Mary Basmadjian on Socially Conscious Comedy, the Origins of Vartoush, and Not Feeling Armenian Enough

Written by Araxie Cass

07 May 2021

With a growing following of over 50k on Instagram, Mary Basmadjian gained notoriety as a comedian by using her platform to effortlessly combine humor and activism. Her goal: making people laugh while simultaneously encouraging them to reflect on their own ideas and personal biases. Azad Archives caught up with Basmadjian to find out how she strikes the balance between comedy and activism, her journey in the Armenian community, and of course, all the juicy details on how she created everyone’s favorite auntie, Vartoush. 

AA: I love the way you use your comedy to talk about social issues. What motivates you to tackle difficult issues with laughter? 

MB: I’ve always been in the mindset of mixing the medicine with the food. I don’t want to come off as preachy, so I mix it with comedy as much as I can. 

AA: What has the response been like? 

MB: People tend to be more open to learning when they’re not on the defensive. When we did the Integrated Family Talks, one of the things that Shondalia White (who plays Annette) and I were discussing was that we want to ease people into it. 

I’ve been doing standup for a while and producing Armenian standup shows, so when I or the other comedians would talk about things we knew for sure Armenians weren’t going to agree with, they tended to still laugh at the joke, and it got them thinking a bit as well. One of the first things I learned from my first comedy teacher Bobbie Oliver was that it’s not just comedy—you have a soapbox, use it wisely. 

AA: You’ve gained a lot of following recently on Instagram. What has that experience been like? 

MB: There are days that I kind of wish I didn’t have it, that people didn’t know who I was, but honestly I’m very grateful. I started the videos on Instagram around six or seven years ago, and it’s grown a lot over the years. Also after the treaty signing, I gained about ten thousand followers because of Vartoush Vocabulary. 

I try to use my platform as best I can to raise awareness. Last year after the murder of George Floyd, I noticed a lot of Armenians saying “All Lives Matter,” so I decided to do an Instagram live. I just put on the Vartoush wig and glasses and went ham. When I got off that live, I was fully prepared for my manager to hit me up and say why did you do that, but luckily she was really happy I did it and proud of me. After that, I had a couple of people in my DM’s saying thank you for that, I  see where this is coming from now, why it’s Black Lives Matter and not All Lives Matter. 

AA: I heard you say recently that Vartoush has developed and become more progressive over the years. How has that happened?

MB: I started with the videos around six or seven years ago—total cringe to look at them now by the way—but Vartoush started out as that Armenian lady that would always talk shit to me growing up. There were various people: my mom’s friends, my mom herself, or relatives. I was always told that I would have to lose weight to find a guy, or because it doesn’t look good, so there was always that Armenian lady in my head. That’s actually one of my first videos, it’s my mom talking shit to me about eating bread. 

That was how Vartoush started. Back then I didn’t really have a wig so I’d just put something on my head and pretend it was hair. Then I did the Big Bad Armo Show with Lory Tatoulian and in one of the sketches I used her wig and I was like oh, you’re not getting this wig back. So I kept the wig and Vartoush kind of grew from there. 

I realized that people tend to listen to the character more than Mary, so I thought it would be funny to put this Armenian lady in non-Armenian scenarios, and create that juxtaposition of this Armenian lady actually being accepting of gay people, liking non-Armenians, or talking about things that Armenian women would never talk about. To me, that was funnier than “Armos be like” or “White people be like,” which was what was all on Instagram or Vine those days. 

Now I’m really grateful to have a character that I can use as a vessel to deliver these messages. And honestly, Vartoush and her mannerisms are a mixture of my dad and my aunts and various Armenian ladies I’ve met in my life, not actually my mom. 

AA: I love that, especially how Vartoush swears and talks about all these things that are traditionally taboo for Armenian women. 

MB: Yeah, if Mary were to do that, everyone would be pissed. Mary can’t get on social media and cuss but if Vartoush does it’s cool. 

AA: That’s so interesting. Do you think it’s because it’s comedy? 

MB: Maybe. And a lot of people say they see their aunt or their mom in Vartoush, so maybe that’s why they’re less likely to tell her what she can and can’t do. 

AA: What has your experience with the Armenian community been like? Do you feel like you’ve always been part of the community? 

MB: The funny thing is, growing up I never really felt like I was part of the Armenian community because I didn’t have a regular Armenian family, and I was picked on a lot. I never thought I would be accepted into, or even liked by the community if I’m being honest. My bullies growing up were Armenian. And now those same people are on my Instagram like oh my god we went to school together! It was kind of ingrained in me that I was different from other Armenian girls. But in a way, I feel grateful for what I went through and for being different because I never have that experience I see a lot of other Armenian women having where their brother or boyfriend or husband will tell them what to do or to take down a video or something like that. 

AA: What changed for you that made you feel like you could, or would even want to be accepted as part of the Armenian community?

MB: You know, I’m still working on that because there’s always that doubt in my mind. Maybe it’s that little Mary in my mind that’s not been accepted into the community. To me, I’m still not a regular Armenian woman because I’m not married and I don’t have kids at this age. What maybe feels like acceptance is having my Armenian following or getting messages that really make me feel happy I can do this for my people. And lately, I’ve been noticing I’m connecting more with Armenians that weren’t raised in LA or biracial Armenians, or fourth or fifth generations Armenians, or Armenians that didn’t have a traditional upbringing. So I’m hoping to be fully accepted. But what does it even mean to be fully accepted?

AA: You’re right, I feel like it’s really a matter of perception. Someone else can see you as such an Armenian person and you still feel like you’re different in some way. 

MB: Yeah, maybe others see me as being in the Armenian community, because I see my name come up in lists of Armenian accounts. But sometimes I still don’t feel accepted, like I’m not enough, like I should be living in Armenia or speaking more Armenian or writing Armenian or things like that. 

AA: There’s always something. But I really appreciated the way you talked a while ago about the need for people to speak Armenian, but also the different accessibility issues. 

MB: I’m not proud of this, but I was raised to think that if you don’t speak Armenian you’re not a real Armenian. But as I got older I realized that everyone has a different upbringing, and everyone’s situation is different. 

Do I believe the language is important? Absolutely. That’s the reason I started Vartoush Vocabulary. I felt powerless when the treaty signing happened like a lot of Armenians felt, but I was thinking that no matter what happens, Armenia has to exist in people, and the culture and the language are a big part of that. So instead of shaming Armenians who don’t speak Armenian, why don’t we help them and welcome them to learn Armenian? 

AA: It’s so important. Is Vartoush Vocabulary going to come back? 

MB: Yes! I’m getting back into it.

AA: Any last messages, anything else you’d like to say? 

MB: I’m working on just connecting Armenians all over the world with comedy as much as I can. When I started comedy I really wanted to be the George Lopez of Armenian comedy and introduce the western world to Armenians to the point where I could say aghjik or tgha during a live set and non-Armenians would know what I was talking about. I’ve always wanted to do that for my Armenians.