PASADENA, Calif.—Mary Basmadjian has mastered the art of comedic timing, especially these days.
“As comedians, we take a sad situation, and we laugh at it,” explained Basmadjian of the current coronavirus pandemic during a recent FaceTime interview from her southern California home. “It’s great, but it’s a little psychotic when you think about it,” she continued with a chuckle.
Basmadjian, who is stuck at home like many of her 32-thousand Instagram followers, has been taking advantage of this unusual moment by creating short hilarious character-driven productions, leaving Diasporan Armenians in stitches. Sporting a thick, trendy leopard print coat, extra long acrylic nails, a disheveled piecey auburn wig and overdrawn red lipstick, everyone’s favorite and riotous Armenian aunt—“Vartoush Tota”—has been offering ‘Corona tips’ from her kitchen. With a fake cigarette in hand, “Vartoush” demonstrates how to repurpose an elderly’s stash of blue Medicare/Medicaid pads as toilet paper. In another episode, a panic-stricken “Vartoush” unpacks bags and bags of garlic and onions as a “SO-SHALL” distancing strategy. “Everything at the Armenian store is good for your immune system!” she exclaims in a thick Armenian accent. A sharply accurate parody of a typical Armenian immigrant, Basmadjian says “Vartoush” is inspired by her father, her aunt and her grandmother.
There’s also “Piso,” a spoiled, shallow, entitled Armenian girl character who only cares about getting married, a fact of life for almost every Armenian girl under pressure to settle down with a family. “If you get married, you win,” said Basmadjian, who openly refuses to submit to these predominant cultural norms, yet still maintains that they are an important part of her identity. “I always say I was born in a melting pot, but I’m not going to lose my flavor. I have to keep the Armenian culture as much as I can.”
Basmadjian intentionally stirs the pot with these colorful characters, lending to larger conversations about the role of women in Armenian society and even pointing out a few unappealing qualities. Empowered by these multiple identities, Basmadjian explained, “I’m able to say certain things [as ‘Vartoush’] that Mary is not able to say. So I use ‘Vartoush’ as the vehicle to convey these messages.”
Basmadjian’s viral Instagram videos have been augmenting her work as a stand-up comedian—Funny Armenian Girl—for the past 10 years, during which time she has collaborated with the likes of Lory Tatoulian (“Big Bad Armo Show”) and Helen Kalognomos, who also happens to play Vartoush’s depressed Persian Armenian friend, “Clodette.” The two were featured in Taleen Babayan’s 2019 Armenian American play “Where is Your Groom?”
But even Basmadjian might argue that she is not your typical funny Armenian girl. The 32 year-old self-made comedian opened up during her interview with the Armenian Weekly and credited the ease of her unfiltered jokes to her less-than traditional background. “I knew what an Armenian girl’s upbringing was, but I didn’t have the restrictions of the Armenian girl,” she said. “Growing up, I wasn’t very popular. I would get picked on by the same Armenian people because I had the divorced parents. I was a chubby kid. But these same people who picked on me are now sharing my videos.” Looks like Basmadjian got the last laugh…
It’s clear today that Basmadjian was born to make people laugh. She first realized her talents when she served as an extra in comedy plays starring her father and paternal grandparents. As a young girl, she would mimic the elderly and later crack jokes on the bus as a student at Pasadena High School. It wasn’t until she got her first laugh during an open-mic night at a Los Angeles comedy club in 2009 that she wholeheartedly began to pursue this craft professionally.
But for now, it’s lights-out for Basmadjian, who is using her unmatched sense of humor to make sense of these maddening times. Though she was forced to cancel an early April show, Basmadjian remains hopeful that she will hear laughter again. Until then, she has adopted the motto— “Stay safe. Stay sane.” And when she’s not creating content for social media, she is FaceTiming her beloved maternal grandmother, who has been under lockdown at the Ararat Home in Los Angeles for several weeks now. “This isn’t going to break us down,” said Basmadjian, “but it is going to impact the human race as a whole, because right now we are not able to physically embrace one another.”