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Last comic standing

Desi jokes, desi man. That’s what sets apart Azhar Usman, a 33-year-old second-generation Bihari immigrant to the US, a lawyer-activist who’s been a full-time stand-up comic for eight years now, reports Namita Kohli.

entertainment Updated: Nov 14, 2008 23:49 IST
Namita Kohli

There’s a slight unease in stand-up comic Azhar Usman’s act tonight. As the lights go off at Delhi’s Jamia Hamdard auditorium and he’s handed the mandatory bouquet of flowers, Usman starts off. “Only an Indian would want to drink a rose,” he quips trying to connect to an audience that follows the Laughter Challenge more than it does stand-up comedy. Flowers…roses…Roohafza, I can see his mind work. The connection may be a little tenuous, but it works — people smile, some laugh and a lot of them clap. “It’s strange; here, people clap at a joke,” he tells me after the performance.

Desi jokes, desi man. That’s what sets apart this 33-year-old second-generation Bihari immigrant to the US, a lawyer-activist who’s been a full-time stand-up comic for eight years now. Born and brought up by “funny parents” in Chicago, he’s clued into the Roohafza milieu, knows his shaadi jokes and can wisecrack at the desis who stare. “People want authentic jokes, something they can relate to. I am a Muslim, an Indian and an American, but at the end of the day I am a citizen of the world,” he says while on the drive to the Jamia Hamdard.

Indeed, much of Usman’s act is about identity. A tall, portly man with long hair, and longer flowing beard, Usman is the flagbearer of the Muslim stand-up comic scene in the US. “It’s not an act, I am what I am. But post 9/11, I got noticed since the media was fascinated by the ‘funny-mullah’ type. Three of us got together to create ‘Allah made me funny: the official Muslim tour’, ” he says. That act had his famous aircraft gag about nervous travelers looking at him suspiciously and whispering into the phone, “Honey, I think I am going to die.” “That got everyone in splits. I mean, imagine, even if I had to blow up the plane, that’s is not the disguise I would be taking,” he laughs. And then, there were the ones about Id: “We need to make Id more fun like Christmas. Kids get goodies on Christmas, here, we make them starve and get up early!”

So what’s the joke on Obama, I ask. After all, political comedy in the US must be in crisis after his election — he seems perfect and it must be hard to poke fun at perfection. “It’s hard,” Usman agrees, “He is erudite, astute, and my wife’s former professor. My kids can now say that Mummy’s professor is the president.”

But the father of three boys will tell you that Muslims are not the only ones he takes potshots at. On his phone, where he takes notes for his jokes, there’s everything from women’s beach volleyball to Indo-Pak. “It’s all about a journey into the self.” Right now, he’s taking down some for his upcoming Mid-East tour with Russell Peters. “My act is about a journey into the self, and here I quote Jerry Seinfeld.” Now that, was not a joke.