Interview: John Kawie, Brain Freeze

Comedian John Kawie was a rising star in the world of stand-up comedy. Hitting the clubs in New York, submitting jokes to the most popular comedians of the time… and then he was hit by a terrible stroke! Today, after rehab and years of working on his physical abilities, John is still paralyzed on his left side and has no use of his left arm. Also, he experiences “brain freezes” where his brain just stops thinking. Was the world of comedy over for him?

No! John has taken this experience and make the proverbial lemonade. No he has a one man show, Brain Freeze where he jokes about life after a stroke. While not quite the “knock ’em dead” comedy he was doing before, he now has a purpose: make people laugh and help them regain their lives and confidence. Life goes on, and if John’s setback hasn’t stopped him, why should yours — whatever it may be — stop you?

We talked on March 18, 2011 about his stand up career, the stroke, and working with the legendary Robert DeNiro.

GS: Your career begins much differently than most comedians, I imagine. You started out working in aerospace?

JK: Yeah, I worked in the aerospace industry in Hartford, Connecticut, originally. It was a family business, and my dad passed away suddenly. I was working there at the time, but I wasn’t prepared to take over the company. I fell into it because management at the time was rebellious, but I never really wanted to do it. It was just something I had to do at the time. But I always wanted to do stand-up. That was always my dream. Someone once asked me what I would do if I could do anything, and I said stand-up without even thinking. But, you know, how do you do that? So this person signed me up for a course in stand-up comedian, a night class where they help you write jokes. The upshot of the class was that if you were good enough, you would do a set at a comedy club in Connecticut. I did the set, it was a killer set, and I don’t know what would have happened to me if it wasn’t. I loved it and decided it was what I was going to do. Coincidentally, someone at the same time offered to by my company, and I said sure. So I sold the company in 1990, decided to do stand up, and moved to New York. I just started hitting the clubs, and that’s how I got where I am today.

GS: You were promoted in New York as an Arab-American comedian. What does that mean, besides the obvious?

JK: Yes, I was actually kind of the first. I was called the Jackie Robinson of Arab-American comics. We became more popular after 9/11, because mainstream America became more aware of Arab-Americans and the whole looking like a terrorist thing. (Gavin’s note: John, much like Tony Shalhoub, does not look like a terrorist and could easily pass for “white”.) But I was doing this in the 90s already. I took a page from Richard Pryor, who was my mentor. He was talking about black culture, and I figured this is what I’m supposed to do, so I began talking about my culture. It really worked for me, because I grew up differently from Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans. But it was kind of universal at the time, because we all went off of our own thing. I was brought up more in the improv rather than truth-telling school of comedy. Stuff like, “Did you ever notice…” Like Seinfeld, more observational. My comedy was more autobiographical. That was my thing. At the time I did a thing about flying because there was a lot of plane hijacking. I did jokes about the Israel-Palestine situation.

GS: That seems like it would be hard to joke about.

JK: One of my jokes was: It was really hard growing up Arab-American. I went to a summer camp along with this Jewish kid, and we spent the whole summer taking each other’s side of the room over.

GS: You served as sort of a writer for Bill Maher…

JK: I also wrote jokes for the Dennis Miller show on HBO, before he went to the dark side. (Gavin’s note: Dennis Miller became more vocally right-wing after 9/11.)

GS: How did you land that job?

JK: I knew the writers there from working the clubs in the city, and they told me to submit. I would submit from time to time and I would hear a joke in his monologue. Most of them were current, out of the newspaper, political stuff. Just being in New York is a great thing, because a lot of people see you, and they might ask you to submit. And it’s an honor to be asked. That meant they liked your writing. That’s how I got the David Brenner show. Nobody wanted to do international comedy on the David Brenner show. He knew my material, I was doing a lot of stuff on the Middle East. And from that show, I got the Dick Cavett show.

GS: Your current show, “Brain Freeze”, is certainly unique. For as common as strokes are, we rarely talk about them, and never in a stand-up comedy routine. Did you have any concerns of how people would react?

JK: I did originally. I didn’t have concerns about people who hadn’t had strokes, but I did have concerns about my fellow stroke survivors. When I first performed it, I was worried that they might be offended, but people loved it. It was very cathartic for them. I felt really good about that. People who didn’t have strokes also sort of took hold of it because they had their own problems, and the show turned out to be a lot more universal than I thought it would be. A lot of people come up to me after the show and tell me they had cancer, strokes, or just old age.

GS: What are your goals with “Brain Freeze”? It’s funny, but it’s even more inspirational.

JK: I wanted to say something, I didn’t want it to just be funny. I didn’t sit down writing it to be inspirational, but I wanted it to be more than humor. I wanted my feelings made public, and it just came out that way. Being Arab-American helped, too, because it was barrier-breaking and I had done that before. It gave me a new lease on life when I started this show. I was so depressed and thought I couldn’t do stand up, but I had always wanted to do a solo show, and the subject matter just sort of came to me. The show has been more rewarding than my original stand up in many ways.

GS: You worked with Robert DeNiro…

JK: Yes. While I was at the Rusk Rehabilitation Center in Missouri, they asked me if I wanted to work with Robert DeNiro, because he was doing this Joel Schumacher film called “Flawless”. His character has a stroke during the course of the film. He’s a cop, he lives alone. A transvestite lives above him, and he has always hated him/her, but the transvestite teaches him to speak again. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also in it. I guess the people at Rusk knew I was a comedian and they thought it would be a good fit. Robert DeNiro wanted to film me. I was a little apprehensive at first, because I didn’t want to be observed like some weird undersea creature on the Discovery Channel. But he was really sensitive and we had a few sessions together. One problem with having a stroke is that you have no control over your emotions. There’s no filter, so I just started really crying in front of him. I’m embarrassed because I’m crying in front of Travis Bickle. In the movie, he can’t open a pill bottle one-handed and he starts crying, which I like to think he got from me. But he was really nice, my wife and I would go in his trailer between scenes. Joel Schuamcher was also really nice.

GS: You sort of just touched on this, but how did DeNiro differ from the tough guy we’re used to seeing onscreen?

JK: He’s more personable. He’s totally not the gangster type. He’s not that talkative, which may be similar to his screen persona, but he’s warm and friendly and goes out of his way to make you feel comfortable. I loved watching his prepare for his work. He goes over every detail. Even if you think he’s not doing anything, he is. He’s just very subtle.

GS: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for your time today, John.

JK: It was great talking to you, Gavin!

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