Melbourne comic Nazeem Hussain has been mugged by the Yakuza, called Turnbull ‘stupid’ on Q&A, and arranged a date with a Twitter troll from the United Patriots Front. Now, the star of SBS’s Legally Brown is bound for the Adelaide Fringe, to perform his new standup show Hussain in the Membrane.
“Legally Brown is about the kind of stuff I would joke about normally, but the themes are more often about race and politics,” says Nazeem. “My standup show is similar in lots of ways – I get to talk about race and politics, but also pop culture, and just stuff that happens to me. It’s a little more unfiltered, on stage – I can say exactly what I want to say, without having to worry about whether you’re allowed to say that on television or not.”
“I enjoy doing television, but standup’s sort of the most enjoyable medium for a comedian. You get an immediate response.”
Nazeem first rose to fame as a part of the comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet, alongside his long-term colleague Aamer Rahman. Initially, they met at an Islamic awards function: “I was MC-ing the thing, and Aamer was presenting a session on something to do with advocacy”, says Nazeem, “and we just got along, and spent most of the time making fun of everything that we saw around us.”
“It just went from there – then I was working on Salam Café, a Channel 31 show that went on to make it on SBS, and then I tried out for Raw [Comedy], and Aamer did too. So it all kind of snowballed from community work, really.”
How was it to transition from performing as a duo all the time to doing solo stuff?
[chuckles] Ah, I mean, working with Aamer is amazing, you know, he’s such a great comedian, and we were sort of soundboards for each other; whereas when you’re going out solo, you don’t have that safety blanket any more. And when people come to see the show, they’re coming to see you, and your name’s on the poster by itself, so you feel a lot more exposed. It’s a lot more nerve-wracking, but at the same time, I find it a little more satisfying in lots of ways – because, you know, you get all the glory, but you get all the guts too!
So, it’s fun. It’s nice, but it’s weird. Like, the first time I had to make a poster for this show – for last year’s show, rather, my first solo show – just seeing your own name on the poster feels a little bit arrogant, a little bit cocky – “come and see me perform”. But I guess that’s just what you’ve got to do. I remember when we used to have an audience for Fear of a Brown Planet, I never really thought about why the audience was coming, or where they were coming from. But when you’re doing your own solo show, you know they’re coming to see you.
There’s a weird additional pressure there – but also it’s a lot more flattering when people like it, because you can claim it more.
I was reading this 2011 Australian Story piece –
– oh god –
– where Waleed Aly was actually saying you two had “a certain inseparability”. I just thought that was funny, because –
– because now we have separated, yeah! [laughs] Well we have separated professionally, anyway. It was quite difficult for us to continue Fear of a Brown Planet because it’s difficult for us to be in the same place at the same time – we’ve got so much going on!
And we ended up doing Fear of a Brown Planet for close to 7 years, and we didn’t think that would be that big a project – we thought we’d just be doing it, and then we’d eventually do our own thing, so it was a surprise that was something we were doing for that long.
I won’t mention Waleed too much, I wouldn’t want someone to confuse you, or some crazy thing like that…
Nazeem: [laughs] Yeah I’m sure if you title this article "Waleed Aly’s coming to the Adelaide Fringe" you’ll get more people clicking on it.
Do you ever worry about what would happen if Australia stopped being racist tomorrow? Would you be out of a job?
I think I’d definitely lose a lot of material! But I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.
And this show, for instance, it’s not particularly all about that stuff. I got mugged in Japan recently, for $1500 initially, by the Yakuza, but I bargained them down to $750. I’m aiming to get great mileage out of that story, so hopefully that mugging will pay for itself with ticket sales! There’s all sorts of stuff. I got married recently as well –
Well, thank you very much! Yeah, so there’s stuff to talk about there, and I’ve started boxing, and just… lots of stuff. To be honest, it’s not as race and politics heavy as perhaps the last show was. But of course, it’s in there as well, because that’s naturally a part of my identity.
So it’s about who you are, and that incorporates some of those elements?
Yeah it is. I don’t really like to have a particular theme, like a consistent thing running through the show. I know a lot of comedians do that very well, but that’s not something I like to do – I just like to have an hour of funny stuff, and the stories may or may not connect. It’s just the funniest hour that I can come up with, a mixed bag of stuff. There’s stuff about race and politics, but there’s also stuff about how I don’t like dogs and how a possum pissed in my bed.
Actually, I’m meeting up with a troll from Twitter shortly! And I don’t know whether I should use it as material. But I feel like these things are definitely up for grabs.
Hang on, I have to ask about that – meeting up with a Twitter troll, how did that happen?
Well you know, everyone gets trolled on Twitter, and I get trolled a lot. And there’s a couple of ways that you can deal with them: you can either block them or you can fight them. I used to block, but now I fight them. But if you fight them, you’ve got to win straight away, because otherwise they win, because that’s what they want.
So I’ll find whoever it is on Facebook – whoever’s trolling me – I’ll find a photo of their family and I’ll send it to them, but I’ll Photoshop my face on their wife’s face. And then ordinarily, that would stop them straight away – they’re probably like, “What, this guy wants to surgically replace my wife’s face with his face?” So I ordinarily get blocked back straight away.
But this one guy from the UPF, the United Patriots Front, he didn’t block me. And that was my A-game, I had nowhere to go after that. So we got into this long argument in Direct Messages – he was like “you’re an extremist Muslim, masquerading as a moderate Muslim”, and I was like “you’re an extremist Australian, masquerading as my future husband”, and I sent him the photo again. But he still didn’t block me.
So I got to this point where I was just trying to intimidate him with love. I said, “Oh man, I love you”; he said, “You’re just trying to convert me to Islam”; and I said, “No, you’re my friend, and friends don’t try to convert friends to Islam”. Then I said, “Why don’t we just meet?” And he said, “Alright, let’s meet”.
I don’t know whether to go ahead with it or not, but I’m highly interested. I think – it is a bit of an egotistical thing, like even he sort of raised that, “You want to meet me so you can change my mind?” And I said, “No, but I’m genuinely interested in meeting someone that hates a group of people based on the idea they have of them in their own mind.” I don’t think I’m that charismatic, that I can change someone’s perspective just because they met me – but then he says that I’m probably going to be surprised by the kind of person he is when I meet him, so I think it might just be interesting, to meet someone that just hates you because you’re Muslim or you’re brown or because of your ideas of the world. I mean he says he hates me, he says I follow the religion of ‘Pisslam’…
That’s a pretty rubbish insult.
I don’t know, the religion of ‘Pisslam’, that was quite clever. I gave him props for that, he got a ‘LOL’.
I also understand you were on Q&A next to Malcolm Turnbull at one point?
There’s a clip of me calling him stupid on YouTube somewhere. I think I knew back then he was going to be Prime Minister.
It’s interesting, you know, [on Q&A,] we were talking about refugees and having the same sorts of conversations we’re having now, years later. And I believe exactly what I say – but though he and Lindsay Tanner and I were all arguing on the panel, they were just actually mates.
If I was making policies about refugees and I believed someone else was making policies that were inhumane, I just don’t know how I could get along with someone like that. Maybe he’s a much better person than me?
Maybe he’s much better, or maybe he’s much worse?
Yeah – I just find that a strange personality trait. I don’t know – if I was to pick friends, I could not be friends with someone who had horrible views on how to treat people. “Oh, that’s just his political views, put that to the side” – I couldn’t feel like I could be nice to the guy. He came up to me, and he was really friendly, but I was just like, “How could we be friends, actually?”
How do you feel about your troll date, then, if you’re worried about befriending people with different political views?
I actually think extremist Muslims and extremist white people have a lot more in common. At the end of the day, an angry white guy feels marginalised in the same way that an angry Muslim does – they feel like their place in society is threatened, and their way of life isn’t accepted.
And if they’re both poor, then Muslims and poor white people can’t get jobs, the economy’s against them, and they’re told to direct their anger at each other, rather than the people who are charged with making our whole society more prosperous.
I feel like Muslims and white people shouldn’t be upset at each other, we should be upset at people like Turnbull, who know better. If people have jobs, and have houses, and don’t feel like their jobs are under threat, racism kinda becomes less of a thing.
I think class is responsible for racism a lot of the time – they’re very much intertwined. Before Muslims it was Italians and Greeks and Asians that white people were pissed off at, because the government were telling them that those guys were stealing their jobs.
Same sort of thing – poor people getting annoyed at the people they think are responsible for their shitty social circumstances.
What do you see the role of comedy in politics as?
Well… I mean, comedy ultimately is a form of entertainment, so I don’t want to overstate its importance as a vehicle for social change. But I think at the same time, good comedy and good art can inspire you, and it can kind of be the soundtrack for real work, I guess, real activism.
I used to do a lot more community work, and now I’m doing comedy which talks about those same sorts of issues. But I’m not actually doing that bridge-building and community work and activism directly. A lot of people try to tell me ‘political comedy is political activism’, but I don’t think it is.
Comedy allows you to ask questions more comfortably, and I think that’s something you can’t do with other mediums – in an opinion piece, or in a debate, or at a rally – it’s a completely different way of communicating. A comedy audience might leave with some of the questions you’ve asked in their minds.
But I think the trick with comedy is to encapsulate an idea that the audience already accepts, but packaging it in a way that they might not have considered before. That’s what it really is – you’re not bringing an entirely new perspective to an audience.
I find that, for me, I like to joke about things that ordinarily would make me sad and angry and upset, and I feel like people that come to my shows are often people that have an experience of being different, or being from a minority community, and they also want to laugh at things that would ordinarily make them upset. And being in that room together is almost cathartic for all of us. It’s like a form of relief.
No-one goes and sees a comedy show by someone they don’t agree with or don’t relate to. Comedy is about sharing experiences that you can relate to, that you can understand, where there’s some personal point of reference.
If anything I think that’s the role comedy plays. It brings like-minded people into the same space, so they can laugh at stupid people in suits in government, making stupid policies, and dickheads protesting outside of mosques.
Nazeem Hussain will perform Hussain in the Membrane at the Garden of Unearthly Delights from February 29th to March 6th.