Paul Elia

Interview: Paul Elia On His First Stand-Up Special, “Detroit Player”

Paul Elia has proven that great things will come to those who wait. The comedian has spent years in stand-up honing his craft, and doing everything he could to finally get to this place. He could’ve gotten here sooner - in regards to taping his first special - but he wanted to make sure that hour was perfected first. After all, you only get one first special.

That determination paid off big time. In Elia’s debut special, Detroit Player, we see him at the top of his game. It’s a true examination into what waiting for that right moment can look like. From his family to his terrifying experience of performing in Dubai, Elia’s talent as a storyteller gets to shine in this special. 

We recently talked to Paul about taping the special in Detroit, his loyalty with whom he works with, how his family reacts to his stand-up, and more.   

You’ve been in the stand-up game for years, building up a solid name for yourself in the process. How does it feel to have your first special finally coming out?

Relieved. I’ve been working for a while on this special. And I really wanted to put out a piece that speaks to my sensibilities. And I could’ve dropped something a lot earlier, and I had the resources to do so. But I was just being very protective of what I wanted to put out there. I felt like once I felt comfortable enough to really share these stories and put it out, when I look at it, I’m so proud of it and I feel so good about what I’m putting out. I always wanted to create something that spreads light, and is really vulnerable and real. And that was always my goal. So I’m just blessed that I was able to drop this now. It feels really good.

I love that. Tell me about taping it in Detroit, your hometown. Did you immediately know you had to tape it there?

I wanted to keep my mind open. I love DC. DC is such a great town for comedy. And honestly, a lot of my audience - the Iraqui community - they’re not used to seeing comedy. I‘ll do shows in Detroit, and the shows are not as hyped as you would imagine. It’s like they’re just not accustomed to watching comedy. My culture is very doctor, lawyer, engineer heavy. So I don’t know if there’s any doctor or engineer shows they like to go do. But when they’re watching comedy, in a lot of ways, it’s not really for them. There was some hesitation with that and I was keeping that in mind. But I was like “Man, this is a story that’s really about my mom and Detroit and really learning from Detroit. Regardless of what happens, I think this is the home and the space I need to tell the story.” So we ended up going with Detroit.

And then how did you feel once you got there? Because the crowd seemed fantastic in the special. 

You know what man, it was an interesting time because we filmed it on October 13th and 14th, a week after October 7th. It was a very confusing and sad time for a lot of people. Even our first show - all the shows were sold out - and 80 people didn’t show up to the first show. Regardless, when I was in the back with one of my producing partners Azhar Usman, I was like “Man, I really feel like the people who are here, I just wanna give them a hug.”

And I just used that spirit. That was my through-line when I did these shows. I really felt everyone’s energy. I really felt the love. And it just was really beautiful. People just coming together. And it’s not just Middle Eastern people. It’s people like from all faiths and backgrounds, people I went to high school with, people I grew up with, all coming together for the show to support me. So it was just a really beautiful energy altogether. 

Over the years, I’ve heard comics say you’re not doing the show for the people who didn’t show up, but the ones who did. 

Exactly. Also, I feel like comics sometimes, people want to use their platform to throw stones at people, like “Yeah the government, politics, and this is wrong!” And I’m all for that as well. But I feel like this vibe and the story is really less about that, and more like “Hey man. We’re all the same. Let’s just all just be together. 

Tell me about how you approached the overall look and aesthetic of the special. 

My Avengers that I was able to get together. The director’s name is Dan Ringey. He directed the first film that I ever starred in. And that was a film where we raised the money together. Nobody was hiring him as a director, nobody was hiring me as an actor. And Dan Ringey has AD’d a lot of television and directed a lot of films as well. So he’s never directed a comedy special before. I wanted it to feel cinematic and I wanted it to feel Detroit. 

The DP that we got, I met her on the set of Detroit 1-8-7, which was the first acting job I ever had. I was a stand-in for Michael Imperioli. Lisa Wiegand doesn’t do comedy specials. She just does television. So with the combination of Dan and Lisa, they were able to create this really interesting light scheme. And in the House of Comedy, they have this huge blue curtain that doesn’t look great.

So we were literally like “We don’t know what it’s going to look like when we take the curtain off. We know there’s a brick background, but we don’t know how dirty it is, maybe it had holes in it, maybe it looks weird.” And then when we took it off and we shined those two lights on there, we all were just like “Oh my god. This is a gift from God. This looks so amazing.” It captured it so amazing. Even that metal pole that you see, that looks like something from an exhaust. It just looks so perfect because I really wanted to create like an outdoor/indoor industrial feel. So the background, by chance we got lucky that that’s what it was. 

One thing you mentioned proves just how loyal you are, that you keep working with the people you came up with. It seems like loyalty goes a long way, as you still work closely with guys like Matt Rife and Ramy Youssef who you also came up with.

In a lot of ways, sometimes you have this pact with people you start with and you’re like “We’re gonna go hand-in-hand, we are soldiers, we are walking through together.” And sometimes, due to circumstances, hands are let go and people just drift off and do their own thing. And sometimes you feel like you’re just walking alone. And I’m so grateful that I’ve always had my friends hands held and we all walk together. They’ve all mentioned “Whatever you need from me, I’m here for you.” And likewise.

So it’s cool to have people that you collaborate with creatively and that you collaborate with in life and just be really good friends with the people that you admire and work with. 

And going back to what you said earlier about the style about the special and finding the right look. I don’t think people realize just how much thought goes into those aspects. It’s really remarkable how much there is to consider, though, when taping a special.  

I do feel like people can tell. I do believe that people - even without a trained eye - can look and get a feeling like “Huh. This feels rushed. Something about this doesn’t feel right.” Even my friend’s dad was watching the special. And he was like “You know Paul, I was watching the special, and I kept looking to see if I noticed different audience members to see if you used a different show or another take, and you didn’t.”

So people are looking for continuity. People see a lot more than we realize. So I really put a lot of energy into which angles we’re going to do. Even working with a consultant, like “When I work my act out, I’m going to go stage right and then I’m going to shoot stage left, and that’s when we’re going to cut.” And this is even before we edited. Me and Dan were planning all those moves. We didn’t have that many in there. We have many 8. And on the day we were doing it, I had 4 that felt real. “So let’s just keep these 4 quick whips where I’m talking stage right and then I immediately go to center stage here.” 

You talk a lot about your family onstage. What do they think of your stand-up?

It’s funny you say that. My mom has never seen me so live stand-up before. I’m trying to get her to come to a show. My mom worked at a liquor store for so long. And I think there’s a part of her that just has a hard time believing and accepting that this is what I do, which is hilarious. She’s like “When are you going to make money?” I’m like “Mom. I pay your phone bill. I pay your gas bill.” She wasn’t able to come to the show unfortunately. I don’t know if it reads, but those dudes who drop me off, those are my brothers. My mom was originally supposed to do that. My mom was supposed to drop me off. But my mom ended up getting shingles. And I tell her, “Mom. I can’t believe you gave yourself shingles just so you wouldn’t come to the special. I don’t know how you manifested this.” 

The interesting thing was she does follow my Instagram and my TikToks and she is always the first one to like everything I post. And she ended up seeing the special, so I’m watching her reaction. And it’s so interesting. When something good happened, she was like clapping. Especially when I was like talking about Iraq. Then when I started talking about porn, I see her put her hands over her head and literally covering her ears. And popping up to make sure I stopped talking about porn. And I kept talking about porn, so she kept putting her hands over her face. So it was so fun watching her just melt.

At the end I asked her. I said “Mom, what’d you think of the special?” She said “Ehhh.” (Laughs).

Had she been in the audience, you could’ve cut to her covering her face!

We actually created a mom cam. Lisa was like “What if we have this slash of light and we’ll have that slash behind your mom.” And that’s the mom cam. I was going to say something in the special. After I do the whole chunk about the liquor store, I was gonna say “By the way, my mom, this is her first time watching me do stand-up comedy. And I want to take this time to be like ‘Mom, none of this would be possible without you.’” And I wanted to shout her out and put that in there. And then when she wasn’t able to show up, it was just this random dude there with this slash of light. And I was like “Should I just talk to this guy?” (Laughs).

I’ve got to ask you about the pressure of having to perform and risking going to jail. What is going through your head? 

I was incredibly scared, because I am in foreign territory. I’m playing there in their court. I know the company that threw this event. They actually own all the malls in Dubai. And they’re very connected to the government. This was a corporate show. Honestly, I didn’t even consider all of these details. I was just like “I’m just going to do comedy and these jokes are funny.” And even when I said that joke about my dad, people were laughing. So I was like “Oh, I’m doing well.” And then when they pulled me offstage, it was very serious.

They were not messing around. When they told me I could get arrested, I was completely terrified. And then when I started calling some friends, they were like “Dude, this could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. You should get arrested. If you get arrested, you’ll get huge headlines and then maybe the president would try to negotiate your release. I’m like “Dude, what the hell?” I was scared, but I just accepted it. I was thinking about my mom. My mom was selling loose cigarettes risking going to jail every time someone came in like, “I’m just trying to make a living. So that’s what I do.” So I just remembered that.

And honestly, that was the moment when a lot of things clicked. And then that moment created Detroit Player. That specific moment. Because I was always so nervous for my mom. Like “Mom, aren’t you afraid that you could go to jail? You’re selling loose cigarettes.” But my mom’s like “This is bigger than the law. It’s for my family. I can’t survive playing by their rules. I just can’t.” 

At what point do you realize this had to be part of your act?

Right when I landed in America, I had a show. And people were asking me “Hey man, how was Dubai?” And I was just briefly telling people some of the main bullet points. And everyone in the room is just dying laughing. And I was just like “Is this that funny?” And I went onstage and I was just like “Let me try it.” So I just did it onstage. I was like “Okay, whatever. If everyone’s laughing this hard about it, this is all I’m thinking about. So let me just talk about this.” So I just told the story. It was really met with a lot of good response. 

I actually tabled that joke for a while. I was like “I really don’t want to talk about this.” I felt embarrassed about it. But then I was like “I’ve got to revive it.” Once I revived it, it was like the missing piece that was going to go into the hour. So it just worked out. 

What are you working on next?

I’m working on the next hour right now. I’m on the road with Matt Rife and Hasan Minhaj. I’m just working out these new pieces and elements. But definitely I was so excited when I saw the end result of Detroit Player. And I definitely feel like chapter two is going to be even better and even more telling. I’m really talking about immigration, my relationship with my girlfriend, and my father.

Watch Paul Elia: Detroit Player on YouTube.

Paul Elia’s special, Detroit Player, is available on YouTube now!

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