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The Showman

Johnny Azari Talks Transition From Blues Music to Stand-Up Comedy

A little more than two years ago, Johnny Azari would probably have called himself a musician. But now, the multi-hyphenate artist would count stand-up comedy at the top of his résumé, above his years in music production and his sprawling delta blues career. Fresh off of a 20-state tour across America, where he recorded both an audio album and debut comedy special called The Revolution Will Be Hilarious, Azari spoke with NoDef about everything from life on the road to new marriages and new presidents. 


It had been less than 24 hours that he had been back in town after three consecutive months on the road. Azari had spent half of his first day back in New Orleans sitting on the phone with his car insurance company before taking a seat on a stoop outside of the historic Cosimo’s to discuss his latest work. The first thing you might learn about the performer is that he is well known within New Orleans. Several times throughout our interview, people stop on the sidewalk to either welcome him home or raise a finger in an attempt to place where they recognize the man with the Dylan-gone-electric hair. 


Azari first gained a name in New Orleans in the city’s bustling music scene, performing and producing music for himself and others. So the first question that many ask is why. What would prompt a successful blues musician to hang up his guitar and pick up a mic? He understands the confusion. “I’ll always play the blues, I’ll always love doing it,” he said. “But I hit the glass ceiling with it, as much as an Iranian-American raised in New York City playing Mississippi Delta blues is going to take that genre. Nobody gives a shit after five years.” 


The man is in many ways an anomaly. An artist — and perhaps more surprisingly, a New Orleanian — who doesn’t drink is a bit of a rarity (Azari drinks kombucha instead of choosing from the bounty of cheap brews at Cosimo’s). But a successful performer game to give it all up to carve out a new name for themselves is practically unheard of in this day and age. Azari thrives on these apparent paradoxes. 


What drew him to comedy are the inherent risks involved. "There’s an old axiom: if you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh or else they will kill you,” Azari explained. In his eyes, in every other genre of art besides stand-up, the artist can practice it alone. “In dance you can sit in front of a mirror and practice, you can paint alone, you can play guitar in a soundproofed room, you can shoot and edit alone,” he explained. "Comedy is the only thing you have to do and practice and fail in front of other people.” 


There is an essence of his blues background in his stand-up comedy. Azari works best when given a bit of room to play — he’s not restrained, and his comedy is often off the cuff and and teased out over an hour set. It’s a model he learned during his touring career, when during his three-hour-long sets he would entertain the crowd with observations and anecdotes from his life. “I realized recently that I was always a comedian, it’s just that no one pulled me aside and told me that’s what I was doing,” he laughed. 


Much of his stand-up material is derived from that blues mentality. He scrolls through his Voice Memos app, showing pages of three-to-seven minute riffs he composed while driving across the continental United States. Many of the jokes featured in his special were pulled from his on-the-road musings. He talks about life as a newlywed (he married model Samantha Saliter earlier this year), his previous sexual exploits, and though hesitant to ever assign a persona to his stand-up presence he performs a lot of character work. "There’s a lot of theatre within my comedy, it’s not just all set up punchline, set up punchline. I’ll go through skits,” he answered. 


What he does not quite identify with is the tag of 'political comedian’. It’s become somewhat a comedy go-to in this uncertain political climate to lean in to easy digs at the POTUS or quote the many headlines that seem better suited to The Onion than The New York Times, but that’s not very fulfilling in the long-term. The politicians of today are signs of the times, according to Azari, and not the root of the problems. Still, it must be said that one of his best bits from The Revolution Will Be Hilarious is an extended observation comparing a Republican snuff orgy to a Democrat date rape.


There’s an old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time, but Azari believes that humor is most successful when intermingled with the tragic and perverse. "My favorite [comedians] are the ones that uproot taboo and corruption and hypocrisy and all of the things that plague a society, and bring an audience to a point where they have to laugh at their own failure,” he explained. "There’s a way of processing and healing through that.” Azari’s comedy is precisely observed yet delivered with a breezy, bluesy air, in the tradition of Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and other ruthless truthtellers who came before — he tells the crowd just what is wrong with the world, with enough of a winking eye that you feel like you’re on the right side of the joke. 


Late last month, Azari took the stage at Sidney’s Saloon to headline the Night Church comedy showcase. It was his first show back following his nationwide tour, and he was understandably excited. “It’s hard to predict New Orleans crowds [at comedy shows]. But that’s part of it.” Azari will be in New Orleans off and on through the end of the summer, then he will embark on a one-month tour in September. Keep an eye on his website and social media platforms to learn about the upcoming releases of The Revolution Will Be Hilarious this fall.  

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