Abenezer Merdassa recalls feeling like “God’s gift” to comedy the first time he took center stage at an open mic.
Overflowing with the hope of catching the attention of an agency and becoming the next Comedy Central star, an unexpected encounter awaited him. A man approached him, showering him with praise for his first set and giving him a book on the art of comedy.
Reflecting on that encounter, Abenezer can’t help now but chuckle.
“I was like, ‘Day one and he already believes in me.’ I thought I was special,” Abenezer said.
His perspective shifted when he witnessed the same man showering another aspiring comedian with similar gestures of support just a week later.
Born in Ethiopia, Abenezer moved to Minnesota at the age of 11. During his college years, he leveraged his personal experiences and cultural background in his comedic performances. Abenezer crafted a comedic style that draws from his memories of growing up in Ethiopia, as well as the stark cultural differences he’s encountered in the United States.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How does your cultural background and personal experiences shape your comedic style and material?
The type of comedy I do is very introspective. So, it’s mostly about things I’ve gone through and viewing them in different ways, and using imagery and metaphors. Again, I am a clown. So, it’s not too complicated. I’m not trying to overanalyze it.
I like to tap into things that have happened to me and the shift from living in one culture that, I would say, is very different from American culture, at least when I was there [in Ethiopia]. In a lot of ways, things have changed in the last 12 to 13 years or so, but when I was living there , things were very different. Like how you interact with older people, even in my culture, is very different. There’s always a respect. There’s a different language we use for older people. You greet them, bow your head, you hand them things with two hands. That’s the culture I kind of grew up in and then, coming to America, there’s so much freedom.
There’s all these differences that I have, and I feel like that gives me a well of things to draw on if I’m trying to reflect upon my own experiences, you know what I mean? And it also gives me the ability to see things here that might just be normal, but to me, they’re so out of place that it allows me to be able to look at it, and then see it in a different light.
Race, for me, is fun to talk about. The process of immigrating and cultural shift differences are really fun for me. Religion is a big one for me. I’m recently tapping into that a little bit more but just being careful not to be disrespectful or cross any boundaries.
Does representation matter in comedy? What role do you think local comedians play in bringing diverse perspectives?
Yeah. It wouldn’t be as fun, you know what I mean? Because things get repetitive and tired. I think it’s better for comics having different people to bounce ideas off of. It allows us to understand more things. The people that come to our shows don’t get bored and we cultivate a good comedy scene. I think diversity of thought is very important and I think representation allows that to be fostered at a higher level.
I was having a conversation with a comic from New York. He came here and he was amazed at all the comics and was just like, “Dude, I haven’t had this much fun at a show before,” because in New York, he hears the same topics every time.
It’s like Tinder, Uber drivers, subway jokes. If you have a room full of people with the same train of thought, same background, and they’re trying to make jokes about the same things. You can only be creative in so many ways, but if you allow a diversity of thought, it makes it more exciting.
Have you encountered any unique challenges or opportunities as a comedian of color in the industry? How do you navigate those experiences?
I wouldn’t call them challenges. I would say, I’ve had shows where they’ve wanted a certain kind of person and I was not that person. But that’s common. That happens all the time. I’ve had a guy that looked away from me the entire show. The whole crowd had that vibe but he took the extra step of like, “I will turn my body away from you the entire time.”
I make it my personal mission to crack you that set because then I feel like my jokes transcend your racism. It’s never that righteous, but I want to be so funny that, as mad as you are, I can at least get a “hah” out of you, and then I’m good. But no, I mean, outside of that, with bookers and stuff, the pendulum is shifting the opposite way.
I think sometimes they want to be more inclusive so the shows don’t get too boring. And the crowds that, years ago would’ve been a bit more tense around someone like me, now get excited if I’m willing to go to that edge and push the envelope a little bit. They love that. But I think with getting booked, there’s this little thing where you’re like, “I hope that the things that I’m talking about aren’t too intense.”
Outside of that, being a person of color does have its perks. I think bookers do try to have a more balanced show. And going into a small town where sometimes you get the feeling that they don’t really like you. You get looks at the bar and stuff but then once you do a show and if you do great and they love you, you just get to have fun all night. It kind of feels like you came into town and slayed the Jabberwocky.
What do you hope to see in Minnesota’s comedy scene moving forward?
I just want it to be consistent with what it is as it grows. I’ve had such a positive experience. There’s so many kind people who are willing to look out for you without you asking for it. So many people who are willing to take you under their wing.
So, as long as you’re nice, you do what you’re supposed to do, there are a lot of people who are willing to give you opportunities and really show you love.
There’s a general understanding that if you cultivate the talent that’s coming in, instead of trying to oppress it, regardless of demographic, it’s best for the scene to make sure that the people who are doing what they’re supposed to, succeed.