Comedy is a shared experience: Nazeem Hussain

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Australian comic Nazeem Hussain speaks to Mspiration about his new television sketch show Legally Brown and looking at the brighter side of life.

I was born and raised in Melbourne. I been living in basically the same suburb my whole life. Since I was six year old my mother raised me as a single parent and the whole family have a really close bond where we are very honest with each other. It was a very conservative Anglo Saxon neighbourhood but my mother would push me all the time to be involved in the community and to be proud of our (Sri Lankan) background. She wanted me to be challenged and learn about myself. So I joined the scouts, played in the local basketball team and volunteered in local community centers and nursing homes.

I am a clown amongst my friends. What can I say? I like making jokes, cheer people up and making light of things. Even when I am upset I tend to be sarcastic about it. When something depresses me I try to find the funny side of it. This comes from my upbringing. It was very bumpy at times and as a family we learned how to find the positives in situations that would ordinarily make us upset. I realised that particularly when I actually sat down to write comedy. I understood that it is really about about trying to find a fresh perspective on a subject. In a way this is what optimism is: to find the good in the bad. This definitely helped me, I always think that things could be much worse. I try to use my imagination to get me through the rough times.

I was always doing funny stuff at school. I was that smart aleck who would win arguments in debating by using humour. I also MC’d a lot of Muslim community events in Melbourne and for me these comedy bits were not performances. Comedy actually started with me trying to introduce someone, then realising something went wrong with the projector and the organiser telling me to keep talking to pass the time until they fix the situation.

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The first time I realised there is a sense of responsibility to comedy was when I was a teenager at a youth Muslim camp in rural Victoria. I remember I was on stage saying jokes about my home and this dear brother running the camp immediately got up and said “Nazeem, you have back bitten your mother. You must call her and tell her what you did!” He then just walked out and there was this awkward silence. After the camp my mum and I met the brother and he explained the severity of what I did. My mum told me off straight away. That was a valuable lesson and a real learning experience for me. I learned not to say exactly what goes in my mind at the moment. I have to think and reflect on it first.

My school reports from prep to grade six were all the same: Nazeem is intelligent but he is easily distracted and he distracts others. I would always finish my work before everyone else, but I just couldn’t sit there and I would start talking to others and pulling faces at people and the teacher. The thing with school was there was no option but to do well. If I didn’t do well then I would have to face my mum. I knew she was always proud of us but she would not show it immediately, if you know what I mean. She always demanded excellence. I guess that same trait from my mum came through with my comedy work. I try to push myself. I wonder if my material has first been done before and whether I can put my own personal spin on it. Making comedy, you never never feel that something is good enough, instead it can always be improved.

My new television show Legally Brown is a mixture of stand-up comedy, scripted sketches, hidden camera and character stunts on unsuspecting people. The show raises issues on Australian politics and culture. It is similar to the stuff that I talk about normally on stage but on television it is a little bit more exciting, especially the hidden camera bits as the reactions are all so genuine and spontaneous. The show has me doing the stuff that I love from standup, sketches and playing characters.

A lot of people think that as a comedian television is where you have to be and that’s not the case. I enjoy television but what I love about stand-up comedy is the interaction you have with the crowd; it is all moment to moment. The thing with television is that you are anticipating the crowd’s response. When you are writing the sketches and even performing it you don’t know if the audience finds it funny. You just have to wait and see till the show comes on the screen. With stand-up you are in a room, there is a lot of energy and you are in control.

I feel comedy should always be grounded in something relatable. The material has to echo some experiences I had or at least make me feel like it has some connection to me. I want the viewers to see my comedy and think “Oh, I know what he is talking about.” At its best comedy is a shared experience. The more real it is the better it connects with somebody as opposed to just being absurd for it’s own sake.

Comedy gave me a good way to vent. To be in a room full of people who all feel the same way and laugh together is cathartic, it’s a form of group therapy. You need that because when you get home and you turn on the news you will probably get bombarded by the same old perspectives. It’s a good release for me. I feel that I now truly need it and it is my outlet. If I wasn’t doing comedy I would probably be doing something that is really angry. I would definitely be a less happy person.

Legally Brown premiers tonight at 9.30pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time) on SBS One.

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