Emdad Rahman joins a unique comedy club
Azhar Usman has been writing and performing comedy for the past several years, he has developed a unique act based on trans ethnic and intercultural issues, keen and witty insights, and general observational humor.
In 2004, he co-founded Allah made me funny – The official Muslim comedy tour with fellow Muslim comedian Preacher Moss, a 21-year veteran of the comedy industry and a former writer for George Lopez, Darrell Hammond, and Damon Wayans.
Azhar and the Tour have been profiled, featured, and/or mentioned in over 100 major world media including, The New York Times, TIME, Newsweek, Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, BBC (UK), BBC Urdu (South Asia), CBC (Canada), ABC (Australia), MBC (Middle East), Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), Jawa Pos (Indonesia), DAWN (Pakistan) and dozens more.
Azhar has performed at universities and prestigious theatre halls and auditoriums across the world, as well as North America's top comedy clubs, including The Improv (DC, Brea, and San Jose), The Comedy Zone (Charlotte and Knoxville), Yuk Yuk's (Toronto), and his hometown club, Zanies (Chicago).
The New Republic Online wrote: "In the world of 'Allah Made Me Funny,' Usman is the show. He's not just a person in whom two cultures clash, he's a wholly new invention: a world-weary comic, yes, but also a strictly optimistic believer, a political activist and obedient follower, a preacher and rebel all rolled up into one, swirling the audience's unspoken fears, expectations, and preconceptions in a richly entertaining mix."
Our London correspondent shared a few chuckles with one of the world’s few Muslim comedians.
When and why did you go into standup comedy? The American comedy circuit is probably the most competitive scene in America if not the world.
I started writing standup in late 2000 and began performing in early 2001. I was inspired by comics as a young person, and I finally built up the courage to try it myself. I had a friend in law school who was an amateur comedian --- after watching him bomb so many times, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I can’t be THAT bad!?” So I tried it, finally, and haven’t looked back since.
Are other comedians generally supportive of you, or is it an all out everyone for themselves kind of a thing?
The dark, ugly side of comedy is the business of comedy. Comedians can be a very herd-mentality sort of group. If a lot of the “popular” comics in a given scene like a particular comic, then s/he is given some sort of stamp of approval. But if they don’t like you, then you are on the “out” list. I have been blessed with many supportive peers, but I know there are a good many “haters” out there as well. Also, if a comic begins to really enjoy some success – and especially if fellow comics feel that it is unearned – then there can be a tremendous amount of jealousy. The entertainment business is like that in general, I suppose.
What’s been the audience reaction to the act? Jewish audiences, Muslim audiences, mixed audiences, any differences?
Overwhelmingly positive. I consider myself blessed to have a very diverse fan base. People from all different backgrounds seem to find something in what I am saying that they can relate to.
Arabs/Muslims. Are a lot of media roles created out of sheer ignorance or is the stereotyping intentional?
Both. They are intentional due to ignorance. There’s a lot of public education required, especially in the States. Americans are very cut off from the world around them. Only 15% of Americans hold passports. We are not a very “enlightened” people, certainly not about different peoples, faiths, cultures around the world. The Hollywood stereotype of the Arab/Muslim boogeyman has been around for quite some time, and his been wonderfully dealt with in Jack Shaheen’s book “Reel Bad Arabs,” and the related media phenomenon in Edward Said’s “Covering Islam.”
They say comedians are really always crying on the inside. Is there truth to that?
Yes, there is definitely some truth to that. Laughter and crying are related human experiences. In fact, sometimes when we laugh, we actually shed tears, which is interesting. In fact, what makes us fundamentally human are these emotive spheres. The Koran even says: “Praised is He who causes man to laugh and weep.” They are inter-related. Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.” I would say that the Beloved Messenger of God provides the best example of a perfect balance: he was said to be full of sorrow (gham) and yet always laughing (which in his case meant smiling broadly). So the comedians I know, who are so-called professional laugh-makers, are some of the more sensitive and emotional people I know.
Do you encourage young people to train and study law since you have a law background?
Not really. I encourage young people to pursue their passions, especially what they have a nature taste and ability for. Our youngsters really need to be encouraged to create their own destinies. The sky is the limit. We are one of the most gifted communities on the planet, and certainly the contemporary Muslims living in the West are amongst the most uniquely qualified bunch of Muslims to really make a change for the better in the world. The access to educational, economic, and global resources that we enjoy is unprecedented—shouldn’t we use these opportunities to bring about positive change in the world?
Who inspired you?
Many people have inspired me, in so many different ways. As a comedian, I take inspiration from other great comedians who have come before me, including a blessed companion of the Prophet Muhammad (may God bless him and keep him) who was called Nu’ayman ibn ‘Amr, who was known as the Jester of the Prophet. Transcendent comedians would include Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Mort Sahl. Comics from the previous generation would include Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. I also love working comics Jim Gaffigan, Jake Johannsen, Kathleen Madigan, and recently deceased Mitch Hedberg, who was a huge inspiration to me. I also grew up listening to South Asian comedians Moin Akhtar, Johnny Lever, Umar Shariff, and Saleem Chabeela.
Do you think there’s a spiritual aspect to comedy?
Absolutely. I have experienced it. People may think I am crazy for stating this publicly, but there are many paths to God, and I really feel that I may have found something to do in life that is making my little positive contribution to the world, which I have always found brings my heart closer and closer to my Lord. Of course, like everything, actions are by intentions. So I suppose if one make a very spiritual intention in doing anything, even the most mundane of life’s activities can acquire deep spiritual significance and meaning.
What are some of your significant spiritual influences?
In my own life, I have been blessed to come in contact with some of the leading Sufi masters of the age, or their students, or people associated with them. They have deeply influenced my worldview and my orientation. I love to read stories of the great saints, especially Islam’s Sufi saints, in books like Tadhkirat al-Awliya by Hadrat Fareeduddin al-Attar (may God preserve him). I draw tremendous inspiration from reading about such great men and women—people who really understood that we are fundamentally spiritual beings on a physical journey through this world, not physical beings on a spiritual journey. That’s what most people get wrong – and that’s the whole puzzle. If you can crack that piece, then the rest is cake. Of course, life’s everyday problems and struggles don’t magically disappear; but seeing them in context is what’s important – life comes into focus for the spiritual aspirant, I believe.
Why do you think we’re so fascinated with fame, and so interested in gossiping about famous people whose problems are not essentially different than anyone else’s?
This is the nature of the lower self (nafs). It relishes wasting time and seeking out gossip and the like. A good person is one who leaves alone that which does not concern him or her. Our Prophet told us as much (“It is from a person’s religion that he leave alone that which does not concern him.”).
Why did you become interested in comedy after a successful career as a lawyer?
I don’t know if I’d call it a successful career in law?! I was an entrepreneur actually. I built and sold a dotcom business during the dotcom boom (and bust). I started a solo law practice in 2002 and only ran it for about 2 years. It was fine, and had excellent growth prospects, but my heart was not in it. Once I started doing comedy professionally, there was nothing else I wanted to do with as much vigor and passion.
Where do you see yourself in the comedy world today?
I’m still a relatively young comic. Seinfeld says that your age in comedy is the number of years you’ve been doing it, so that makes me about 5 years old!! Richard Pryor said that on average it takes a comic about 15 years to find his unique comedic voice/perspective. So I feel that I have learned some basics of my craft, but I still see a long road ahead.
What is your favorite thing to do when you are not making people laugh?
Tickling my two boys (so I guess I’d still be making them laugh). So I guess that doesn’t count. Probably after that it would be sleeping or reading, two diametrically opposed pastimes that I enjoy.
Fame-- how is it?
I don’t consider myself famous, so I don’t know. If I become famous one day, you can ask me then. In principle though, the whole thing seems sort of silly to me. Being famous just means that people know who you are. So what? People know who everybody is. Your mom, your dad, your friends, your co-workers. So the only difference is that more people know who a famous person is. Who really cares? Unless they’re all sending you twenty dollar bills in the mail, I guess I don’t see the big deal. But then again, it is part of the nature of the lower self (nafs) that it desires to be known – so this may be why people are so fascinated by fame and famous people. Personally, I just don’t get it. Famous people are still just that, people – often with a whole lot more headaches and problems than you and me.
How do you deal with having to perform in pubs and clubs?
I spoke to respected religious scholars about this and sought their advice because at first, truthfully, I felt uncomfortable. I still don’t like it. But anyway, I do not turn down opportunities to perform in such venues because I follow the advice of said scholars; however, I rarely perform in such venues.
Dubya and a lot of other conservatives of his ilk tout that we're one nation under God. What do you think of when you see them invoking this "our God is better than their God" kind of thinking?
I think that they are a bunch of belligerent ignoramuses. Or is it ignorami? Today’s neo-cons have completely distorted the American founding fathers’ intent in creating this great republic. The only people who can rival their extent of distorted understanding are the Muslim terrorists who quote the Quran to support their twisted ideas of religion.
You're now in a position to talk about racial roadblocks for Asians and Muslims in mainstream American entertainment. Do you plan to use your status to address discrimination against Asians in the media?
Sure. I don’t really have an agenda, per se. But you can’t help but look the way I do and talk about what I talk about, except that you’ll end up making some sort of statement/impact. I’ll take that is it comes.
Did you ever run into discrimination on your way to the top?
Again, I don’t know about all this “on the top” stuff. I’m just a young comedian trying to build a solid act—nothing more, nothing less.
How much of your success would you attribute to support from the Muslim community?
All of it. I am a child of the Muslim community. I grew up literally in the arms of the community’s elders. My parents have always been mosque-going activist types. So I credit whatever successes God has blessed me with as a comedian to the fact that the community has supported me from day one. The first article that appeared in a major newspaper about me being a comedian was in the Dallas Morning News in the summer of 2002, and that was because I was appearing at a fundraiser for Islamic Relief in Dallas, Texas. It was that article that caught the eye of a journalist at The New York Times, which subsequently ran a story in September 2002, and the snow ball began to form thereafter.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
If God has blessed me to still be alive and working then, I see myself having ventured into television and film projects. I am working on a few at the moment, in fact, and hope to be developing myself in these areas as time unfolds. My boys are a huge priority for my wife and me, and we are forging plans to homeschool them actually, so that will be a huge time commitment/involvement of mine as well during the foreseeable future.
Do you have any words of advice for Asian/Muslim Americans looking to break into show business?
Do it for the right reasons. Know in your heart whatever your motivating factors and principles are, and try your best to stay true to them throughout. Memories can change as money, fame, and other corrupting influences beset the Path. Everyone loves and is attracted to authenticity and sincerity; no one likes a hack.
How do you pick your subjects to satirize?
Everyday life. Whatever I’m thinking about at a given point in time becomes fodder for material.
How would you define a fundamentalist?
I love the books “Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age” by Bruce Lawrence and “The Failure of Political Islam” by Olivier Roy. These books define the phenomenon quite well, and because it is such a technical definition, I won’t attempt to reproduce it here. Interested parties, however, should check out said books – must reads for anyone interested in fundamentalism as the global, modern problem that it has become.
Azhar is truly one-of-a-kind: a standup comedian, lecturer, poet, attorney, entrepreneur, and community activist. He was born and raised in Chicago to Indian Muslim parents who immigrated to the United States in the early 1970's. "I used to feel trapped between three cultures," he jokes, "Mahabharat (that's Mother India), the Pax Americana, and that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam. I was never quite sure what direction my life would take … I could become a bhangra DJ mixing at desi college parties, a mere ABCD (that's American Born Confused Desi) or a potato (brown on the outside, white on the inside), or some 'fanatical religious' type." Ultimately, Azhar chose none of the above.
Azhar hopes to take his standup comedy routine on the road, performing at campuses, conventions, conferences, and corporate venues nationwide, as well as for diverse international audiences. "I dream of playing the role of a bridge-builder," he says. "If I can play my little part in the grand scheme of things--by increasing understanding in the western world of what Islam and Muslims are all about, and increasing understanding in the Muslim world of what America and Americans are all about--then I will feel that my otherwise insignificant life made a difference.”
“ALLAH MADE ME FUNNY”
THE OFFICIAL MUSLIM COMEDY TOUR
NATIONAL TOUR STARTS APRIL 2007
For further information please visit the following official websites:
www. preachermoss .com
--Emdad Rahman is a Mathaba author