Interview with ‘Allah Made Me Funny’
On Aug. 30, the audience at The Pageant sat down to a unique experience. The “Laugh in Peace” comedy tour brings together a rabbi, a minister and a Muslim comedian in a show that aims to unite people through laughter.
“We bring audiences together that would never sit in the same theater,” Azhar Usman, the American Muslim comic featured in Laugh in Peace, said. “When we’re all laughing together, you can’t hate each other.”
Presented by the Anti-Defamation League’s St. Louis regional office, this interfaith performance will be part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the A World of Difference Institute. The Institute works to combat racism and intolerance by providing anti-bias education and diversity training programs to schools, universities, corporations, community-based organizations and law enforcement agencies. Since its inception, the program has delivered training to more than 135,000 students and adults across Missouri, eastern Kansas and southern Illinois.
The St. Louis presentation of “Laugh in Peace” includes Rabbi Bob Alper, Rev. Jennifer Munroe-Nathans and Usman. Alper, an ordained rabbi who started out serving congregations, has been a stand-up comic for more than 20 years and Munroe-Nathans is a pastor in Millis, Mass. who has been performing comedy across New England. Many call Usman the most famous American Muslim comedian.
Usman is the co-founder of the “Allah Made Me Funny,” a Muslim comedy tour that has traveled to more than 20 countries. He has been featured on “CBS Sunday Morning” as well as ABC’s “Nightline.” Although Usman now has a successful career as a comedian, the Chicago native didn’t start out as one. He earned degrees in communications and law before founding an Internet startup, then practicing law, and eventually found his way into the world of comedy.
Usman talked with the Beacon about “Laugh in Peace,” his comedic philosophy, and the politics of being an American Muslim today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Beacon: How did you get into comedy? Did you always know you wanted to focus on religion?
Usman: I basically never really thought about getting into stand-up. I was always a comedy fan, I was never hardcore into it but I knew I liked comedy. When I was a very young person I remember seeing comedy on TV, particularly Latino comics and black comics. These people were saying things that resonated with people, things that nobody says, and making people laugh. Particularly about race — America is a very racialized country.
I never imagined becoming a comic as a possibility for my life. I didn’t know anybody who was a comic or making a living as an artist. Having said that, I had this interest, and my interest began to grow. … My friend was an amateur comic and he would take me to this comedy club in Minneapolis. People say that people get inspired by two things: greatness and mediocrity. I saw a lot of mediocrity and thought ‘I could do that,’ so it inspired me to write an act in 2000. For a while it was just a hobby, an interest never meant to become a career, but then I started getting booked. Then in 2004 I had enough bookings to make a run at it.[/box_light]
With “Laugh in Peace,” the idea is that you’re bringing three religions together in a comedy show. Often people get very sensitive about making fun of religion — how do you transcend that?
Usman: We don’t really talk about religion, nobody’s material is about religion. It’s just the fact that the three comics are followers of these religions, and so their lives inform their comedy. Every comedian has beliefs that inform their comedy. That’s going to find its way into their comedy only in so far as their beliefs inform their worldviews.
I don’t think any of the comics talk about content from the religions but are more offering their own perspective that’s going to be unique. It’s not really confrontational or explicit, we’re not preaching. It’s not like we’re telling people to do anything. It’s just that we happen to believe x, y and z that and that informs our view of the world.[/box_light]
Many comedians talk about shock value and offending audiences, but I know in your Allah Made Me Funny tour you avoided sexual references and profanity. How do you balance your religion and comedy? Are there boundaries you’re careful not to cross?
Usman: There was a time where I would think more about that, or I would feel more like I wanted to stay true to a certain core set of principals and I didn’t want to be thoughtless about offending people. There was a time when I would be much more deliberate and careful because I didn’t want to have a bad result.
The comic’s material is a reflection of our perspective. Shock comedy, people who get laughs by offending people, that’s a choice … that stems from a comic’s life. I think, though, I’ve gone through a maturing process. There’s a whole other comic philosophy and that’s the one I use.
There are thoughts that we all have at the conscious level and the subconscious level. And what a good comic does is reach into the subconscious mind and say things that people are thinking about but no one says. So when people are shocked it’s because no one’s ever thought about that. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with something taboo or whatever. I’m going to make you laugh by saying things that other people don’t want to say, by forcing you to deal with things you don’t want to deal with, and that’s what gets the response. [Offending people has] become less and less of a concern because that’s not the kind of comedy I’m interested in.[/box_light]
How was performing Allah Made Me Funny all over the world different from performing in America, as you’re doing now?
Usman: Every city and every country has a personality. It’s almost hard to talk about it because it gets into energy and the feel of a place. The way the same joke will be received in a different environment will be — in an extreme case — the difference between laughter and no laughter, or it can be laughed at for different reasons.
People are kind of in awe of the United States, so people are jealous or sometimes the jealousy will produce negative feelings. Here’s an example.
Say I’m in America and I tell this joke: “So I was recently in Amsterdam and that’s a very different environment than it is here. When I’m in America people look at me differently because I’m a Muslim, so when I’m there it’s nice that people just hate me ‘cause I’m American.” And people laugh because they know people do hate us around the world.
Then when I’m in Amsterdam and I tell the same joke, I say: “It’s nice to be in Amsterdam, it’s a whole different environment than America. When I’m there people hate me ‘cause I’m Muslim, but here people just hate me ‘cause I’m American.” And they laugh, but because they know they don’t hate Muslims but they do hate Americans.
So it’s different, and yet the same joke can often play across the world and appeal to all people.[/box_light]
When you first started touring, 9/11 was pretty fresh in people’s minds. Do you think Americans’ attitudes toward Muslims have changed in the past decade?
Usman: The relationship between Islam as a great global religion and a faith tradition and the United States of America as a nation state that’s engaged in empire building is a complex relationship even before 9/11. The reason that’s important to keep in my mind is because whatever attitude 9/11 produced in people’s minds, there’ve always been groups and people that have an interest in fueling the flames of anti-Muslim hate. All 9/11 did was provide those people with a huge amount of ammunition to fuel those flames.
We tend to be naïve about the world and not be able to see past the mass media. Americans are worse about this than the rest of the world because we don’t look past CNN or Fox News to be informed. This conversation that has already existed for decades and centuries just became much more important.
Throughout the history of the United States, there’s always been a global enemy. It was the Japanese, then the Commies, now we find and replace Russians or Communists with Muslims. The words might be different but the ideas are the same. So what does that produce? People are scared and people don’t ask questions about why are we spending more money on defense than the rest of the world combined.
The way that plays out for everyday life for someone like me in America just fans the flame and makes that relationship more complex. I believe in my core that human beings are human beings and are all made up of the same things. And the comedy that I want to do as an artist is to transcend our perceived differences and get around that. That’s what good art does, it gets around that. That’s what I’m aspiring toward.[/box_light]