Did you hear the one about the Muslim who walked into a comedy club? It’s no joke. These comedians are talking openly about their Islamic faith in stand-up routines that mine previously untapped material while shattering stereotypes about an often misunderstood religion.
At one of Acme Comedy Company’s recent open-mic nights, which contrary to the title is highly selective on who gets stage time, three of the 22 acts were Muslim, including Ahmed Khalaf, whose family immigrated to Minnesota from Somalia when he was a child.
“I don’t have stories about spending Christmas with a crazy uncle,” he said before his performance. “My thing is Ramadan. That’s an insane holiday. It’s really just a diet.”
Khalaf, 26, is treading into waters rarely tested by his more established peers. “The Big Sick” star Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari, who both grew up in Muslim households, identify as nonreligious and rarely talk about faith in their acts, although one of the most memorable episodes of Ansari’s Emmy-winning series, “Master of None,” features his agnostic character sneaking away from Eid prayer to pig out at a pork festival.
Dave Chappelle converted to Islam in 1998, but religion is one of the few things he won’t discuss in his otherwise unreserved performances.
“I don’t normally talk about my religion publicly because I don’t want people to associate me and my flaws with this beautiful thing,” the latest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor told Time magazine in 2005.
Ramy Youssef doesn’t have the same qualms. In his groundbreaking series, “Ramy,” the fast-rising talent makes gentle fun of his rituals, like making time for his daily prayers, the same way a Catholic-raised comic would find the humor in going to confession. In the premiere, which debuted on Hulu in April, Youssef’s character, Ramy Hassan, gets scolded at his mosque for not properly washing between his toes. Filthy feet turn out to be the least of his shortcomings. In subsequent episodes, he accepts a job with a sexist relative and initiates an affair with a married woman.
“I just want to show that we’re human,” Youssef said earlier this year. “This is not a How-to-Be-a-Muslim guide. This is not outtakes from the Qur’an. This is someone who is struggling and not being a good Muslim. I would have called it ‘Bad Muslim’ if it wasn’t for the ‘Bad Santa’ movies. Because we are so underrepresented, when people do see us, we’re constantly trying to apologize or over-prove that we’re good. I think what really shows that someone’s good is when they’re a human being and they’re dealing with real things. That’s what this show is doing for the first time for Muslims.”
It also personalizes practices. In one scene, Hassan and his friends set up prayer rugs outside a diner as naturally as any other customer would order coffee to go.
Fizaa Dosani, an L.A.-based comic, has been honing material based on her pilgrimage to Mecca last year. The routine has little to do with why millions of believers make the trek to Saudi Arabia for Hajj every year, focusing instead on just how uncomfortable it can get for a Western woman in the middle of a desert, covered from head to toe.
“No matter what religion you are, no one is going to disagree that it’s very, very, hot,” said Dosani, the creator of Facial Recognition, a national touring group that spotlights female comics of South Asian descent. “We can bond over that.”
Other Muslim comedians are willing to take more chances. In his appearance at Minneapolis’ 10,000 Laughs Comedy Festival this past October, Usama Siddiquee delivered a line about how his Islamic faith gave him an edge in the afterlife.
“You know how tough it is being the only one in this room going to heaven?” he said.
The sold-out crowd at the Parkway Theater roared. But Siddiquee, who was named one of the 2018 New Faces at Montreal’s influential Just for Laughs Festival, has to be careful about that bit when using it in smaller, more conservative cities.
“Sometimes the irony doesn’t land,” Siddiquee said following the show. “Religion is more entrenched than other subjects so you have to go the extra distance to show you’re just joking.”
Criticism can come from surprising places. Ali Sultan, who moved to the Twin Cities from Yemen when he was 15, is attracting national attention with routines that range from a schoolteacher making him squirm in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to how he accidentally ate bacon: “Why am I allowed four wives but not this slice of deliciousness?”
Not everyone approves — and that includes some fellow Muslims.
“There can be pressure, like I’m letting them down,” he said. “But I can’t worry about representing everyone. I can only represent myself.”
Moe Yaqub, one of the most promising young stars on the Twin Cities circuit, remembers an uncomfortable encounter in the lobby following one of his performances.
“I like you, I wanted to love you,” the spectator told him. “But I started to hate you once you said you were Muslim.”
Yaqub still makes it a point to meet the public after his act — even if it means conversations with those who have difficulties shaking their preconceived notions.
“Otherwise, I feel like I’m only creating a wider gap,” he said. “It’s very much about trying to change the stereotypes people have about Muslims and people like me who are from Pakistan. There’s this box we’ve been put in by Hollywood movies and ‘The Simpsons.’ Just because we have a different faith doesn’t mean we don’t have the same feelings. We all get embarrassed by the same things. We get mad about the same things. I can convey that message, as long as I tell people my true experiences. People can relate to that.”
Sultan is encouraged by the progress being made by Yaqub and Khalaf, as well as the success of Youssef and “Patriot Act” host Hasan Minhaj, whose 2017 one-man show, “Homecoming King,” relayed his experiences growing up in an Indian American Muslim family. But he insists there’s still a long way to go.
“ ‘Ramy’ is the most groundbreaking thing, but he’s not a household name,” he said. “We’re still not the main lead or even the supporting characters. We’re still the cabdrivers. We’re only making small progress.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 @nealjustin