Azhar Usman: ‘If I can also make people think then hopefully comedy is supporting bigger aims’

American comedian Azhar Usman (41), described by CNN as America’s Funniest Muslim, performs at ‘Nuff Said during the Festival van de Gelijkheid (Festival Of Equality) in Ghent this Thursday. Our 21bis-reporter had a philosophical talk with Azhar Usman about comedy as a form of art, Brussels as the world of the future and these rather scary times.

Last week in Brussels, Azhar Usman unveiled a new comedy show he’s working on. ‘Guys, I have this weird feeling that we are all dancing on the Titanic’, he started on stage. ‘Every morning I wake up and think: ‘Is the Antichrist coming out today?’ I’m a Muslim searching for Jesus.’ He added that instead of reading the ‘news’, which tells you what is happening, he started reading the ‘olds’, which explains why it is happening.

Global comic
The Chicago-based stand-up comedian has visited Belgium many times before, together with American stand-up comedy collective Allah made me funny, which is the world’s longest-running artistic collective of Muslim comic performers. The comedian is invited by ‘Nuff Said, a Belgian organisation that has been bringing young talent and international artists together in Antwerp for a decade.

Azhar Usman has performed at comedy clubs, theaters, campuses and conventions in over thirty countries across five continents. Although he graduated law school in the late nineties, Azhar Usman has been following his passion for the comedic arts for over 17 years. According to Georgetown University Azhar Usman is among the ‘500 Most influential Muslims in the World.’ Modesty forces him not to like this quote in particular.


‘It is very difficult to get a perspective of the time we are in, because we are inside that time. It’s like the old saying of two fish that are swimming in the ocean. One fish asks the other fish: ‘How is the water today?’ The other fish asks him: ‘What is water?’ The idea is that we are drowning in this age of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and they are saying it openly.’

Brussels: world of the future
One of Azhar Usman’s favorite things about Brussels is the international and cosmopolitan vibe. ‘The first time I came to Brussels, many years ago, I was on a train platform and I noticed the signs with four languages on it. For an American this is unbelievable. In the United States, people are impressed when you speak two languages. In Belgium they regularly master four. That whole idea is mind-blowing.’

‘If you look at the way things are going in the world,’ Usman continues, ‘To me, Brussels is in many ways the future. You Belgians understand the idea of being a global citizen, a cosmopolitanist. That is someone being a citizen of the world and not just of a country.’

The interview took place in the lobby of the picturesque Rubenshof hotel in Antwerp.

Speaking Joke
There is a difference between a comedian and a stand-up comic. ‘Making people laugh by telling jokes is one thing. Making people laugh by sharing what you really want to say is similar to learning how to speak another language and it’s funny because I love languages’, admits Usman.

Usman worked with and is greatly inspired by Dave Chappelle, one of America’s most beloved stand-up comedians: ‘He has this great line: “I’m bilingual: I speak English and I speak joke.” This is a great way of thinking because once you start speaking in jokes then you are still saying whatever you want to say but you’re also making people laugh. I’m a beginner speaker of joke, that’s how it feels.’

Usman, a father of four boys, is launching a podcast, writing comedy and making a solo comedy special. Soon on Netflix? ‘Not yet’, laughs the independent artist, ‘I don’t have a deal in place with anybody. I know how show business works. I’m not a big fan of Hollywood as a closed industry of a handful of companies that collude with each other to advance a narrow set of ideas. To reach people, sometimes you have to dance with the devil to get distribution.’

‘My goal is to produce and create our own stuff, and to only work with Hollywood entities and distribution companies in order to reach more people. But I would never compromise on the production. That’s what I’m trying to do. I call this model: being industry quality but fiercely independent. So I call it: Indiestry.’

‘To understand the times we are living in, epistemology, the study of knowledge in philosophy, can help. It’s about the question: ‘How do you know what you know and what are the ways of knowing?’ These are some very important starting points to understand what is water when you are a fish in the ocean. You have to look at the bigger picture.’

Honest humor
‘Each individual country does have its own flavor’, according to Usman. European humor is a little bit different than American humor. ‘Europeans are much more informed about the world and politics in general’. In his experience, people who study at colleges in Europe are more educated than people who study at American ones.

Last month, he toured the U.K. with The Super Muslim Comedy Tour, raising money to support women’s right and to educate girls throughout the Muslim world. ’In Britain they have this idea of really dark humor. With very dry wit, sarcastic and cynical.’ Usman’s comedy is moving into the same direction. On stage he talks about very heavy and brutally honest topics in a similar dark manner.

‘In a way, stand-up comedy is protest art. In a sense, by making people laugh, but also by making them think, I hope the art can support bigger aims, bigger ideas, bigger movements. But I don’t pretend to be an activist. I just tell jokes.’

‘The birth of the internet combined with the rise of social media and this smartphone, which is in everybody’s pockets now, is probably increasing the propensity to lie and to be fake. Everybody is a brand now and we are the curators of our own image, which is usually the opposite of what it really is.’

Dangerous times
His opinion of the times we are living in unavoidably finds its way into his comedy. ‘Something very weird is going on and we can all feel it’, says the comedian. When president Trump says CNN is fake news, Azhar Usman feels he’s right in a way. ‘If the media are controlled by just a small group of corporations, then how can real journalism exist? The purpose of journalism is to hold the wealthy and powerful accountable for their acts.’

‘How can they do that if the very instrumentality of journalism has been hijacked by a small group of people? That same small group is funding politicians to put them in office, and they control the companies’, Usman laughs: ‘It’s like the fish in the ocean asking what water is. In that way it is a very dangerous time.’

This period will also lead to a breakthrough in consciousness, according to the stand-up comic. ‘I think people are going to realize that what they have been told for the last 50 or 100 years is actually propaganda, brainwashing and lies. Hopefully this will resolve in a greater awareness in distinguishing between truth and falsehood.’

One of Azhar Usman’s favorite things on the internet is a satirical piece by Slate columnist Hart Seely titled: ‘The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld’. He goes on to quote Rumsfeld’s ‘poem’, The Unkown, in its entirety.

‘this artist thing’
There is a group of world-class actors in the underground theater scene in Chicago that remains unknown to the public. ‘I asked a director to explain this to me. How come these world-class actors never act in Hollywood movies or TV-shows?’ The director said that they have this artist thing. The actors believe in the philosophy that you should never use art to make money. You should only use money to make art.

‘Man, that felt like a dagger through my heart because that is exactly how I feel. After a while, I realized this is true but with one exception. You can use art to make money as long you use that money to make more art and keep making bigger and more impactful art.’

Usman believes that true art comes from a place of selflessness. ‘If you are a believer’, the comedian continues,

‘true art is to glorify something much bigger than the ego, something much bigger than yourself. The truth. Beauty is the splendor of truth and beauty is God. Truth is God.’

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Quote 1857 English legal opinion: Truth and falsehood. ‘What makes it illegal? That it looks like the real thing.’  

Art from the heart
‘Best advice I ever got from people I look up to is you should never take advice. You have to find your own path.’ Furthermore, the comedian gives some principal truth about stand-up comedy. ‘It is an art and like any art-form it requires the artist to submit to the art. People should only do art if they can not – not do it. Intentional double negative’, Usman remarks.

‘You should only do things that are artistic in nature when it’s your calling in life and you are compelled from your heart. If it is just a job for you and you can also work as a yoga-instructor or an Uber driver it is better you do comedy as a hobby. Not as a career’, according to the comedian nobody is telling young comedians that. It is important to have an emotional connection.

‘Art should be about something much bigger than yourself. If art is meant to give birth to beauty and to bring truth into this world, a good heart would want that truth and beauty to reach and benefit the people.’ Concluding, he agrees you should not selfishly and recklessly use comedy to make money. ‘But if you’re making money with your art, be very conscious that it comes from the right place and with the right intentions. To me, having the right intentions kind of trumps everything anywhere.’

Tekst: ©Hanne Wouters
Photographs: ©Hanne Wouters & Koen Vangramberen

Azhar Usman performs at  ‘Nuff Said op Het festival van de gelijkheid, do 14 december
Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 23, Gent
tickets €10 – sociaal tarief €3

©met dank aan Victor Noorts & Koen (video) en Yannick Somers (eindredactie)

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