HC: Tell me about your comedy festival show, Legally Brown. What’s it all about? Why should people come and see it?
NH: I’m really terrible at answering this question! It’s basically an hour of jokes – there’s no real story but it’s an hour of jokes about me living my life in Australia, as a late-twenties guy, growing up in Australia as a brown person, as a Muslim person. But basically it’s just about being me – come to the show, it’ll be really funny! [Laughs] Sorry, I really need to work on selling my show!
HC: This is your debut solo show, and it’s been a few years since you last performed at Fear of a Brown Planet at MICF (with comedy partner Aamer Rahman). What has changed for you in that time and how do you feel about going ahead on your own?
NH: In a way I feel like a bit of a veteran because I’ve done stand up for quite a while now, and I’ve done comedy festivals before. But doing a solo show is just a completely different beast, there’s a nervousness and an excitement about it that you don’t get hiding behind a duo. You’re out there on your own, and it is a bit more nerve-wracking, but I’m super excited about it actually. Working with someone else is great in a different way, but at the end of the day you’re still part of a duo, you’re not being entirely you. I feel a bit more exposed but I’m also a bit freer to do all sorts of things.
The last time I did the comedy festival, I hadn’t done my own TV show. Now I’ve done two seasons of Legally Brown, which has meant I’ve found an audience of people that kind of know what I’m about. I also feel like I’ve developed a bit more as a comedian after those two pretty solid years of TV. I’m more comfortable in my skin as a comedian, whereas the last time I did the comedy festival I still felt like a newcomer. Now I feel a bit more grown-up, like an adult comedian!
HC: You were a tax lawyer before you were a comedian
NH AAAGGHHH! Don’t ask me anything about tax!!
HC: No I wasn’t going to! But it’s a pretty radical career change. How did you know comedy was the right path for you?
NH I saw one of those really cheesy Internet memes the other day and it said, ‘your career should be the thing that you do on the side as your hobby’. To be honest, comedy was that thing for me. It never really occurred to me that I could just do comedy, until I sort-of accidentally ended up doing it full time and the decision was made for me. When Legally Brown came along and I had to necessarily leave work, that was when I thought, ‘maybe I can actually do this full-time’. And then I realised it was kind of impossible to go back to an office job after you’re doing exactly what you love doing everyday. At the end of the day, work is work, and in fact I’ve probably worked harder on Legally Brown and on my stand up than I did in the office, because with comedy, it’s completely what you make it. You can’t really slack off because you’re showing your work to a lot more people!
HC: What advice would you give to RMIT students who are reading this and dreaming of a career in comedy for themselves?
NH: Just quit your degree and pay your HECS off with comedy! [Laughs] But seriously, you’ll know when you want to do it and you shouldn’t rush things. If you feel like you’re not ready to pursue your passions then maybe you should wait. But if you feel like you’re doing a course at uni just for the sake of doing it and eventually you’d like to do something else, why not just do that something else now? Like, if you already know what you want to do, then just go and do it! It’s always scary to do it, and the first couple of years will be daunting, but it will work itself out and you’ll realise that that’s the life you’ve always been waiting for.
HC: And it worked for you! Your comedy tackles a fear of Islam that’s really thriving in Australia and around the world at the moment. Do you think it’s the job of comedy to break down those barriers?
NH: I don’t think comedy is supposed to educate, I think comedy there to laugh at life, and poke fun at the absurdity of things. I like laughing at things that normally make me angry or annoyed, and that’s what comedy has allowed me to do. Most of my comedy is just me venting about things that get me upset, you know, things to do with racism or islamophobia. But to be honest, I also vent about a lot of petty things like pen pals and people who order a mocha!
I do think comedy is a good tool for raging and protesting, but I don’t know if it is the way to combat really serious issues. Its almost the same feeling you get if you go to protests or rallies – even if you know the protest isn’t going to change the world, what it does do is make you feel better because you’re around all these people that are just as angry and pissed off about the same things. You all agree, and maybe you’re yelling and screaming but at least you know you’re amongst friends. Comedy is sort of like that. You’re around people that want to yell and laugh at the same things you do, but it’s a much more positive experience.
I think some of the greatest comedy, historically, has been about pain – and today you hear women comedians talking about some pretty violent things, or gay comedians, or Jewish comedians or black comedians talking about things that they don’t get to talk about in the media or in pop culture, because there’s no space afforded to them. But they can do it in a room with a microphone.
HC: So I was doing some research for this interview, reading some reviews, and I read one that called you “a voice for Australian Muslims”. In the media you’re often referred to as “Islamic comedian Nazeem Hussain” – how do you feel about that label?
NH: I think it’s just easy for people to do that – to just say, “Nazeem Hussain – oh that’s that Muslim comedian”. But in a way, it’s kind of annoying because I talk about everything. I mean, comedians talk about their own experiences, and I do speak about being Islamic, but the label is a bit limiting, almost patronising. It’s quite restrictive. I can understand why people would say “a voice for Australian Muslims” – I’m a brown, young Muslim guy talking about being Muslim, and perhaps, in the public conversation that’s seen as different and refreshing. But to just say, “What kind of comedian is Nazeem? Oh he’s a Muslim comedian” – that’s actually pretty annoying.
Nazeem will be performing Legally Brown at the Melbourne Town Hall from March 26 – April 19.