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Azhar Usman: “Never imagined becoming a comedian”

Azhar Usman: “Never imagined becoming a comedian”

Famously known through the hilarious "Allah made me funny" tour and DVD, we had the pleasure to interview Mr. Azhar Usman, a former lawyer who became a Muslim comedian.

Azhar Usman.jpg

When did you make the switch from Law to comedy and why?
Well, the technical answer is, I quit my legal practice in 2004. Then I formally resigned as a lawyer. Prior to that I was doing comedy, early part of 2001. So now this coming year it will be 9 years. The answer as to “why”. It’s very cliché. When people ask “How did you choose comedy”. I don’t feel like I chose comedy, but I feel like ‘Comedy chose me’.

I never thought I would be a comedian, I never imagined nor planned it, I just always wanted to try it. I was always fascinated by comedians, since I was a little kid. I used to watch black and latino comedians, and they would always talk about their communities, always in a honest way. Obviously in a very funny way. “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a comedian, who was Indian, Muslim or Arab, and somehow that I felt that he represented me”, but it never happened. My whole life I kept wishing, hoping and wondering and it never happened. So by the time I was an adult, I started having this idea: “why don’t I do it?” And I had a friend when I was in Law (University of Minnesota) in 1996, and he was an amateur comedian. He used to go to the comedy club and do an open mic. I used to go and watch him. I started to get really inspired and wanted to try it. I was still very intimidated; it took me years to work up the courage. Actually I’m just a nerd, I went to the bookstore to buy a book on ‘How to do Comedy’, the comedy bible. (laughs)

So you know the techniques on how to do it?
Yes, well it was written in the ‘80s, very outdated kind of style…

Maybe you could re-write the book ?
(laughs) Yeah, I don’t think I could re-write the book, but there are other books since then. I just walked into the big bookstore (Barnes & Noble), I went to the art section and found a book on Stand-up comedy.

And did it help, all this advice, the tips & tricks about comedy?
Yes, it did help. Although some of the techniques are outdated, it definitely gave a process on how to come up with an act, how to write material. The hardest part of Stand-up for me and a lot of the comedians is writing materials, coming up with ideas.

How long does it take you to write a 30-minute show?
Oh, it takes a long time, because the process for most comedians is kind of like a ‘funnel’. You start with a large volume of ideas, concepts, one-liners and jokes. And then not everything’s going to be funny, and not everything is going to work on stage. So you have to discard some of that, and you kind of slowly keep cutting it down, cutting it down, until you get a small nugget, which is polished and which is funny and you can do it on stage. It’s always going to be funny, it becomes your A-material, as we call it. That takes a long time. Jerry Seinfeld, who is one of my favourite comedians - he’s very well-known because of his TV-show - released only one comedy album in his entire career. That was at the end of 27 years of doing Stand-Up. He released this one-hour comedy album and the title was “I’m telling you for the last time”.

The reason he called this “I’m telling you for the last time” was based on a live-show he did, compiling all his best material from his career, and then he said, “I’m going to retire these jokes, I’m never doing them again.” The point is that it took him 20 some years to develop one hour of polished Stand-Up material. So if you want to be at that level with people watching… He said that the interesting paradox of Stand-Up is that the Comedian makes it look totally effortless, so when you see Seinfeld for an hour, you think “He’s making this stuff out the top of his head”. But he said that is the illusion of Stand-Up, because the more effortless the Comedian makes it look, the more effort he’s putting into it. He’s very well-known among other comedians, he’s an extremely disciplined worker, everyday he goes to his office, he writes new material. Everyday he forces himself to go, even if he doesn’t produce anything that day, he goes to the office and sits down and writes.

Do you only write by yourself, or do you also receive input from someone else? Or some people that tell you a good joke and ask you to make something out of it on Stand-Up?
Well, everybody has a different writing process. Generally Stand-ups tend to be very solo performers, in writing their material, they tend in working alone, but of course when they get big, they hire writers. That’s the thing about Seinfeld, when he got his TV-show and several episodes of the Seinfeld sitcom, a lot of that is written by writers. But when you see “Saturday night live”, with Jay Leno and David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, they have a team of writers. To produce quality Stand-Up, quality comedy in a short periode of time you have to have a lot of people around you.

What would you advise young people, like here in Belgium, with some ambitions to become a comedian?
There’s only one way to learn Stand-Up Comedy: you got to do it! You have to get on stage and you got to do it. And you can’t be discouraged because people don’t laugh. Even if you’ve been doing this for a while, like here the first night out in Brussels, I did a private gig at a guy’s house, like a private affair, and it was a tough crowd. I got some laughs, but it was a pretty rough audience, so every once in a while you are reminded…and then the funny part was the very next day, which was yesterday, I went to do a small show at a high school, and it was the complete opposite. They were going crazy, like I walked in the room, it was like the Beatles walked in the ‘60s.

So you got to take the good with the bad and you have to understand that when you are a young comic, you are very hungry to get laughs, very hungry to be funny, and that’s fine, but after a while you begin to realise that getting laughs is just a part of the equation. You want to be honest, you want to be authentic, you want to talk about what you really care about. They call this “finding your comedic voice, finding your unique comedic perspective”. Richard Pryor, Stand-Up comedian from the 50s and 60s, famously remarked one time: “It takes about 15 years to find you comedic voice”. You know you’ve found it, when you can write material and nobody else can do it, because it is so embodied in your perspective, in your persona.

And it’s coming from your identity?
Yes, it’s coming from your heart actually.

So you still have five years to go then?
Yes, exactly, 5 to 6 years to go. And I really believe that. I feel that I do grow and evolve. Like Seinfeld, he pratices Zen Buddhism, he’s very Zen-type of person and meditates a lot. He gave a philosophical answer once when someone asked him to define Stand-Up comedy and he said: “Stand-Up is an exploration into the Self”. I really believe that because when you’re on stage, the deeper you go inside yourself to share things from your heart, the more you connect with an audience. To me it’s very spiritual, because as a Muslim, I define Sufism, “mutasawaf” as the ‘Science of the Self’. It is the Science of knowing who yourself. The idea is “He who knows himself, knows God. So I find that when I really do make my comedy personal, it tends to be a spiritual experience for me, which people might find that crazy, because it is just telling jokes. I’ve met comedians now that inspired me so much that I can see why they have a very special connection with an audience and it has everything to do with what is happening inside their heart.

People feel that you are honest
Yes, exactly. It is Art. I would almost give you an analogy. We have all listened to beautiful music that inspires us. You might go and listen to a singer, and you cry, you’re so moved, and you don’t know why. Where is this energy coming from? But, it is the spirit of that person, it is the heart. We believe that the heart is both a receiver and a transmitter, and so if you are on stage and you are connecting with an audience and telling jokes and they are laughing. That is what’s happening on the outside, but it could be that what’s happening on the inside is something much more profound.

It’s interesting what you just told us earlier, that you had 2 different responses from audiences here in Brussels. Do you sometimes adapt your script if you know the audience is not familiar with a certain topic?
If I have material that requires some foreknowledge that the audience doesn’t has, it takes too much time to explain a joke and takes away a lot of the punch line. Definitely I try to keep my material accessible and relatable. The surprise to me is with how much of my act I can tour all over the world. I’ve been very blessed, I’ve told jokes now in 23 countries, all across the world, in 5 different continents, very diverse types of people, and the same jokes work everywhere. It’s amazing.

Sometimes people may laugh for different reasons and that is also interesting as well. Just the comedian has intentionality, the audience has intentionality. And I’ll come back to what Seinfeld said: “People will often talk about Stand-Up as a monologue, it is not entirely accurate, Stand-up is a dialogue. The role of the comic is to tell jokes, the role of the audience is to laugh or to respond.” And then he said an interesting thing: “Laughter contains thought”, that’s why we all laugh differently and we laugh at different jokes. Sometimes we laugh from the stomach and it is a very viscerious reaction, sometimes it’s very thoughtful laughter, sometimes we just giggle, sometimes we laugh and we don’t really get the joke, we don’t even know why we’re laughing but it’s contagious. So laughter contains thought. And I found that the same piece of material can listen very different reactions and laughter at different times, in different ways, for different reasons. That to me it proves it is art, because like all art, it is receptible to numerous interpretations.

Do you enjoy being called “American funniest muslim”?
No, of course not. This is way too much pressure, way too much hype. I can’t live up to the hype. There is actually a beaufitul prayer, that I was taught, which is attributed to the early khaliphs of Islam, Omar (ra), he was the second khaliph after Abu Bakr. He was a very close compagnon of the Prophet Mohamed, very towering personality within Islam. So when he became the leader of the Muslims, he faced this dilemma, which a lot of Muslim leaders and people in power face. Inwardly you want to remain humble, modest and sincere, but outwardly you have to be a leader or a politician, so he had this beautiful prayer he used to say: “Oh my Lord, make me small in my own eyes and big in the eyes of people.” So in other words, “exalt-me so people think that I’m something special, so that they will follow me, they will listen to me, but never let me be deluted by that, keep me humble in my own eyes.”

Is being humble an exercise which you are working on?
Yes, it is a never ending process, of course. They say: “He who humbles himself before God, God raises him up. That has always been the case. People who we all love, who inspire us, great people, they are always very humble, very modest. Nobody likes arrogance.

What would you say to European stand-up comedians, as they are becoming popular and succesful? What can they change or how can they improve themselves? Same for the audience, what can they learn about laughter?
First of all, I don’t think we should take comedy too seriously, although there is a serious side to it. This reminds me of a great quote by Sir Peter Ustinov, British humorist, an amazing person, who said: “Comedy is just a funny way of being serious.” Good comedy always makes you laugh but also think. There is a message, but my advice to comedians who are coming up, who are connected to the Muslim community: they shouldn’t take their work too seriously. Do not forget that you are a comedian and you tell jokes. Dick Gregory was a great inspiration to me, one of the first black comedians ever, and I had the chance to interview him a few years ago.

I asked him for some advice: “You are a civil rights leader and comedian. I’m a muslim, I’m an American-Indian, do you have any advice?” He said a couple of interesting things. The first thing he said was: “When you are on stage, you’re a Comedian; when you’re off stage that’s where real life happens. No entertainer has ever changed the world, so if you are an activist and you are for real change, that happens through struggle that happens through hard work, organic real work.” So comedians, actors, singers and musicians shouldn’t pretend they can change the world. If Bono is respected around the world, it’s more than for his songs, that’s because he does other things off stage. They use their celebrity, but they do real stuff.

“The second thing is, if you want to get on stage to talk about these kind of issues, social justice, what is going on in the world”, he said, “I have one single rule for you: “Get on stage every night and tell the truth”. When he said that, it hit me like a lightning bolt, because he said it with such sincerity. What he meant I think is “don’t get too caught up in the glamour”, there is a certain appeal in show business. And beyond that, young comedians get really hung up on laughs, “I gotta to get a certain volumes of laughs”. If you’re a club comedian, like stand-up comedy clubs in the ’80 and the ’90, they had like a requirement, you had to have a certain number of laughs per minute, like 3 laughs per minute. That was a rule. You got really hung up on the laughter. That’s fine, it is part of becoming a good comedian, to be funny, but the message that he told me was ‘what matters most is to tell the truth’.

Can Comedy improve tolerance?
I hope so, I think so, There are a lot of examples that it has, given the American experience that I know about, Black American comics, Jewish comics, Latino Comics, Asian Comics, Gay comics, everyone was able to use stand-up to get their point of view across, to make an artistic contribution and to introduce new perspectives into the public discourse, so I think that Muslims, Arabs, and South-Asians and comedians from those backgrounds can do the same thing.

Azhar in Amsterdam

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