As the world watches the Middle East in fear, it could use a point of view that can make everyone’s spirits brighter. Azhar Usman could be just the man it needs.
The Chicago-born comic has been called “America’s Funniest Muslim” by CNN and was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims on the planet by Georgetown University. He’s also opened shows more than a hundred times for Dave Chappelle, who considers him not just a comic, but a philosopher who finds a funny yet thoughtful way to deal with some of the most universal questions of life.
Usman will be performing November 14 and 15 at the downtown Zanies, in two special shows that are being taped to create his first stand-up special. As he readies himself for the big events, he took time to discuss his unusual path to success in the comedy world.
“The whole game is finding your own unique point of view, and for me doing it as a Muslim is simply that I really do believe in the worldview and I do believe I hold certain beliefs, on faith, and they end up informing my entire worldview,” explains Usman. “Whether I’m doing jokes about family, or about the world or about politics or whatever the subject, any subject that I put under the microscope I’m looking at it through this lens of being a believing Muslim.”
Growing up in the Windy City, the forty-eight-year-old Usman discovered stand-up “pretty early” on television. He recalls the defining moment in which he first felt a spark for the genre being a performance by the legendary Paul Rodriguez at age thirteen, doing material about being a Latino while making a predominantly white audience laugh.
While that viewing planted a seed, he never imagined that he could do comedy because there were no Muslim role models. Instead, he went to law school and first attended an open mic at the long-shuttered Acme Comedy Club when a classmate invited him to watch them perform in 1997.
He took the stage himself in 2000 after finishing law school, and his natural knack attracted the attention of popular Black Muslim comic Preacher Moss. In 2005, Moss brought him aboard for the worldwide Allah Made Me Funny tours.
“All of us on that tour were at least interested in practicing our religion and not just interested in identity politics,” he says. “And the audience we were finding early on was a lot of community folks and a lot of families and people who wanted to bring their kids.
“I would say the sensibility of the show was definitely very family friendly, and we also had Mo Amer performing with us. It really became this cool show where there was three very independent flavors and when we came together, everyone had their own POV: a Black comic, an Indian comic and an Arab comic.”
While the tour split up after a decade in 2015, Usman’s friendship with Amer has paid off with a gig as a staff writer and executive producer of 2022’s Netflix sitcom “Mo,” which keeps him busy along with similar positions on fellow Muslim comic Ramy Youssef’s Hulu sitcom “Ramy.”
”The new special will deal with the meaning of life and why is there such widespread depression. The show starts with that question: ‘Have you ever been depressed or are you depressed now?’” he says. “I feel that the game has been elevated with comedians like Chappelle and Bill Burr and Louis CK and Michelle Wolf. If you’re not talking about something real and something substantive, the vast majority of comics are really not saying anything, because they don’t have anything to say.”
He’ll have plenty to say about the current conflict, particularly focusing on what he believes is the mainstream media’s “dehumanization” of Muslims and Arabs.
“I absolutely intend to talk about it, because there’s a cluster of issues that are related to it from the politics on the ground to the coverage in the media to the fact that there’s a backlash against the entire Arab and extension Muslim communities because of the actions of a handful of vigilantes,” he notes. “That’s something I’ve been talking about since before 9/11.
“I spent the last twenty-plus years pushing back against this dominant framing of the tendency on the part of Western media to fundamentally dehumanize Arabs and Muslims. These are sad topics, but finding the funny in all that is the job of a great comedian.”
Azhar Usman will perform at 9:15pm, November 14-15, at Zanies, 1548 North Wells. Tickets are $30. Call (312)337-4027 or visit zanies.com.