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Mitra Jouhari’s Airhead Act

The comedian is an overachieving perfectionist—but she loves playing the idiot.

Supriya Lele dress and bra, at Falke tights. Versace shoes at Mateo New York earrings at Photo: Lelanie Foster
Supriya Lele dress and bra, at Falke tights. Versace shoes at Mateo New York earrings at Photo: Lelanie Foster

Three flawless housewives — all named Debra — are settling in for a brunch of boiled eggs. They’re about to tuck in when two of the Debras mention that they’ve accidentally killed the third Debra’s pool boy, crushing him between their SUVs. “Well, did you at least clean up the mess?” she asks. “I thought the pool boy would do it,” says one of the murderers with a shrug. Such is life in Lemoncurd, the ritzy Connecticut suburb and world of Adult Swim’s Three Busy Debras. Here, simple activities devolve into body horror and the worst thing about dead pool boys are dirty pools.

Given the way Debras skewers its wealthy suburban heroines, it’s kind of funny how perfect the scene is when I meet Mitra Jouhari, the “dumb” Debra and one of the show’s creators. It’s a balmy Thursday evening, and we’re sipping Chardonnay on her veranda, overlooking L.A.’s historic Highland Park neighborhood. Behind us, the sun is setting in a wash of pink. She just moved in with her boyfriend; the house is a roomy three-bedroom tucked between large palms on a secluded cul-de-sac.

Jouhari insists that her Debra wouldn’t be jealous of her cushy real-life setup. Well, maybe a little that she has a boyfriend. Certainly, she’d be offended by Jouhari’s aesthetic, which is like her Debra’s evil twin: loose black linens and scuffed patent clogs in neon yellow (the Debras only wear white — better to show the blood). She’s makeup free, wearing glasses over her minty-green eyes and sporting a tangle of black hair that seems to have its own opinions.

Kwaidan Editions dress at, and shoes at Falke tights. Stylist’s own briefs. Mateo New York earrings at Photo: Lelanie Foster

Her Debra may be the moron of the group, but for Jouhari, it’s far from the first time she has played someone who tries hard, does a bad job, “and is pretty stupid most of the time.” All things that are the opposite of the comedian herself, except for the try-hard bit, which is totally accurate.

Perhaps the only other thing Jouhari has in common with her Debra is that she’s very, very busy. When COVID hit L.A., she was volunteering at Selah, a neighborhood homeless coalition. She’d been helping make hygiene kits — big Ziplocks equipped with personal-hygiene products, food, and notes of encouragement — to be distributed to the local unhoused population. When the pandemic made it impossible for Selah’s leadership to keep up with demand, Jouhari basically said, “I could try,” and started organizing a drive of her own. That was back in May; today, more than 500 people have become involved and about 4,500 kits have been made.

Jouhari had never volunteered before and was ashamed by that. She explains she was worried about looking stupid or doing something wrong. (“I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was convinced that I would do it, whatever it was.”) It’s one of the “themes” of her life, she says, this feeling that she might get in the way and/or fuck up.

Still, she wanted to help. She does this a little through comedy — making silly, spoofy videos — to fundraise for different organizations and the two California candidates she works with: Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (who is running for California state assembly) and Nithya Raman, who is running for LA’s city council and with whom Jouhari hosts a video series. But she’s also been doing a lot of grunt work: “I don’t have a whole lot of life skills, but I am good at Excel and sending emails and organizing things. So this was a way that I could contribute: by sending hundreds and hundreds of emails every month and telling people, Come to this place. Do this thing.”

As a part of what she calls her “awakening,” Jouhari started a newsletter in which she interviews political organizers and activists (it’s free, but donations are encouraged and go straight to charity.) “I’m still doing all the dumb shit that I did before, but I’m just also doing this,” she says, shaking her head at the activist label. “I think I went from doing almost nothing to doing more than nothing.” The newsletter’s name, ‘oh god sorry,’ sums up her unease about being painted as some sort of saint for being, as she puts it, “involved™.”

left: Supriya Lele dress and bra, at Falke tights. Mateo New York earrings at right: Gucci jacket and pants at Miu Miu boots at miu miu.comMateo New York necklace at Photo: Lelanie Foster

Outside of organizing, the work throughout her quarantine has been “nonstop.” She’s just wrapped a script for a Netflix spinoff of Big Mouth and recently finished writing the second season of Debras, which she says you can tell was written in lockdown: “There’s lots of subterranean stuff. We were very drawn to confined spaces.” She’s also writing her first movie script and is starting on a novel.

She loves the work. She loves to work; she needs the structure it gives her. (As if to underscore this, we pause the interview so she can sign for the delivery of her new Herman Miller office chair.) Given her organized, highly capable approach to … everything, it’s telling that Jouhari’s recurring comedic character is a worms-for-brains idiot. It’s almost as though she’s acting out her nightmare, playing a character who both messes up and gets in the way. Also true is the kernel of her persona that is thirsty for affection: “That is very real and very me — desperately wanting to be liked. It’s a sense of urgency that I don’t think I project as boldly but certainly feel as: Want me, like me, want me, like me.”

This character, in all of her anxious, hostile stupidity, is on beautiful display in a routine Jouhari did for Comedy Central last year. In it, she explains that she just moved to L.A. but is having trouble finding a roommate owing to her recent diagnosis of “a medically fucking bad personality.” She goes on to share a little bit about herself, such as her variety of feminism: “Pussy hats slay” and “Women should have the right to vote,” not to mention her performing-arts background (a major in “eating ass for the camera” and minor in “co-opting queer narratives”).

Outside watching The Daily Show and M*A*S*H growing up, performing arts was the extent of Jouhari’s comedy background. She was always cast as the funny, gross character despite harboring a secret desire for dramatic roles. “She definitely had a lot more theater-kid energy back then,” recalls comedian Patti Harrison, Jouhari’s best friend and former roommate, whom she met nearly a decade ago doing college improv in Ohio. They both grew up there, in what was essentially farm country. Jouhari remembers watching her town gentrify over the years: “When I was younger, it was like, Oh my God, a Target? And by the time there was a second Target, it was like, Maybe this is bad.”

She’s one of three kids to an Iranian father and a white American mother. She says there were lots of “visible” Iranian influences growing up, describing a home with floors and the occasional wall covered in Persian rugs. Her dad cooked Persian food — she even went to Farsi school for a while. But her community was mostly white, and opportunities to have a deeper connection with her dad’s side were limited.

The first time she visited Iran and met her extended family was in 2015. She remembers showing up, overeager with her clunky Farsi and too-traditional clothes: “I thought I would go there and be like, This is me. And then, of course, I sound like this, and people knew immediately that I was a tourist.” It’s the kind of rare blunder that sounds like Jouhari’s personal hell, but she says meeting her family soothed that feeling — “Not to brag, but I was able to get over myself pretty quickly.”

Around the same time, she was starting college. She’d landed a full academic scholarship to Ohio State, where she declared both neuroscience and pre-law as majors with zero interest in either. Two weeks in, she joined her college’s improv group. She immediately knew comedy was what she wanted to do, but she had no idea how: “I was like, How do those people do those things? How do they get in that world?” She didn’t know anyone in big cities, and the industry felt completely inaccessible.

left: Versace dress at Bottega Veneta shoes at Stylist’s own necklace. right: Miu Miu bodysuit and knit at Photo: Lelanie Foster

Looking at her career ascent, one would think there was a lucky break or maybe a moment when she was “discovered.” But Jouhari got into comedy kind of like she got into volunteering — in the most straightforward way possible. She asked questions, networked at comedy festivals, and sent emails. In other words, she acted like a try-hard.

This began when The Daily Show came to her school for a stand-up tour and, during the Q&A section, she did exactly what your area pre-law/neuroscience major would: “I was that bitch that was like: How do you get an internship?” Afterward, the show’s producer, Adam Lowitt, told her to message him on Facebook. She got the internship, went to New York, and upon returning to Ohio dropped out of school to pursue a comedy career, which, if you’ve been paying attention, is a very un-Mitra thing to do. She promised her parents she’d quit if she didn’t make it “in a reasonable amount of time.”

And whatever “a reasonable amount of time” means to you, Jouhari’s path to becoming a successful comedian happened remarkably fast. Back in the city, she took an internship on Late Night With Seth Meyers. From there, she networked her way into writing gigs on The President Show and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Soon after came some on-camera work, and in 2016, after performing with the Debra trio at Carnegie Hall, Amy Poehler called with an offer to produce Debras for Adult Swim.

“She has gotten mildly more smarter and less big-slut behavior, for sure,” says Harrison, when I asked her if fame has changed Jouhari. Others seem to agree: GQ recently referred to Jouhari as one of the “kings and queens of lol” credited with shaping the “new era of comedy.” The others in this cohort are her friends: a group of diverse, talented young people, which includes comedians Harrison, Lolly Adefope, and Joel Kim Booster, whom Jouhari hosts a podcast with.

Comedy is a famously sexist and racist industry, but Jouhari seems to have found her niche. “These are the people whose comedy I watch,” she says. “They’re the people that I want to work with.” And they do work together, which tracks given their humor shares a sensibility. There are still plenty of cum jokes, of course, but when it comes to more serious content, they make up a generation that’s better than the previous one at toeing the line between a joke and punching down. That doesn’t mean they avoid material about marginalized communities; the difference is that the humor is usually grounded in their own experiences as not straight white men.

Prada coat at Gucci shirt at gucci.comMateo New York earrings at Photo: Lelanie Foster

Jouhari seems to be an exception to this. Outside her bits about feminism, she avoids joking or writing about identity, which is surprising given the pride and interest she seems to take in her Iranian side. She’s reading a bunch of Middle Eastern authors, and there’s a big book of Persian mythology on her dining table. She even became an Iranian citizen several years ago, something she simply felt compelled to do because, as she says, “it’s part of who I am.”

“My props,” she jokes, when I point out the book. “I feel very protective over that part of myself, and I’m very paranoid about that part of my identity being exploited,” she explains, when I ask her why she doesn’t address race. And it’s true, when people in power look for stories about race, if they look for them at all, they’re obsessed with the struggle. Jouhari doesn’t want that. She’ll address it in her own time, in her own way, and when she does, it will be “fun and beautiful and nuanced.” In fact, she’s working on something now — of course she is.

Harrison describes her friend’s work ethic as “Olympian,” but Jouhari insists that she still has plenty of time to do dumb shit, like watching all 11 seasons of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and making pottery branded with winsome terms like “Tits and Ass” and “Slut.” Her boyfriend, comedian Whitmer Thomas, is also teaching her to skateboard. She likes the idea of becoming a full-fledged skater girl, but admits she’s probably “missed the window” — “Too much anxiety, too much back pain, too much gray hair.”

But she’s only 27 and has but a dozen silver hairs. More than that, she seems like the type of person who, if she really wanted to, could become a legit skateboarder. For now, though, she’s just starting in the same way she seems to start everything — terrified of messing up and clueless as to how to proceed — but still saying “Okay, I’ll try it.”

Mitra Jouhari’s Airhead Act