Meet Azhar Usman, the ‘bin Laughing’ from Bihar

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 1, 2007

LONDON: One-hundred-and-fifty people are crying tears of laughter in the darkened auditorium in the bowels of the fortress-like US embassy in the British capital. A huge bearded Indian-American is on stage and he’s being fantastically funny and very rude about desi accents, Indian dads, Asian Auntyjis, Pakistani pretensions to importance, Bollywood movies, modern Muslim culture and the world’s erroneous belief that Muslims can never ever be funny.

“Indians smell, let’s face it…it’s all the masalas in our food, we literally sweat it out, but there’s a great branding business opportunity out here – a new fragrance, ‘Paseena’ from Calvin Klein”, deadpans US-born-and-bred Patna boy Azhar Usman, sniffing his armpits.

And then there’s the one about the stereotypical world view that Muslim men are terrorists and Muslim women oppressed. “Don’t believe that,” yells Usman, aka ‘bin Laughin’, “Have these people ever been in a Muslim household? It’s the other way round, believe me”.

Welcome to ‘Allah made me Funny’, US’s only Muslim stand-up comedy show, co-founded by Usman and African-American convert Preacher Moss, currently on tour and arguably, Uncle Sam’s best public diplomacy tool in its hearts-and-minds battle to ‘wage peace’.

‘Allah made me funny’ has spent the last month touring the UK with sell-out performances, but Thursday night was unusual because US cultural attaché Michael Macy dignified it as a specially-invited guest performer at the embassy. Startlingly, therefore, this rebellious alternative US Muslim comic show finds itself cast in the unusual role of being as American as the hamburger and a totemic symbol of America’s core brand values – freedom; equality; champion of the little guy; defender against tyranny.

Usman agrees that this is public diplomacy harnessed to Islam 101, telling the story of US values to the world in a way that makes people laugh.

That said, the show makes Usman, Moss and third-string American-Palestinian Mohammed Amer brand ambassadors for an alternative kind of comedy — Muslim comedy — as they roam the world with India next in their sights, toting notional rucksacks full of that incendiary substance — clean, coruscating humour about the global ummah and the world’s view of it.

Usman, whose veterinarian father and housewife-mother left Bihar in the 70s, says he and his two performance-partners symbolize Brand America. “This comedy show is a protest tour because stand-up is an act of protest and is one of only two indigenous forms of the American performing arts, the other being jazz” he tells TOI.

“So we are being very American in doing this…there is nothing more American than being yourself”, he adds. He says his Indian roots and sensibilities contribute a peculiarly desi vibe to the show, which will be four years old in March and has roamed the ANZUS region, South Africa and Europe. “I get my sense of humour from my mother and as the saying goes, you can take the Bihari out of the slum but not the slum out of the Bihari, so I poke fun at desis, our linguistic traits, at Bollywood…”

He describes the show, which has received flattering reviews across Europe, as paying homage to equal opportunity offending. “We’re equal opportunity offenders. If you are ignorant and stupid we will attack you…whether you’re Muslim-haters or Muslim haters”. The comic distinction between the first group, which hates Muslims and the second, which is Muslim and hates everything, may define this group’s fresh take on the clash-of-civilisations fault line dominating world politics.

Rashmee Roshan Lall / World Report