For comedian Nazeem Hussain there’s nothing funny about racism

For Australian comedian, actor and writer, Nazeem Hussain, riding the tectonic shifts in our cultural landscape is all part of the job. Staring down the barrel of his sixth national stand-up tour, the man is as upbeat as his is pragmatic.

"I think the audience will only relate to you when it's personal," said Hussain.

"I've always joked about politics and race and religion, but now, suddenly, it's zeitgeisty. It's now in vogue to talk about these issues, which is great, but I also get criticism - 'oh, he's talking about race again' - so it's almost like hack material. Actually, that stuff is visceral to me. I may be a comedian, but these issues are real.

"Unless it affects me personally, that I have an 'in', it's useless [material] to me. So, I'm always thinking about my life and what's funny to me."

The borders of culture

Hussain has built a successful career in comedy doing just this: exploring race and religion – he is a Melbourne-born Muslim of Sri Lankan heritage – along with events in his life, from a very personal point of view.

Across his extensive stand-up comedy career – both live and streaming media - television sketch comedies, radio, podcasts and reality TV; Hussain continues to tackle subjects that make Australians squirm. You could say it has become his hallmark; one forged in the crucible of live stage.

"I tend to write best on stage, which sounds weird," said Hussain.

"When you first start out and you write it all down first, it can sound pretty wooden on stage. It's detached, it sounds like a 'piece'. Whereas now I tend to try to trust the process and my experience that I'm not going to die on stage, so I'm happy to go on stage with an idea and try it out and remember what bits worked, then make notes after."

"There's always a balance between giving the audience what they want and have come to expect, and also advancing your own creativity and challenging yourself, and taking the audience to a new place."


Comedic lines in the sand...

Across the many mediums he works, Hussain has developed a unique way to be funny while simultaneously staying true to the origins of comedy and theatre – entertainment as a force for political change.

Sure, this approach can be akin to drawing a line in the sand that some audience members won't cross, but it also means those that do are rewarded with the camaraderie that comes from a shared - sometimes even cathartic - experience.

"I do think that good political comedy is what stand-up comedy has always been about," said Hussain.

"I should be political. I should be punching up, I should be subversive – that's what I want to be. Getting laughs is not the hard part. The hard part is saying what you really think, which might be a little bit uncomfortable and challenging, but keeping people on side and laughing while you do.

"However, there is something deeply personal when you're actually doing it; you see the people that you're disappointing and, in their mind, you're the bad guy. If you have a hundred people at your show, I'm sure a few people are always going to be disappointed. In the moment, it's heartbreaking."

...And beyond

One of Hussain's more provocative bits revolves around the brutal conduct of early Colonial settlers, with the comedian making the observation that the Union Jack flag is like a "White ISIS flag".

Ok, stop. Breathe.

If you find that correlation a little unsettling – yes, out of context and all – the perspective Hussain is encouraging his audience to explore is that using violence to force religious change is a heinous act no matter what the skin colour of the perpetrator.

Of course, it doesn't always translate this way.

"I did that bit at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala and they cut it out [of the TV broadcast]," said Hussain.

"In that bit, I go, 'Colonialism and Imperialism, isn't that really just people going around killing in the name of God in a posh, British accent?' But, no, they cut out the White ISIS flag. That's also the power of the stage - you couldn't say some of this stuff in normal conversation, but you can on stage.

"I don't think it's offensive, so I don't know why it was deleted. I feel like my offense has good intentions and is probably constructive, so it really annoyed me."

What's that?

On the eve of his sixth stand-up show tour, titled Hussain That? – which will see him entertain crowds in almost every capital city across the country in under three months – Hussain is taking a mature, yet gung-ho approach.

"The world is bubbling, left and right are being pushed further apart and race seems to be central in every political narrative, race hate is on the rise – so, where do you begin with all that?" Said Hussain.

"I think I can finally just be properly comfortable in trusting that I can just be myself and say what I think, and not feel too nervous that I'm going to be written off.

"Sometimes I wonder whether there are boundaries [to my material], but with this show, I think, 'Whatever, I've got enough chips in the bank.'"

Nazeem Hussain tours Hussain That? in live venues around Australian from Monday 24 February. Check Live Nation for details.