1-on-1 with Mina Liccione, comedian returning to Rochester from Dubai for Fringe Fest

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Mina Liccione is a comedian and performer who makes her home in Dubai. Her homecoming show at the Rochester Fringe Festival is called “Growing Up Ringside,” which is her journey from 1980’s Rochester in an Italian-American household, to Dubai, but at its core is the relationship between her and her dad, a boxing promoter.

The show hits Rochester Fringe Festival September 24 at 9pm, and Saturday 25 at 7pm. Tickets can be found here.

Mina was rated “Funniest People in 2012” by Rolling Stone Magazine, is a two time nominee for “Best Female Personality” by Ahlan Magazine and was awarded “Most Inspiring Woman” in the UAE by Philly Arabia and UN Women. She graduated with a BFA in Dance, minor in Theater Arts from Marymount Manhattan College, a certificate from the San Francisco Circus Center’s Professional Program and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Performing Arts from New College of California.While in California, she was cast as the lead Ring Mistress in The New Pickle Circus’s Circumstance, choreographed for the San Francisco Youth Circus, led rhythm and physical comedy trainings for Cirque Du Soliel’s cast of Corteo and her character driven one woman show Della Pancha received rave reviews throughout it’s sold out runs at the Women on the Way (WOW) Festival and Shotwell Theater.

In this interview, she discusses the cultural similarities between Italian-Americans and the people living in the UAE, her all-women comedy collective “Dubomedy,” her influences from Lucille to Leguizamo to Billy Crystal, the good feet to stand on the in the family, and who is funnier:

Her dad, or her comedian husband.

Here’s our 1-on-1 with “Dubai’s First Lady of Comedy.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk to me about growing up in Rochester and growing up in an Italian household.

I have a lot of very happy memories as a kid in Rochester despite the snow… Back then, there was a lot like that there was an ice storm. There was like heavy, much, much more intense snowfall, but I remember a lot of playing outside.

I remember making sauce with my dad every Sunday, since before I can remember. Every Sunday (was) Sinatra Sinatra Sunday. So food was just so much a part of the culture. And when I went to my dad’s family’s house, it was the same way. So it was very important to him to kind of keep these traditions going with his kids. Those recipes now I have my three-year-old boys, they’re in the kitchen already.

This is beans and greens (and) life lessons. And then also there, there were a lot of other Italian-Americans in Rochester. So it was like, you don’t even have to say anything. Can you just do a hand gesture that, you know exactly what you’re saying. And there were certain energy that I always really, really liked. I remember as a kid just looking up to these guys, and becoming friends with their kids.

So I have some good memories of food and family, and very loud over the top, Italian New Yorkers.

One thing I always found is, talking with performers, especially comedians, is there usually seems to be a moment or an event or a club… Or there always seemed to be like some kind of crystallized thing that made you realize that, “oh, that’s it. I am doing what I want to do. I want to be a comedian. I want to be a performer.” Did you have that? If so, what was it?

(Comedy) was the last thing to come, but the first thing was dance, and that was at age three. So there was no choice. There was absolutely no choice that it found me and it was immediate. It was like, it was love at first sight, love at first shuffle ball change. I absolutely loved it.

So from the moment that first dance class — I still remember it — my dad took a picture of me and he gave me that photo that I still have to this day. He said: “remember how long you’ve been doing this?”

I loved it so much. So it was dance and musical theater, but comedy… I was always cast as the comic relief in theater, in musical comedy. I was always funny, but I was still a dancer and more of an actor.

And it wasn’t until years later that on accident,(when) I was hosting a charity event in San Francisco, and there were massive, massive technical difficulties. And these were people that they invited to donate money, to help for the children’s hospital. So they pushed me on stage. They’re like, “Mina, you’re funny. Just go do something funny.”

And I just made fun of this situation. And I had done some improv in college at the time. And I now know what I did is called “crowd work.” I didn’t know that. Then I just started asking them questions and telling stories based on what they told me. And we ended up having a really great time and I ended up having them do like a whole rhythm at the end and we improvised.

And then the next thing, you know, everything was back to normal… (and afterwards) many people were like, “oh, you do stand up right?” I’m like, “no,” and they said “I know you should.”

I said yes. I’ll give it a try if I don’t like it. I’ll at least I tried and I loved it. I was like, “oh my gosh, there’s no character.” There’s it’s me. It’s all me. It’s my thoughts. And I’m not hiding behind a character. And it was a very different, unique experience. And, and here we are.

Most comedians do they do research, whether it’s sort of experiencing life, and that’s your research or you’re people watching, or if you’re more historical comic, you read. But part of that is also taking in other comedians and seeing what they do, what they like, developing your comic style. Obviously improv is a big part of it for you, who are some of your comedy influences; people you looked up to or model yourself after who, who, what kind of artists to your guiding stars?

I’m going to go really old school. I was obsessed with Lucille Ball. I was obsessed with her show. I loved her physical comedy. And that was more, that was my thing since I was very young, was more physical comedy. So I really was drawn to that.

And then also my dad used to listen to Richard Pryor, George Carlin of course, and Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield, and Rodney Dangerfield always had these very expressive face and expressive eyes. Oh and Bernie Mac!

Ah, his eyes would say everything for them. So I’m really drawn towards the more physical comedians, and the storytellers… Dave Chappelle right now, hands down. I love Dave Chappelle, he’s a great person and he’s a great comedian, and his social commentary is just amazing. So I think I evolved as an artist. I really loved the physical comedy like Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal. I love him.

John Leguizamo, his one-man shows like free changed my life. When I saw that on Broadway, I was like: “you can do that.” Because it wasn’t standup and it wasn’t quite theater, it was a mix of all these things. And I started realizing that’s me. I can do all of these different things.

You get a bit older and wiser and more comfortable in your knowledge… I love to make people laugh, but in the end, if I can also maybe make you think, that’s everything. And if you can attack a negative stereotype, or do some social commentary without forcing it down people’s throats… Doing a very smart well-researched joke, then for me that’s the ultimate, having a higher purpose in anything you do, whether it’s stand up comedy, art, cooking, plumbing, why not? Plumbing’s important. We need toilets.

So much of comedy is a context too, right? You’re setting up a context that you might subvert the context. A context changes a lot when you go very far from home. And I can only imagine that for a boisterous Rochesterian Italian-American with tattoos, moving to a Dubai was quite a culture change. So why did you want to move there besides getting away from the snow? What were some cultural differences that you found that either made it challenging or made it a place that would, that allow you to be successful?

When I was first asked to come here, it was just a booking. It was a gig and it’s like 2007, so I didn’t know anything. I was like: “What’s Dubai?” I remember like Googling it and trying to get information. Honestly I just heard “Middle East,” and American media wasn’t very positive when it came to the Middle East.

I thought, you know what let me give a shot. It’s just a few weeks it’s to perform at a festival. And when I got here, I was stunned. It was not at all what I had imagined. And everyone was so kind, it was very safe, everything was so clean, and so brand new.

aa lot of the local Emirati men and women, the women wear abaya and shayla, and the men are in kandura. I had a lot of questions and very thankfully the production team for the festival were so patient — so patient — (were) so happy to answer them. There was an open dialogue from day one.

I started understanding more about a Muslim country, more about the history of the UAE, and how it came in the dream behind it. I asked a lot of specific questions too… I was really very blessed to have very patient people.

And in return they were like, “so you’re telling me your dad’s in the mob,” so (that) was the flip side. They’re like, “oh my God, I love the Sopranos. Oh, the Sopranos. Oh, I love it. Bada Bing, bada boom, bada Bing, bada boom, bada Bing, bada, boom.” It was a really open dialogue.

Arabs I have found are a lot more similar to Italians than I ever realized. We’re all about food and olive oil and family. We’re loud. We’re proud. We’re hairy. Especially as women, we really were like Mediterranean cousins. So going to my now husband’s family’s house — here it’s Friday is there equivalent to a Sunday — but having that Friday, you know, lunch where the whole family comes together, they’re making all of the food, the music is playing. I honestly, it made me very nostalgic from when I was growing up. So I love there’s. There’s so many similarities. If you get the chance to dig deeper and ask a lot of questions.

I do think Sicily was occupied by a Muslim country at one point. So there’s bound to be some crossover there. I do want to come back to your growing up because we’re almost at that point in the interview… But talk to me about Dubomedy.

When I had first come here, it was just for the gig, and I met a lot of people, and they kept saying, “there’s no local comedy here. There’s only people that are flown in, but please, why don’t you come start workshops? Why don’t you come start a comedy night?”

And I kept getting booked to do stand up, emcee, perform, teach, do all kinds of stuff. And I was like, let me think about it. And maybe I’ll just come back for a year and start to build something. And the cornerstone, anything I think (in terms of) sustainability is training. Some type of education.

Arabic comedy is very different than English comedy. It’s more storytelling, a lot more acting. And it’s stories that are handed down it’s oral tradition.

I met my now husband at the time. He is a guy who really loved comedy and wanted to build something. And we met and we had the same vision of using comedy as a tool to bring people of many different religious backgrounds and cultures together for a laugh and to build something from the ground up.

We started Dubomedy, the comedy school and the workshops. And then we started events. And then from that came lots of comedy festivals and then Comedy Central Arabia came in. So there’s been all these platforms… and we still don’t have a comedy industry. We’re not there yet, but it’s growing really fast.

It’s like if you’ve ever been to McDonald’s around the world — this is the only example I can think of — they always have something local. You have to localize. If you’re on tour, you’re going to go out. You’re going to experience the city. You’re going to start your set (with it), the first 10 minutes is about that city usually. So you can connect.

And for us, we’re not just going to (say) “this is stand up, this is what works in America, in New York and Chicago,” and just plop it in. We had to adjust. There’s I think 222 nationalities (in Dubai), it’s more than the Olympics live in this country. English is not the first language.

There was a lot of barriers in the beginning, and we focused on the similarities, the frustrations, and the laughter, and here we are.

It’s been since 2008. So it just keeps on going. And now the folks that we’ve mentored, they have their own nights and they’ve gone international and, it’s something special, it’s like who would have thought.

Here is the part in the interview where a lot of our themes are coming full circle from Lucille to Leguizamo, to growing up to cultural differences, to code switching, all this stuff. I couldn’t help, but make an observation here that your dad being a boxing promoter and you doing dance probably means you both have pretty good feet to stand on. So talk to me a little bit about the show “Growing Up Ringside.” What does it explore? What does the show look like?

(For how I) structured it, what made sense to me was rounds. My first was 12 rounds… and I quickly realized that’s going to be a four hour show. So I’m going to save that for the book version. Then I narrowed it down… and then narrow it down again. And it’s hard when it’s autobiographical; this is my life, but what are the most important key elements, which moments can you not have to tell this story, and I’ve narrowed it down to seven rounds and, and it kind of comes all full circle.

And the fact that I’m performing it in Rochester, that in itself… I’m probably going to cry. It’s going to happen. Probably ugly cry.

It starts off in 1980s, Rochester, New York. I really paint that picture. It’s a multimedia show… It takes you back in time, and especially for people who have never been to New York, or never hung out in Italian American family’s home, this is really putting you in the vibe.

So as soon as people enter, you got Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima playing, you have slides of old footage from boxing, old boxers from Rochester… All these fighters that my dad worked with, and old pictures of my dad. So the vibe as you walk in, it has to transport you to, to be in this certain zone. So I’m really using the pre-show… It’s a vibe. It’s I want it to, it’s an experience.

It starts with around round one (which) is behind the scenes, and setting the tone. And then it moves on to me moving to New York city… And there’s some very important turns in my career. And there’s also some very important (moments) that we had to fight through. There was some bad times that we kind of had to overcome, and then it brings us to Dubai and this whole, this whole different world and my husband’s Muslim and I’m raised Roman Catholic.

So you can only imagine my family coming to meet his family, and how that went, and the wedding and both of these families kind of breaking negative stereotypes and really embracing each other. And dare I say, love each other, like our families love each other now. And there’s a very beautiful and throughout it though, it’s funny.

It doesn’t sound funny when I’m talking about it. It’s very heartfelt. It’s very funny. And there are some very painful moments, but then uplifting moments. And then I make you laugh again. So it’s a bit of a roller coaster.

And at the heart of it is really the relationship between a dad and his daughter, and the support that he had for me, and (how) his passion ignited my passion. He is my hero. He’s the funniest man I’ve ever met. My husband’s a comedian now. So now I have to say that they’re both funny and my grandpa is really funny. I like to be surrounded by like, you know, strong, funny people.

Did you learn how to box for this?

I learned to box when I was a kid. Self-defense, you know what I mean? My dad will always say — this is my dad’s tagline — “keep punching, keep punching.” And he, before, especially I left Rochester to go to Manhattan at 17 by myself, no way he was going to let me go without having some street smarts and some self-defense.

We had a punching bag downstairs, we had a speed bag. I’ve been doing that since I was really young. I used to go to the gyms and they’d always be like, “Hey, you want to jump rope?” I’m like, “yeah, sure, but I want the bag.” I might be a little girl, (but) this is fun, (and) I want the bag. It was part of growing up.

Is it true that your dad still hasn’t seen this show?

It is very true.

Oh Lord, you’re really going to be crying. If he’s in the front row.

I don’t want him in the front row. I don’t want him staring at methe whole time. He has to be a little bit back. He has to be. And also there are going to be some jokes that he’s going to be like marone, and then sometimes he’s going to be teary-eyed, sometimes he’s going to put his head down. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to look at him until the end.

But the only thing he knows is the footage, because he had boxes and boxes filled with old VHS tapes of these old boxing interviews and fights. And a lot of this stuff was in Rochester, all these old photographs that really sticking together. So he got everything converted, and everything like all these pictures scanned and stuff.

So we got to look at all of these old pictures together, which was incredible. So he knows that element of it. And I asked him a lot of questions. We did a lot of Zoom calls, especially during the pandemic because I couldn’t go there.

So I was like, okay, let’s do this project… all he really knows is I asked him a lot of questions. We told a lot of stories. He saw some footage, and he keeps saying to me, “what’s the show about, I’m nervous.” And I’m like, I’m the nervous one.

(My mom’s) a big part of it. And actually she’s kind of the comic relief of the show, funny enough.

I like to end all of my interviews of this format with three big picture questions. What about Rochester made it such a great place for you and other original comedians performers to thrive? What about Rochester makes that work?

I am going to say two names: Timothy Draper, and Garth Fagan. I went to Brockport High School, and they had a 313 program. If you had grades high enough, when you were senior, you could leave half day and take college classes at SUNY Brockport. So I took class of course, with Garth Fagan and Mr. Draper. And I got my butt kicked by them.

They were just like over the top, and I loved it. “No, do it again, do it, do that,” (they yelled). And for me, my parents were like: “this is a test if you can handle this.”

I also trained in performance plus dance studio, and I was there all the time. I got a job there as an assistant teacher to help pay for the lessons, this training between performance plus dance studio (with) Garth Fagan, Timothy Draper, and very supportive parents.

That base has taken me all the way here… Without that… I don’t know. I don’t know.

(But also) I’m like all the bakeries. We got to talk about food.

It’s it’s true. You can’t perform without fuel. That’s true.

No. And Wegmans, I love Wegmans. It’s not, it’s not just a store. It’s like a lifestyle.

I grew up like five minutes from that Wegmans, so I know. We’ve talked a lot about what you have done. This question is about what you want to do or what you will do. What is the next thing that you want to accomplish the next feather hat that you’re looking to do in your career?

I had mentioned briefly John Leguizamo and Billy Crystal as two of my just… I love them. I really love their specifically their one-man shows. I was I’m really in awe of them. And they were able to encompass their stories, and have it be funny, but heartfelt, but then take it to Broadway. So I would love to take this show for bro to Broadway for however long of a run. I would love to film it and I would love for it to live on HBO.

And then also my husband and I have been working on a series kind of about two comedians from two very different worlds, different religious backgrounds… So we have that in the pipeline as well, but that’s going to be the series that we really want to film in this coming year… Put in your art, don’t let it go in vain. So we’ve been writing a lot.

And one more. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists, comedians or performers?

Oh my gosh. Yes. I definitely, definitely do. And I think so many people when I was young — except my parents, which is interesting — told me: “oh, it’s going to be too hard, oh, it’s going to be too hard. How are you going to pay your rent? How are you going to do this?” And you have to know, you have to like, and you appreciate that. Sometimes people are just genuinely concerned, but if you have this passion, and that’s all you can think about and you love it so much, you have to follow it.

And I did.

I was on the fence about whether or not to get a degree because for me, I was like out of the gate, “I’m 17, I want to go to Broadway.” And my parents were just like, “no, you have to go to school.”

I’m very grateful that I did because now I have my masters and now I can teach anywhere in the world. I teach theater, I teach dance, I teach comedy.

And I started comedy at the first comedy school in the Middle East because of that degree. And a lot of people were like: “oh, an arts degree, ain’t gonna do anything for you.” I’m living proof. It definitely definitely does. And you need it. You need an MFA to be able to teach and kind of give it back.

Another thing is to always write, don’t get lazy. You cannot get lazy. I use notes on my phone. Every time I see something funny or think of a funny line or, or a frustrating experience happens. Or sometimes it’s just something so beautiful. I need to take a picture of it, but you have to document it or else it’s gone forever. So just keep writing down these ideas and then get your button studio and don’t get lazy. That’s my, that’s my advice.

You can watch the full interview with Mina Liccione here:

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