When Jad Sleiman lands a joke during his stand-up routine, the 33-year-old uses the skills he learned as a journalist.
“It’s the efficiency, the economy of words,” Sleiman said.
In January, his two worlds collided. That’s when Sleiman’s employer, Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate, WHYY, fired him from his job on the station’s health and science show The Pulse. Sleiman said he was terminated for what management called racist, sexist, and antisemitic jokes in videos he posted to his personal Instagram account.
A WHYY spokesperson declined to comment, saying the station did not discuss personnel issues, but later said in an email that WHYY has “no tolerance for behavior that demeans any individual or group based on their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual preference.”
Labor law was likely on the station’s side. In Pennsylvania, an at-will employment state, workers have little protection from being fired for their language despite having the right to free speech.
That’s created tension for entertainers such as Sleiman, a former Daily News intern, who depend on social media to promote a second gig. Fighting shortened attention spans and gamified algorithms, posting comedy clips on Instagram is just part of the hustle, even as employers keep a strict eye on their employees’ digital footprint.
Comics who bombed with their bosses aren’t hard to come by.
Shane Gillis, a Mechanicsburg native, cut his teeth in Philly’s comedy circuit before fumbling arguably the largest bag in comedy — a slot on Saturday Night Live — when videos of him using racist slurs surfaced in 2019. Katie Duke, a nurse-turned-comic, was fired from a New York hospital for posting brazenly on Instagram about a particularly rough shift.
While Duke now faces continuous rejections from other hospitals, in show business, all press is (mostly) good press. She’s gone on to amass more than 140,000 Instagram followers and is planning a national stand-up tour. Today, fans can attend any of Gillis’ 20-plus shows in the coming months, many of them sold out.
Dashing between small, dark clubs, Sleiman can hit several open mics on a good night. But a well-edited video on Instagram or Reddit widens that exposure significantly.
“Unfortunately, a lot of places booking that are going to give you work in comedy, they’re all looking at your Instagram numbers, at least for the bigger clubs,” said Jay Simpson, a Philadelphia-based comedian. “It’s super important now. TikTok stars, they’ll get a full weekend at one of the comedy clubs and have never really done stand-up before.”
Sleiman, an Arab American whose journalism career began in the Marine Corps, uses comedy to make observations about his Muslim upbringing and time in the military. But his job at WHYY was a lifeline, particularly for its health benefits after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2021.
Those ended when management came across such lines on his Instagram as “In the Arab world we had slaves, but a lot of them were white” and references to Asian sex workers, and told Sleiman his routine could cause irreparable harm to the station.
According to Mark Kluger, a New Jersey-based labor lawyer, audience laughs hold little sway in these types of terminations.
“Employers are free to make determinations as to what they feel is consistent with their values — or not consistent with their values — as this employer did,” Kluger said. “You have the right to tell your boss what you really think of him, but it doesn’t mean he has to keep you.”
Sleiman’s union contract, however, could have potentially offered protections such as progressive discipline or a warning.
Simpson promotes his comedy on Instagram and YouTube, similarly to what Sleiman does, his bartending job offering few restrictions on what the 34-year-old chooses to post. Negative reactions to Simpson’s humor, if any, come from his mother.
Not all comics have this comfort. Those working in fields such as education and social work often manicure their social media profiles, Simpson explained, only posting jokes that won’t upset their bosses. He sees public media as no different.
“You don’t want to work at a dentist’s office and say, ‘Yeah, but I hate teeth,’” Simpson said.
Meanwhile, Sleiman insists that diverse audiences appreciate the nuances of his humor.
“People want to be seen,” Sleiman said. “So if you’re performing for diverse crowds, you talk about it. It’s like a level of respect that you’re like, ‘Hey, I understand you can take a joke. You’re a human being like everyone else.’”
While some comics see this unfiltered approach as increasingly rare, Mae Casem doesn’t hold back. When Casem’s former boss professed love for Lenny Bruce, the Philadelphia comic was confident that she wouldn’t be getting the can.
Casem’s employer watched her reels on Facebook before hiring her as a restaurant server, and offered flexible hours to accommodate her performances.
Now she posts gags to her 1,800 Instagram followers that would make other managers raise an eyebrow. For example, “I look like I’m ready for the freaking rice paddies right now,” the Filipino American says in one bit, donning a bamboo hat plucked from an audience member.
“I think as long as I did an adequate job, and was respectful of my coworkers, there was no issue,” Casem said.
With his journalism career in limbo, Sleiman isn’t calling it curtains on comedy.
At an open-mic performance in Ludlow last month, he took quick sips from a beer before skipping on stage to a small room of about 12 people.
During one riff on conflict between Muslims and Jewish people and another at the expense of aging women, there was tension and laughs were thin, but people relaxed when he moved past the material that got him fired.
In a beat on the post-9/11 era, Sleiman recalled how his uncles once lied to an unruly younger cousin about what the word terrorist meant, changing the definition to “a little boy who doesn’t clean up his toys.”
When Sleiman dialed back the edginess, the audience loved it.