Salma Zaky anxiously awaited her first stand-up comedy performance at an open mic night during her senior year of high school.
After speaking for two of her allotted 10 minutes, during which she told a joke about emojis and avoided eye contact with the audience, Zaky rushed off the stage and refused to tell anyone about her experience.
“I remember in the middle of my set I was like, ‘Oh – I’m bombing, aren’t I,’” said the third-year English student.
Now, Zaky performs five times a week at comedy clubs such as Hollywood Improv and The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. She attends class in the afternoons, and then around 6 p.m., drives to open mics to perform her sets alongside comedians in their late 20s and early 30s.
Soon after her first attempt at stand-up, Zaky gave a speech at her high school graduation and realized the jokes she was making were getting big laughs from the crowd. She said she felt good about the audience’s response and decided to pursue stand-up comedy in college. She joined Shenanigans Comedy Club at UCLA her first year and immediately began performing at venues around Los Angeles, improving her stand-up routines and setting herself up for a career in comedy.
“It’s just the best feeling ever, especially when I do crowd work and it works and people are engaging,” she said.
Zaky said persistence is crucial in stand-up, which she learned after going through periods of silent crowds and unsuccessful jokes.
“I think out of everyone I know that does stand-up at UCLA, she is probably the most dedicated,” said Shenanigans president and third-year chemical engineering student, Vinny Seeram.
During their weekly meetings, Zaky and Seeram bounce ideas off each other and perform new material for the group in an open mic style. In the two years he’s know Zaky, Seeram said he’s seen a stark improvement in her performance as well as her confidence on stage.
“I think now compared to then, she has a grasp over the type of material that compliments who she is and what she can talk about best,” he said. “When you’re starting out, you kind of just maybe try to be more edgy, you think that’s funny, you grasp at things.”
Zaky generally performs three- to five-minute sets, and covers topics ranging from her Egyptian heritage to ouija boards. One of her favorite jokes begins with her telling the audience everyone says she looks like her dad – to which she replies, “Oh, does my dad look like a beautiful woman?”
The joke is one of the first she ever wrote and typically draws big laughs from her audience. Initially, Zaky said she tended to perform using more self-deprecating material, such as her looks or her experience with dating.
“As a woman, its like ‘Oh, I have to hate myself,’” she said. “So when I first started, I was writing a lot of jokes like that.”
Since then, she’s moved to more personal and lighthearted material, although she is still trying to find her distinct comedic style, she said.
Her two-and-a-half month stay in New York in the summer proved to be a notable learning experience, she said. Not only was she performing 15 to 20 sets a week – often going from 2 p.m. to midnight – Zaky said the crowds in New York were much harder to impress.
She learned how to make her jokes more effective by trying them out on different crowds, such as the ones in New York, cutting off contextual details to avoid rambling during her set, she said.
“It’s kind of tough, you know, especially coming from a college campus being so generous with laughs,” she said. “Definitely a lot of bombs, but also when I had a good set, it felt extra good.”
Zaky co-heads the stand-up category of Shenanigans with graduate student Katie Green, whom she’s worked with since her first year. Green, who has performed stand-up internationally, said part of being a good comic is the ability to adjust the set to the performance environment.
“The first time I went up in London I bombed completely,” she said. “Because I went in there not putting into perspective that there’s a completely different culture.”
Green and Zaky currently run a monthly show in which they invite comedians outside of the UCLA community to perform at a co-op on Ophir Drive.
Zaky said the project has been a good way to host up-and-coming comedians and to develop connections with people who perform around Los Angeles. The 20-year-old plans on pursuing a career in comedy, using her four years in college as an opportunity to perform stand-up at night without the constraints of a full-time job.
“The younger you start the better you know, I think it’s a huge advantage,” she said. “I go to these mics and I see there’s some old comics and it’s like, dang, I’m glad I started early.”