ROSALIND SCUTT chats to Azshar Usman, one half of Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour and discovers that religion doesn’t have to be off limits in stand-up. After successful tours of North America and the UK, these American Muslim comics are bringing their sense of humour to Australia.

When did your comedy begin? My parents have always encouraged me to develop a personality and to speak to people, to strangers, to anyone, just to learn how to come into my own. At dinner parties I was always asked to come and tell jokes. My grandfather had the gift of the gab and I think I inherited that idea of wanting to tell a story. I figured out early on that I had this ability to make people laugh.

But you used to be a lawyer, didn’t you? Yeah. I quit law about three years ago. It’s not that uncommon though, there are a fair number of comedians around that have been lawyers. I believe there is a relationship between the two things. A joke is a very sophisticated monologue of two parts, the story and the punch line. To do that you have to construct a logical flow of ideas that fools the audience into anticipating a predictable end. It’s the same with law. A lawyer will present a very logical, well-constructed argument and the punch line will be different than anticipated. I think that’s the same discipline of thought. And there’s an element of performance in law as well.

When did you start experimenting with Muslim humour in your routine? At law school I had a friend who was an amateur comedian. He introduced me to the idea of performance comedy and I would go and watch him at the local comedy club. I wanted to try it but I was intimidated. It wasn’t until I moved back to Chicago in ’99 that I considered the idea properly and finally in 2000 I started writing for my own act. People say,”Oh, you’re a post-September 11 comedian,” but that’s not true. Back in 2000 I was still using the same stuff, Muslim jokes, the only difference is that after September 11 people cared.

To use Muslim jokes in your routine do you assume a certain viewpoint about Muslim people? That’s already been done for me. The stereotype in the media and in Hollywood and in the western world generally is that the Arab is the bad guy – it’s been around for a long time. There’s almost a bias built into the system in the way media covers Islam and that’s really what inspired my material from day one. After September 11 there was just more interest in what I do.

So why does it work? It’s about owning the stereotype and then exposing the humour to the audience by showing that the stereotype exists. It’s about showing people how absurd those stereotypes can be.

So by exposing stereotypes, do you see yourself as an educator? In a way. Stand-up comedy is one of only two indigenous American performing arts, the other is jazz. The history of stand-up is the history of protest in this country – Afro-American, Jewish, Latino, gay, any disenfranchised group has used the tool of comedy to put their own perspective in a world where their voice is being drowned out. So an educator, yes. And maybe a lobbyist too.

What do you say to people who feel that what you do is sacrilegious? I take my religion very seriously. I am a practicing Muslim and I try very hard to develop and live a spiritual life. How I would respond to them is to ask them to explain to me how anything I do is sacrilegious. I work hard to make sure all material is free of sacrilegious implications, as well as profanity and heresy. I have never done a joke that can be construed in a heretical way and I have certainly never done a joke that is sacrilegious. If anyone feels I have, then I think they have misunderstood my act. In my view there is a great difference between making fun of Islam and using a joke that incorporates religion. If religion is the butt of the joke, then that to me is sacrilege. If the butt of the joke is making some other point, and religion is only incidental to that larger point then that’s not sacrilegious.

But there is a lot of room for upsetting people if the gags go wrong. Do you stay clear of improv? There was definitely a time I feared being impromptu. Now I have internalized a more intuitive sensibility and based on the spur of the moment I can roll with that and create humour in real time. I feel much more comfortable today doing that than when I first started out and that confidence increases all the time. I am still new to the game, I’ve only done six years on the circuit after all. My partner in the show, Preacher Moss, has been doing comedy for over 20 years now and he has a far greater degree of certainty and confidence.

Have you received a lot of criticism? Actually no. On the contrary we have been overwhelmed with support. The very few objections we have had have been from people who have not seen the show. Some people think we are making fun of terrorism or September 11, but like I said they have not actually seen the show. I invite everyone to come see the show and judge for themselves.

Do you get different reactions from audiences in different countries? Oh yeah. So far we’ve toured the US, Canada and the UK. The reaction is always different. In Canada I can do my material about being American and it goes over 10 times better. In the US I am used to being hated for being a Muslim. In Canada it’s kind of nice to be hated for just being American.

Are there any restrictions on what you joke about? Anything out of bounds? I don’t do sexual jokes, and I agree with Jerry Seinfeld on this one. He says that blue material and cursing, that these are the short cuts of comedy. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get a laugh if you tell X-rated jokes with dirty language. Jerry likens it to cutting across the field in the Indy 500 race. It’s the faster way to get to the finish line but it defeats the purpose. Good comedy should make you laugh but also make you think. And with the world as it is, there should be a lot of thinking at the moment.

Do you believe that religions can happily co-exist? Absolutely. Religion is not the problem, it has never been the problem. Political ideology is the problem. The problem is that religion gets used for political purposes.

Have you been to Australia before? Never and I’m looking forward to it very much.

And finally on a serious note, if you could have a word to George W Bush, what would you like to say to him? I would tell him that Mr President, I wish that you take a course on international relations and understand the nature of the modern global world. I think a lot of his attitudes, his administration’s attitudes and a lot of American attitudes are set on some very antiquated notions of the world. They are in denial about the fact that we live in a very interconnected world. We cannot continue to live in a delusion that it’s ‘Us’ against ‘Them’. There is no such thing, there is no ‘Us’ and no ‘Them’. The sooner that Bush, his cronies and Americans get that, the better off everyone is going to be.

Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour comes to Australia this month. Azshar Usman and Preacher Moss will be in Melbourne on 17 and 18 November (Her Majesty’s Theatre), Brisbane on 23 November (Brisbane City Hall) and Sydney on 24 and 25 November (Capitol Theatre). To buy tickets, go to Ticketmaster.