Traveling isn’t easy for 40-year-old Muslim American comedian, Azhar Usman, and his glorious, full beard. “It really bothers me when everyone is staring at me,” he tells an audience in New York about woalking through an airport. “Stop staring at me! It’s just hair on my face! All it means is I can’t eat spaghetti in public. I know a lot about shampoo and conditioner – I’ve been fighting these split-ends for years.”
Usman, along with Hasan Minhaj and Dean Obeidallah, is part of a wave of politically charged Muslim comedians, delivering comic relief at a time when Muslims could really use a laugh. Born and bred in Chicago, Usman ditched his law career to pursue stand-up comedy full-time in 2004 and has toured the globe, opening shows for Dave Chappelle and Russell Peters. He’s figured out the recipe for timely racial, philosophical, and religious issues and delivers a well-baked brand of comedy.
“My goal is to put on a really funny show,” he says. “It just so happens that the kind of topics I talk about to make you laugh are philosophical in nature, they’re political in nature, they’re religious in nature. They’re a commentary about the times we’re in.”
In his latest project, Ultra American: A Patriot Act, Usman jokes about Trump, getting mistaken for a terrorist, and his Muslim American Indian identity. The show debuted in September in Chicago with plans to tour New York and Los Angeles. Originally dubbed Un-American, Usman re-branded his show after a pep talk with comedian Katt Williams, who called him “Ultra-American,” shifting Usman’s perception of his identity.
“It brought my whole life into focus,” he says. “Our generation, this Millennial American Muslim generation is just ultra-American. We’re highly educated, highly successful, super cosmopolitan, and understand the important levers that make America work. Why should any of us feel otherized or feel like guests in our own country, when in fact, we are not only killing the game, we embody the highest ideals of this country in spades?”
Usman wasn’t always killing the comedy game. Not satisfied with his original “squeaky clean” brand of humor that catered to a mostly Muslim audience (like a bit imitating different ways Muslims pronounce “salaam” according to their race), Usman considered quitting comedy in 2010.
“It was a hard decision to confront, but I felt like I was not doing the type of stand-up that I wanted to do. The fork in the road was to either quit or change. I decided to keep trying to do stand-up but I thought to myself: I’m starting all over. I’m going to challenge myself to write and do the kinds of things I really want to talk about.”
While crafting newer, edgier material, Usman performed at open mics all over Chicago, a place he calls “the most fertile ground of stand-up in the country right now,” and “grew as a comic like crazy,” making provocative topics laughable. “I’m proud to be an American Muslim,” he said at a local show. “It means I would die for this country – by blowing myself up.”
It primed him for Ultra American: A Patriot Act, the culmination of his career. Weeks before he took the stage, Usman had a near-death experience—he was hit by a Ford Escape while crossing the street on his way to a comedy club. He didn’t let his multiple facial fractures and knee injury from the crash interfere with his eighteen-show run. Instead, he felt a “renewed sense of urgency” to make people laugh.
“I feel like I got a Baskin Robbins sample taste of death, on one of those mini pink spoons,” says Usman. “I ended up having a very deeply, spiritual, mystic, inner experience that has transformed my entire universe. Whatever time I have left I want it to be full of love, full of joyfulness. I want it to be full doing the hard work that God put me on earth to do.”
This article is written by Zeenie Malik