In America, he's a suspected Muslim Brotherhood conspirator. In Pakistan, he's a suspected CIA agent. In reality, Jeremy McLellan is a Charleston-based comedian with a penchant for Muslim jokes, South Asian rice dishes, and Twitter battles.
Recently returned from a three week tour through Pakistan, McLellan is proving no less divisive at home in Charleston.
"If you're Pakistani and you come to America, they might think you're a terrorist. If you're American and you go to Pakistan, they might think you're a CIA agent," McLellan laughs. "It's fun, yeah."
McLellan is, if anything, strikingly unobtrusive. A 32-year-old, college-educated guy with a uniform of plain black tees and thick black glasses, he has a cheshire grin and tactful stubble. Sipping a San Pellegrino in an Avondale cafe, his greatest offense might be looking like a Silicon Valley transplant.
His comedy on the other hand — it burns.
In one of his least political jokes, McLellan digs at the wage gap and simultaneously outrages every woman in his audience by claiming that men should make more. You know, to compensate. By the end every woman is laughing with him.
"My only rule is that you can tell a joke about any group you want, but you have to tell the joke in front of that group. If you're not willing to, then there's something wrong with that joke," says McLellan."There aren't rules, like this is stuff you can make fun of and this stuff you can't. If you're white, you can do jokes about black people, but go do that joke in front of a black audience and see how it goes. If you don't want to do that, then it's not smart. That's my only rule."
True to his word, McLellan took his Muslim jokes to Pakistan. Joining his friend Dr. Sultan Chaudhry's humanitarian mission to Islamabad, McLellan spent three weeks touring Pakistan, splicing together tourism with healthcare volunteering and sold-out comedy shows. Turns out he's like the Trevor Noah of comedy in Pakistan. "They don't have people named Jeremy there, so I'm like Cher with the first name basis," he says. "It's just like 'Jeremy is coming to Pakistan!'"
The Pakistan Express Tribune printed his name this summer nearly as often as they mentioned Trump, and with decidedly more affection. "Now, this guy may be Caucasian on the outside but he is a true desi ... he sure knows how to celebrate Jashn-e-Azadi with the true spirit of a 'Pindi boy,'" read an article titled "Jeremy McLellan is a True Pakistani at Heart!"
McLellan catapulted to stardom in the Muslim and Pakistani comedy circuit in recent years, largely thanks to Twitter and YouTube; "Word travels fast in the Muslim and the Pakistani community." He's been featured on Vice, dubbed one of the New Faces of Comedy at Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival, and won City Paper's stand-up competition twice, but this was McLellan's first chance to tell his jokes live in front of Pakistani and Muslim audiences.
"Comedy is universal. Humor is universal," says McLellan. "When Americans think of Pakistan, they imagine Afghanistan ... You do see donkeys in the streets and everyone is travelling like 10 people to a car, but it really wasn't that different in terms of comedy."
What doesn't work? Stoner jokes: "420 doesn't mean pot in Pakistan. It means a con artist; it's the penal code for a scam artists. They'll refer to politicians as a 420."
The Pakistani-American comedy transfer is not a two way street, and America is proving less accepting. Just as quickly as Pakistan adopted McLellan as a true Pindi boy, America's Islamophobe contingent pegged him as some sort of caucasian defector.
"There are people who really hate me and believe that the Muslims are taking over America and I'm part of this conspiracy," he says. "If I was part of a conspiracy, I would hope they would have told me about it."
Jihad Watch creator Pamela Geller accused McLellan of being funded by the Muslim Brotherhood comedy circuit.
"I don't know if you're familiar with the Muslim Brotherhood," McLellan explained over his quiche, "but they don't have a comedy circuit."
Maybe not all comedy is universal.
McLellan was slated to speak at Charleston's TEDx stage this month before jetting off on his UK tour, a 16-city benefit for the humanitarian ICNA Relief. But one month before showtime, McLellan and TEDx split over boilerplate creative differences. TEDx prefers education over confrontation and skirts religion and politics carefully; McLellan does not.
"Just so you know, I do these jokes in front of a Muslim audience and crush," says McLellan. "You are a non-Muslim telling me they're no good. There's a disconnect here."
With Americans crowding into their political corners, McLellan is an easy target. The irony, he explains, is that it's white people calling him out.
"That's like the most white thing to do. To get offended on behalf of other people. If someone gets offended by one of my jokes, fine. I'll listen to them," he says. "But if someone gets offended on behalf of another group ... it's worthless."
This winter McLellan has a deal with PBS, a UK tour, and plans to tell jokes and search out biryani in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and Los Angeles. But McLellan has promised his Pakistani fan base he'll return.
Pakistan is McLellan's niche, and he's not mad about it.
"If you're doing comedy that appeals to 200 million white Americans, that's called mainstream comedy," says McLellan. "If you do comedy that appeals to the other 7 billion people on the planet, that's called a niche."