorded that album in Seattle but not taken the content on the road through the South.
And I did that, but it was during the campaigning for the elections with Trump. And I received three death threats on the road, and one guy rushed the stage, and I remember thinking to myself, You know, you would have been much more confident about that if you were still boxing, if your skills were still sharp. And I didn’t like the way that fear felt it. Fear was something that left my body around college where I would still have a healthy amount of fear, but most of the time I could manage my fear; it didn’t make me shake. My body didn’t shake, because I felt like I knew how to defend myself. But when this happened and a guy rushed the stage, I remember thinking, I haven’t been taking care of myself, I haven’t been eating right, I haven’t been working out, and if I’m going to be this voice for people who don’t feel that they have a right to express their opinions and to say that they deserve to be a part of this country, then I’d better be my own bodyguard, you know?
And so as much as Trump has been a thorn in my side, I think Trump has taught me to be a better person. I think the stress created by Trump, the ugliness that’s been created by Trump has given me patience, has given me empathy, has made me a better athlete in my late 40s than I was in my late 20s. My cardio is through the roof, I’m a way sharper boxer than I ever was, because I’m just more intelligent about how I fight, now. I spar every week. I box five days a week. I found my joy.
And I realized that another part of my identity was—I wasn’t happy being out of shape. It didn’t feel good to be carrying around this extra weight. And I think, when I lost the weight—I’m happy to say I have a six pack, and that makes me proud. It makes me proud to feel like I am—not in a vain way, but in a, This was a problem for me and now it’s not. And the way I resolved it was through discipline and consistency. And there’s a level of control where it makes you feel like, Yes, the world may be like waves in the ocean that you have no control over, but if you can control certain things, you can learn to surf. And that could make those uncontrollable waves a little bit more fun.
So I think that change happened to me physically, but it wouldn’t have happened had I not changed a little bit more mentally. And I think that shift in my mentality and feeling like I wasn’t onstage asking for permission to be one of the comedians, but now being on stage and saying, I am this. I’m not asking you for permission, I’m giving you joy. I know how to make you laugh, now, and so I’m very confident, I’m very comfortable, and I’m more myself than I have ever been, on stage.
Mark Pollard: And congratulations for that, that’s amazing. I mean, I saw it in the video. I’m like, *He’s more in—*it’s hard not to use spiritual language—like, “He’s more embodied,” but he’s in himself. He’s in himself.
Tamer Kattan: That’s great, man. That’s such a lovely thing to hear, especially from another guy.
Mark Pollard: I know, it’s weird! Is one of us blushing? I’m blushing.
Tamer Kattan: [Laughs] It’s really lovely, you know, like, I’ll tell you—
This is going to sound weird, but I could live in L.A .or New York with comedy. Honest to God, one of my biggest reasons for moving to New York is there are two men in my life here, that I have a friendship with them, that is when we tell each other, “I love you man”—and because I was an only child and because I didn’t have that kind of relationship with my father, it nourishes me, you know?
And it, man, I wish—maybe this is something I needed to talk about on stage more often because it is, it’s embarrassing! And I think there’s a feeling that happens in my stomach. I go, Oh, this is a little bit embarrassing, to say this stuff, and Oh, are—or because of the neighborhood I grew up in, or people are going to think I’m gay, or are the rumors gonna spread? It’s awful that you have to rip out this old software like that stupid U2 album that they gave us in our iPhones. I have to rip that out and implant the stuff that I want to consciously have in there.
I love having male friends who are such good friends that we tell each other we love each other, that I can call them any time of the day, and they can call me. It’s a really good feeling when I know that my friend who’s a single dad and has two daughters, when he needs help, that I’m one of the first people he calls. That makes me feel like I’m a good person, it makes me feel like I’m a good man. And I have that more so in New York than I do in L.A. Even though I have more family in L.A., I have these really solid male friendships in New York.
Mark Pollard: Interesting. I have a friend whose name is Julian Cole, he’s moving back to New York from L.A., and—
Tamer Kattan: Oh, I know Julian!
Mark Pollard: Oh yeah you met him!
Tamer Kattan: Yeah I met Julian over breakfast. He’s a great guy.
Mark Pollard: Yeah and he’s talked about this, I think he struggled forming his social life there, which is funny for me cause I’m a deep introvert and socially awkward, and I just thought Julian was totally functional and able to do things like forming friendship groups. And so yeah, he’s moving back to New York for that reason—there’s a density of people here.
And yeah, I agree with what you’re talking about as far as men and masculinity. I wish I was less embarrassed talking about it, but I think as I get older—and part of this comes towards my personal attitude towards death, which is like, I’d prefer not to die right now, but I’m okay if I do. But before I do, wouldn’t it be nice if a few men just said “I love you” to each other or hugged each other or helped each other out a little bit and maybe the world would be slightly less crazy.
Tamer Kattan: Absolutely. I absolutely agree with you.
Mark Pollard: Tiny point of view.
Tamer Kattan: Nah, it’s a big—I think it’s bigger than a lot of us realize. I think it’s very healing.
I heard—I wish I could remember where I read this—but I read that it was the American government that sent letters to homes during the Cold War saying, “Do not hug your boys. Don’t hug your boys. We’re in a war with “a cold people,” and we need our men to be strong.” So the government injected itself into the family dynamic and said “Do not hug your boys.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if the language “Boys don’t cry,” wasn’t birthed from that era. And I think that’s probably one of the most damaging sentences in history. You know, boys who don’t cry turn into men that don’t talk, and men that don’t talk turn into these guys who shoot up people in crowds.
Mark Pollard: Yeah. I talk a little bit about masculinity and manhood, and I’ll use the word “we” in a way that I think people who’ve studied gender studies might find problematic, but I’m going to use it now and—I just think like—just hug your boys [laughs] like, give them some—like, ask them how they feeling and help them understand the words for how they’re feeling and again, it’s just—reducing the craziness by a little bit—surely that would work!
Tamer Kattan: 100%, man. And teach them how to treat women. You know, my dad never had a conversation with me about how to treat women, because when I was at home I acted like a gentleman to my mother, but I was raised by a village of other men and women were literally trophies. That’s what I thought. I thought getting a girl—you didn’t have the full experience until your friends saw you with her and saw her beauty, and it was like holding up a giant fish. You know, I’m a very different person now, and I hate how sexist that sounds, but it’s true.
It is true that I grew up that way, and I feel like I grew up a pretty decent person who, even back then, if you asked me who my hero was, I’d say my mother. She’s been my hero since I was six years old. And I have always thought of her that way and I’ve always respected her, and I’ve always respected women, but it didn’t override the programming because I wanted to fit in with men so badly that I would use the language that they’d use, and I wasn’t strong enough to say, “Hey, you guys are wrong,” because it would make this outsider feel like even more of an outsider—at that age.
Mark Pollard: Oh, that’s like, I could talk about that for a few hours, but I’m not going to.
Tamer, how many shows are you going to do this year?
Tamer Kattan: Oh, over 400. In New York, I’ll easily do 15-20 a week. In L.A. it was a little bit less, but I’d say 15-20 every week, sometimes more if I’m on the road or if I’m going to do military tours, things like that. So I’d say almost 800 a year.
Mark Pollard: That’s amazing. But I love the way that stand-up comedians, when they allow themselves to talk about their craft—because that’s a little bit taboo—but when they allow themselves to talk about the craft, it’s a workout that you stay good because you’re working out all the time, and to work out all the time you’re working out in public, and you’re not doing like all this nonsense, multivariate testing [laughs] like, you’re listening for laughs.
Tamer Kattan: Yes. And you know what’s really interesting, I think that because of advertising the way I watch comedy is different. Like, I won’t sit in the crowd and look at the comedian delivering the joke, I’ll sit to the side and watch the audience reacting to the joke. And so I had this friend named Brian who used to tell these jokes that were really dirty, and they’d get a spike and then they’d flatten out. And it’s a common thing with guys that go really dirty, where, and the common comedic response is always like, “Wow, when you guys all stop laughing you stop laughing together, right?” Where you just feel it just dead stop.
And then I started watching from the side, and what was happening was that men would laugh, and then the women who were disgusted by the joke would hit them in the arm for laughing. And women, because a lot of times it was a date environment at a club—women owned the room. Women were the ones who owned the room, and either if a guy was on a date or a guy was with his wife or a guy wanted to be, you know, hook up with a girl, women owned that room, and if you told jokes that were offensive to women, that dynamic would happen—the flattening. But it would never happen the other way around where a woman would laugh and a guy would say, “Don’t laugh at that. That’s wrong.” You know what I mean? [Laughs]
Mark Pollard: Agh, so much pressure.
Tamer Kattan: You could learn so much by watching people watch a comic. It’s like watching the back of a sunset and realizing there’s another beautiful thing to look at.
Mark Pollard: Tamer, where can people find you on the internet? Where can they find out about your shows?
Tamer Kattan: My Instagram is where I have the most footprints—I’m most active there. It’s @TamerKat. And then my website’s also a great source for all sorts of things—merch, my album, my podcast that I did with my mom—and that’s TamerKattan.com.
Those are the two best places—and @TamerKattan on Twitter, obviously, I’m on there too.
Mark Pollard: Awesome. I really appreciate you sharing. I feel like we could talk for another 6 hrs. Maybe we could do another one if, like—
Mark Pollard: Watch you get too famous for it, but like—
Tamer Kattan: Oh, get outta here. No such thing.
Mark Pollard: I’m going to try and come and see you do a show or sure.
Tamer Kattan: Yeah, that’d be great. Let me know when you do, so we’ll grab a drink or get something to eat before and have some more conversation.
Mark Pollard: Awesome. Tamer, I really appreciate you being on Sweathead, today. Thank you.
Tamer Kattan: You too, Mark, thanks for having me, it was fun.
Mark Pollard: Peace.
Tamer Kattan: Peace! [Laughs]