A former attorney and dot-com businessman, Azhar Usman is a Chicago-based stand up comedian, actor, writer, and producer. CNN called him “America’s Funniest Muslim”. As the co-founder of the comedy showcase “Allah Made Me Funny––The Official Muslim Comedy Tour,” he has toured over 20 countries, on five continents. His comedy has been profiled & reviewed by over 100 major world media outlets including: The New York Times, The Economist, BBC, The Guardian, NPR, TIME Magazine, The Times of India, USA Today, Fox News, and Nightline on ABC.
In 2003, Azhar released his self-produced comedy album, Square the Circle, which gained a cult following among Muslim communities worldwide. It also got the attention of Dave Chappelle, whom Azhar frequently opens for. Azhar’s recent performances include: JFL audition at UP Comedy Club, SCOUT Chicago Festival, and NBCUniversal Second City Break Out Comedy Festival.
In this interview, Azhar shares his stories of performing all over the world, opening for Dave Chappelle, and advice and wisdom to live by.
“Azhar Usman is untouchable.” –Dave Chappelle
In the beginning, who were your influences?
An impactful moment was seeing Paul Rodriguez make fun of the word ‘Hispanic’ saying, “How would you like to be part of an ethnicity with the word PANIC in it?!” [laughs] I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy is a Latino in America getting them to laugh at his pain as a minority. AND he’s saying some real shit!
What was your first open mic experience like?
Acme open mic, Minnesota. I wanted to do stand up SO bad, but I didn’t have the balls, so I just went to watch. They say, “People are inspired by greatness, and by mediocrity.” That night I saw SO many mediocre open-mikers where I was like, “I can definitely do better than THAT guy!” But, I also saw greatness because Mitch Hedberg, God rest his soul, popped in. AND, Nick Swardson did stand up that night, for the first time—and he destroyed! A year later, he was on TV. He’s a complete natural.
Damn. That’s a hell of a first time!
Yeah…but I still hadn’t gone up yet. I was just watching. That was in 1996. I graduated law school and moved back to Chicago in ’99 and STILL had not gone up! [laughs]
Why hadn’t you done stand up yet?
Well, this was during the dot-com era. At that time, the internet was THE thing. So, me and a friend came up with an internet business idea. We wrote the business plan and raised venture money. I got my law degree, and was working for my start-up the next morning, full time. People I knew were making MILLIONS of dollars. It was a very real thing to me. It was like the gold rush.
What happened with your company?
The company had a full life. We raised a few million dollars, had 40 full time employees, and an office in downtown Chicago. Business was great, and a couple years later we got a meeting with big shot CEO, Jim Fisher. He was responsible for like, 57,000 employees worldwide. Somehow someway, we got the chance to pitch this guy to invest in our company. He not only liked our idea, but he wanted to be CEO of our company! It was in the Wall Street Journal.
That’s amazing. How long did that last?
Well…then the dot-com bubble burst. The whole thing evaporated. It was like investing in real estate right before the crash. We had to fire almost 40 people…right before Christmas. It was one of the worst times in my life.
STAND UP: A NEW BEGINNING
What was your first official stand up gig?
I was always plugged into the Muslim communities around America, and I had performed for some Muslim events, but long story short, I got invited to perform for a benefit in Dallas. This was a few months after 9/11 happened. They flew me out, put me up, and gave me 30 minutes—I really only had like, 7. [laughs] But, the very notion of a Muslim comedian performing right after 9/11 got the attention of the Dallas Morning News. They called me up asking to do an article which ended up turning into a huge piece.
Meanwhile, you still only had 7 minutes?
I didn’t even know WHAT I was doing! I felt like a complete fraud! [laughs] But, the show went well!
[moment of laughter] That’s amazing.
In fact, a couple months later I got a call from the New York Times about how they saw me in the Dallas Morning News, and now THEY want to do a piece on me. [laughs] The journalist wanted to meet me and see me at a show.
Were you doing shows in Chicago by this point?
Dude, I was still doing open mics! [laughs]
[laughing] Oh shit…so what did you do?
They wanted the story done ASAP so that it would run in the Labor Day edition of the New York Times—which is THE most heavily read New York Times of the year! [laughs]
Damn…were you able to get booked?
At the time, there was a comedy club in Schaumberg called The Comedy Spot. I asked them if I could do some time. But, there was a comedy contest that had been going on for months, and the night I asked about was the finals. Fortunately, one guy canceled so they gave me his spot.
Wow. So then what?
I met with the journalist, did a pre-interview. Then I went up at The Comedy Spot, and I friggin’ killed it! [laughs] Had one of the best sets of my life! I ended up winning the contest!
[moment of laughter]
The story ran in the New York Times headlined, “Arab and Muslim Comics Turn Fear into Funny”. Through that, I got contacted by Muslim communities everywhere, and was invited to do gigs all over the world!
You are fluent in Urdu. Have you ever done your act in Urdu?
I speak it, but I can’t express myself in stand up with it. Although, I once did a gig in India in front of 2,000 people, and RIGHT BEFORE the show I was told that they expected me to perform in Urdu.
Oh no… What did you do?
I told them I couldn’t do it and they seemed okay with it, but they said that even though the crowd spoke English, they might have a hard time understanding. Basically telling me, “You’re kinda screwed, but do what you wanna do!” [laughs]
So how did it go?
This particular venue was notorious for booing and heckling. Like Showtime at the Apollo. They enjoy that. Meanwhile, nobody told me this, I had NO idea about this! [laughs]
Did you get heckled?
I got a few charity laughs at first, and then somebody heckled me—in Urdu. So, I stopped speaking English and talked back in Urdu like, “Oh you thought I didn’t speak Urdu did you?!” I started talkin’ shit in Urdu, and got big laughs! I went into D.L. Hughley mode, making fun of the audience in Urdu and destroyed the place! [moment of laughs] It was nuts!
DAVE CHAPPELLE, THE MENTOR
You are a frequent opener for Dave Chappelle. How did you link up with him?
In 2004, comedian Preacher Moss and I co-produced a tour with a bunch of Muslim comedians called Allah Made Me Funny. It was great, it got a lot of press. Chappelle had always been low key, but I had heard that he asked about the tour. I didn’t believe it, figured it was just hype…until a friend of mine who I trust, said a friend that HE trusts, met Chappelle in Medina—the city of the prophet Muhammad. Supposedly, Dave told this guy to get in touch with me! [laughs] Now I believe it, but I had no way to contact him.
That was around the same time as Chappelle Show. It must have been impossible to reach him?
Dave finished Chappelle show and went to Africa, and when he came back one of the first shows he did was at the D.C. Improv. Preacher Moss went there to try to meet Dave, but he kept getting boxed out by all these Hollywood people. So he told them, “I bought this book for Dave, can you please give it to him?” He put his business card inside the book. [moment of laughs] Dave got it and came out of the green room like, “Where’s Preacher Moss?! I’ve been wanting to meet this guy!”
When did Chappelle finally contact you?
Dave came to Chicago to do Zanies. I got a call from a blocked number and when I answered he goes, “It’s Dave, man. Dave Chappelle! Salam Alaikum!” [laughs] He started mentoring me, and he let me do some time at Zanies that night. Dave is one of the realest dudes I’ve ever met.
What draws you to stand up? Why do you do it?
It’s the combination of my two favorite things in the world: 1) Laughing / making people laugh. 2) Being insanely honest and real. I feel that any artist has an insatiable desire for realness. A desire to be understood and to share your truth with other people, and have them acknowledge your truth. There is something very visceral and fundamentally human about that interaction.
Advice on battling stage fright and getting more comfortable in front of audiences?
Danny Martinez once told me that when you get on stage, it’s like there’s a brick wall between you and the audience—because you’re scared of them. And if you’re scared of them, they’ll be scared of you. Your goal on stage is to keep removing a brick. As long as you keep chipping away at that wall, one day you’re gonna show up and there will be no wall.
You’ve performed all over the world. How do audiences differ from each country in terms of what they laugh at, and what they connect with?
The taste for stand up has really become universal. Everybody on Earth watches YouTube. Everybody has access to the same stuff. I think that’s why there’s more and more cross-pollination with international comedians coming over to America, and more American comedians performing overseas. With that said, it obviously depends on what type of audience turns up for the show. No matter where you are, it’s just about the type of audience. Funny is funny.
AZHAR USMAN WISDOM
What were your thoughts on Louis C.K.’s controversial SNL set?
I thought it was inspirational, because in ONE SET he confronted the 3 biggest taboo subjects in this order: Racism, the Middle East, and pedophilia. He tackled a 3-headed demon and made it remarkable! He took topics that most people refuse to touch, and he made them hilarious. It’s inspiring to me to watch one of the greats do that.
What do you think it takes to get to that top level in comedy?
To me, that’s the promise land. And right now, I’m on the trek through the desert, dying. But, I believe that I can make it to the promise land if I just keep going. You’re either gonna die, or you’re gonna make it. It’s a binary outcome. So, just never give up. Keep doing what you’re doing.
Bill Hicks once said that stand up is the hardest thing there is to do. Why do you think that is?
Seinfeld calls stand up comedy “The great journey into the self”. You have to have the courage and the balls to REALLY do that! People used to walk out on Hicks, REGULARLY. But, he didn’t care because he said what he believed. It’s not easy to get on stage and battle demons and insecurities. Saying what you REALLY think and believe and care about, while making it funny.
Final thoughts / words of wisdom?
Ignore all the noise. Just. Get. Good. At. Stand Up. Stop complaining about why so-and-so got this or why I didn’t get that. The world doesn’t owe you shit. If you were THAT good, you’d get it! Challenge yourself. Work hard and put in the time. Put your blinders on and stay in your lane. Anybody who matters is gonna figure it out.
WRITTEN BY: David Gavri