This Cincinnati Native Has Her Hands in All Your Current—and Future—Favorite Comedy Shows

West Chester native Mitra Jouhari on comedy writing, absurdity, and the benefits of being from the Midwest.
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Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

Comedian Mitra Jouhari has spent the last five years making a name for herself as an actor and writer, working on everything from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS and High Maintenance on HBO to Netflix’s Big Mouth. This year the West Chester native will star in and executive produce Three Busy Debras, an Adult Swim series based on her long running comedy trio of the same name.

Growing up in Cincinnati, did a career in comedy seem real to you?
I hadn’t really thought about comedy as a path for myself until I started doing improv in college [at The Ohio State University], and as soon as I started doing that, I felt so motivated and excited. I became aware of it as a career path, but it still took a couple more years for me to really consider it as viable career for myself.

What changed?
I did a couple of internships…one was at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in New York, and after I interned [there] I just had this moment where I was like, “I don’t think I’m ever going to know more people in New York, so I should just try and see what happens.” So I dropped out of school and I went for it.

How would you describe Three Busy Debras?
Imagine the Adult Swim version of Desperate Housewives: very surreal, very insane. It follows three women in an affluent suburb who are all named Debra, and they’re just doing their daily activities in their town. They’re busy and there’s always something going on with them.

Have you found any advantages to being from the Midwest in the entertainment industry?
I think so. [Being from here] makes you nice to a fault, which is a positive quality for the most part. When you’re writing on these shows you’re spending so much time with each other, and nobody wants to be around someone who treats people terribly.

It’s also good to have as many points of view coming into a room as possible and that’s one sliver of mine. You don’t just want to make jokes that people in New York or L.A. are going to laugh at; you also want to make jokes that people in Ohio are going to laugh at.

As an Iranian-American woman in comedy, in a time when there aren’t many visible Iranian comics, do you feel there’s extra pressure for you?
I think externally there is that expectation for any person who is part of a marginalized community to sort of be the voice of that group if you are even slightly visible. I think there is a certain responsibly that comes with that, but at the same time I am a person, I’m a writer, and I want to have fun. I’m very careful about speaking about the things that I actually want to speak about. I’m not going to be a point person for everything.

It doesn’t stress me out the way it used to because what I’ve realized is, if you’re looking at me for your news then you’re looking in the wrong place. If you’re looking at me for a funny joke about something I saw that day, you’re in the right place.

What was it like to find out Adult Swim had picked up your show?
It was obviously really great, very exciting news. We had been working on it for a very long time. The original Debras idea came about at the beginning of 2015, shortly after I moved to New York, so it was a very long process artistically to get to that point, but then it also takes a really long time to make a TV show. It’s a lot of waiting and hoping that it would work out and we’re very lucky that it did.

You executive produced Debras with your costars Sandy Honig and Alyssa Stonoha. What’s it like to star in a show and also be the executive producer?
That was the first time any of us had that producer role. We learned a lot. It was a big opportunity to grow and realize there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know, but sometimes we know more than we thought we knew. To be able to weigh in on every part of the process and figure out where to step in and where to back off…learning to be a leader was cool.

You wrote for Big Mouth season four, which comes out in October. Is there anything you’re especially proud of that made it into the show?
Everybody works on everything together. It’s really collaborative, so it’s hard to say that any one thing is yours, but I’m mostly just very, very proud to get to work there. I was a big fan before I started working there and I think it’s kind of my ideal show to write for in the sense that it’s really disgusting and crazy, but then also there’s a lot of sweetness to it. It’s mostly just a privilege to get to work on the nastiest thing that I’ve ever worked on.

Is it hard to explain your work to your friends and family back home?
I’ve lived in the same house my whole childhood and grew up with the same people and I think we all feel very invested in each other. The ones that I’ve stayed close with have seen how hard I’ve worked, and I think they’re just very happy for me. And I was also such a nut in high school and growing up that nobody is surprised that I’m doing what I’m doing: working on a really gross show. I think they’re mostly very stoked about it and just want to know if the people that I work with are nice. And they usually are.

You have worked on political shows before, but your recent work is less directly political and sillier. What kind of comedy do you enjoy more?
I think I go in a more absurd direction. Practically just because those are shows I’ve been working on: Big Mouth and my own. I think without being overtly political we’re still saying things about what it means to be a woman with Debras, and Big Mouth is certainly saying a lot about sexuality. It’s still political to talk about those things without necessarily addressing our administration. I have worked on shows that directly addressed our administration and the past one, and it got to the point where it just got very difficult for me emotionally to make that work. But I’m not opposed to doing it more, I’m mostly just going to work on shows that seem really fun. If it happens to be a late-night show, that’s what I’m doing, or if it’s an animated show, that’s what I’m doing.

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