Arts & Culture Features

Comedian Gilbert Lawand Brings ‘Iraq You Break’ Tour to Athens

Gilbert Lawand

Atlanta-based comedian Gilbert Lawand describes his style as silly and absurd sometimes, yet rooted in his personal background and the juxtapositions that can come along with a multicultural identity. Born in Baghdad to Catholic parents, Lawand moved with his family to the small town of Warm Springs, GA (population: under 500) when he was 6 years old to live on a farm. Much of his stage act centers around this unique position of identifying as a Southern, left-leaning person of color navigating conservative narratives of the Middle East. 

“It’s coming from a Southerner who didn’t start off in this part of the country or even this hemisphere,” says Lawand. “I love the South but also like to point out some of the injustices of the past and present. It’s the ‘duality of the Southern thing’ as [The Drive-By Truckers frontman] Patterson Hood would say. It’s also the duality of the Middle Eastern thing, as Gilbert Lawand would say. Did I just refer to myself in the third person? I sure did.”

After graduating from the University of Georgia with a double major in accounting and finance, Lawand received his MBA at Emory and briefly worked in corporate America before deciding to venture into comedy only three years later. After several years of performing stand-up and producing comedy shows in Atlanta, Lawand and his friend Mike Albanese relocated to New York City. 

Inspired by the abundance of talented comedians surrounding them, Lawand and Albanese soon co-founded the annual Red Clay Comedy Festival, which has since expanded into a multi-day festival featuring over 50 comedians performing across a half dozen venues in East Atlanta Village. The festival’s name pays homage to the iconic red clay that defines so much of Georgia’s natural landscape, but is also a reference to a lyric in the song “Bulldozers and Dirt” by one of Lawand’s favorite bands, The Drive-By Truckers. Currently in its ninth year, the festival has hosted an impressive roster of headliners, such as Eric Andre, Maria Bamford, Janeane Garofalo, Nikki Glaser, Kyle Kinane and Rory Scovel. 

“Red Clay is a festival that creates a comedy camp or mini-vacation type of atmosphere for the comedians,” says Lawand, who aims to always take good care of the performers every year. “We’re not a competition, and we don’t go out of our way to court industry types, so it’s not a stressful environment whatsoever. We put all the comics up in hotels, mostly in bunk rooms at the Hotel Clermont.”

Hot off the heels of the festival, which was held May 9–11, Lawand will return to Athens to perform at the 40 Watt Club on May 16. Though he has previously opened for other comedians at the 40 Watt—namely Scovel, whom he’s opened over 150 shows for—this will be Lawand’s first time headlining at the venue. The event is one of 10 stops on a Southeastern tour leading up to a live comedy taping at The Earl in Atlanta on May 24, which happens to be Lawand’s 50th birthday. 

“This hour that I’m touring called ‘Iraq You Break’ is very personal,” says Lawand. “It’s about my background and my worldview seen through that lens. It’s silly while still addressing heavier subject matter, such as immigration, right wing politics, war in Iraq and racism.”

The live taping will be Lawand’s first-ever special, and in some ways represents the culmination of the last 17 years spent honing his craft. He jokes that he must be on some sort of timeline coinciding with the cicadas, but the truth is that he hit a few health-related speed bumps after moving back to Atlanta in 2017. It took a little while to get back up to speed, but now he feels that his standup career is in its best place yet in terms of creativity and passion. 

“Audiences in Athens have been fantastic,” says Lawand. “It’s one of those places where I don’t have to tone down some of my leftist beliefs. It’s not an overt theme in my act, but it’s amazing how those that scream the most about freedom of speech and cancel culture are often the most sensitive and also the least funny. The scene has always been great in Athens. It seems to maintain a steady state of great comics and shows. I love it.”

WHO: Gilbert Lawand
WHEN: Thursday, May 16, 7 p.m. (doors)
WHERE: 40 Watt Club