The left's favorite scribbler on spiritual subjects, Reza Aslan, caused a small fuss recently with the first episode of his new CNN religion series: He participated in a little ritual cannibalism. But eating human brains isn't the only zombie-like behavior by the Iranian-American author: There is his habit of repeating and repeating and repeating the same tired joke.
Take the interview of Aslan by Ana Marie Cox in the New York Times Magazine (please!): "Apparently because you didn't want people to know that you were from Iran, you used to tell people you were Mexican," Cox said, asking him about his immigrant childhood. Ever witty, Aslan shot back, off the cuff: "Yeah, that tells you how little I knew about America. I didn't realize you guys don't like Mexicans either."
Ha, ha—that's a good one! But maybe not as off-the-cuff as it would seem. Aslan told the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival that he "spent a good part of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican." And then the punchline: "Yeah. Which by the way tells you how little I understood America, because it did not help at all. It turns out we don't like Mexicans that much either."
Aslan has been working—or perhaps more correctly, overworking—the "I pretended to be Mexican" joke for years. In 2010, he told Los Angeles magazine, "I spent most of the '80s pretending to be Mexican, and I was very successful at it." The next year he was at an obligatory TED conference: "For those of you who recall the eighties—not a great time to be Iranian in America," he told the audience. "I spent most of the early eighties pretending to be Mexican."
That said, Aslan sometimes offers slight variations in his delivery. There is the "how little I understood (or knew) America" formulation noted above, and then there is the "your ethnicity is in trouble" trope: "I spent a good part of the eighties pretending to be Mexican," he told a HuffPost Live interviewer in 2013. "You know that your ethnicity is in trouble when you think Americans will treat you better if you pretend you're a Mexican." Two years later, Aslan told Playboy: "I spent a good part of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican—which, by the way, did not help matters at all. This says something about how deeply in trouble your particular ethnic community is when you assume Americans will treat you better if you say you're a Mexican."
"In the eighties it was not a good time to be from Iran," he told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in 2014. "I used to pretend I was Mexican." He told the "Hound Tall" podcast the same thing, and even trotted out a phony barrio accent to prove that he was a practiced impersonator of others' ethnicity.
He's told the story far and wide. "I actually spent a good part of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican," Aslan told the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2014. He repeated it to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.
In September he told an audience at the University of Texas at Arlington, "I've admitted on numerous occasions that I spent a good portion of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican." You can say that again.
Of late, Aslan appears to be trying to find new formulations for his old laugh-lines. "I used to tell people I was Mexican," Aslan told Vox early this year. "It was very important that we kept the whole Muslim-Iranian thing on the down-low." Ah yes, the down-low—an excellent touch of vernacular that freshens the bit up nicely.
To be honest, we don't begrudge Aslan his crutch, even if it's about as funny as a crutch. After all, where would Henny Youngman have been without "Take my wife"?