From IT guy to funny guy: Ali Hassan on comedy, being Muslim, and his love of food

Ali Hassan is bringing his standup routine to Sugar Nightclub this Photo provided.
Canadian comedian Ali Hassan is hitting up Victoria this Saturday. Photo provided.

This Saturday, comedian Ali Hassan is bringing his one man show, Muslim, Interrupted, to Sugar Nightclub. The former George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight comedy panelist and current host of CBC’s Laugh Out Loud spoke to the Martlet about Interrupted’s conception, its increasing relevance in the current political climate, and his twenty-year journey from unemployed IT guy to successful entertainer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Martlet: Your show is called Muslim, Interrupted. Who is doing the interrupting?

Hassan: After all the questions I’ve gotten over the last three months, no one’s asked that. I guess society combined with myself . . . my own stops and starts with Islam, my ups and downs and ins and outs with my faith, those are the interruptions.

How did you start writing the show?

I’m not going to give them a writing credit per se, but my children really helped with this. Because when I first met my daughters — I have two step daughters and I have two sons . . . the original questions were like, “Where did our brother come from? How did he get here?”, those type of questions. Whereas now I look back, I would kill for those questions, because now the questions as they’ve gotten older are, “Are we Muslim? Oh, we are Muslim? Then how come we don’t pray? How come we don’t go to the Mosque? How come we see you eating bacon sometimes?” And I’m like, alright, easy, you crack team of forensic investigators. But it did give rise to some material.

As comedians we get so selfish and wrapped up in our own thing. We’re like, “Ah, they didn’t laugh here, but they did laugh here, I should shorten that joke . . . ” You’re so wrapped up in the minutiae that when people go, “No, no, that’s important. We don’t get these messages. When you talk about loving Iron Maiden as a kid and going to Sunday school and almost getting kicked out, those are shared experiences. You should talk about that,” I kind of took it upon myself to explore the show a little further. But it really comes out of my kids’ harassment/quest for self-identity.

You originally brought this show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a month of shows. What was the time like over there? How has the show changed since?

It was a tiny room, like thirty people, but it was perfect for me. It was 26 shows in a row, 26 nights, and during the days . . . I did about a dozen other sets on other people’s shows. There was good and bad in Edinburgh. The good was that I got to go there and have that experience and meet people from all over the world that I would’ve never met. From the perspective of my show, it was less great because I thought I’m going to go, I’m going to work on this show, I’m going to perfect it, and when I got there, the show had to be less than 55 minutes. So I was doing a 55-minute tight show and I was like, “It’s perfect, it’s bulletproof, and then I can tour this across Canada.”

Anyway, two things happened. One is I found out I can that I can do an hour and fifteen, an hour and twenty at a lot of these [Canadian] venues . . . So the time got a little bit messed with. But also, Donald Trump was elected . . . It would be very weird for a Muslim guy to be on stage and not mention Trump in any way or address . . . not only Trump but society. Things have taken a darker turn as far as Muslims go since his election. So, these are things that have to be addressed if I really want to have a show that’s connecting to myself and society. I would say I’ve had to make an adjustment to at least thirty to forty percent of the show that I took to Edinburgh. So, the core of it is there but it’s had to change.

I’ve found that anyone who does any kind of Trump joke at the local Victoria comedy clubs will bomb, generally. Are there any jokes of yours that originally had a good reception that have since lost that, or vice versa?

There are some jokes that I’ve taken out of my set because they feel like they’re punching down and they’re kind of making a mockery of people who are already a bit of a victim. So I take that out. I don’t want to look like a guy who’s just selling his community down the river for the sake of laughs. So some of those jokes I’ve just had to remove and look for smarter jokes.

I always refer to this girl I know, this comedian in New York named Aparna Nancherla, and she’s really getting some good heat on her right now because she’s very smart . . . she deals with her own anxiety issues on stage. But very. very smart, very connected comedian. So, she said this back in December, once Trump had been elected, she was like, “I think the time for making fun of little hands and this weird orange hair, I think that time is done. If you want to prove your mettle as a comedian, as someone who is really trying to push boundaries, or resist, or expose this regime, then there’s no more time for hair and hands and all this, you have to go deeper and really make jokes that are both funny and important.” And I agree with that.

So, part of the reason Trump jokes probably bomb is because we’ve heard every variation of them, so they’re not new. Also, we probably have some level of Trump exhaustion. It’s like, every day this guy is just bombarding us with stuff. There’s a concept in charity called donor fatigue, and that’s for a good cause, you know what I mean? With Trump, people have presidential fatigue. It’s so much all the time, so I think that might have something to do with it too. My advice to anybody is if you’re going to make a Trump joke, make it smart and powerful, and that takes a little bit of work. It’s not just a casual observation.

Have you found a difference between the audiences in Edinburgh versus across Canada?

Edinburgh was the most confusing experience from night to night. I can’t even… I never understood what the hell was going on ever. The first night, I get twenty people in there and the show does great. Twenty people in thirty seats, it’s a small room, twenty still looks full, I was like, “Great, this is the way it’s going to be all month, this is fantastic.” The next night, four people show up. And I’m like, “Four? OK, that’s weird. Did I do something wrong yesterday? Maybe I thought I had a good show yesterday but I didn’t, and nobody spread the word.” But the four people really enjoyed themselves.

The next night, now thirty people, it’s a sold-out show and I’m like, “This is amazing!” And nobody laughs. They are mildly amused at best. So I’ve got a full room of people not laughing. The next night it’s ten people but they’re laughing their asses off. And then the next night the show’s canceled, nobody shows up, and the next night it’s fifteen . . . I mean, it never ever made any sense to me. I never got to really figure out how to entertain an Edinburgh crowd. Because in my mind I was doing the same show every night with minor variations and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

[In Canada], I don’t know if it’s just that when I’m on home soil there’s another level of confidence or comfort that’s there, but I felt tiny variations in what people laugh at from place to place. If I make a joke about Quebec, people closer to Quebec might laugh about it a little bit more. But in general, it’s really resonated Canada-wide. Mind you, I’ve been in major cities. When I start going into the smaller cities, that’s when we’ll see what adjustments I have to make. But as far as every major city from Edmonton or Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, in the month of January, they were all very receptive. Receptive to different degrees, but everybody was somewhere from an eight out of ten to a ten out of ten. And I didn’t know what it would be like. When they booked me in Calgary, they booked two shows. I was like “Two shows? I’ve never headlined in Calgary, who the hell said I could fill two shows?” But the first one sold out, the second one was well-attended. So, it’s been beyond my expectations to be quite honest.

I was looking at the chronology of you as a comedian, and it seems that there are a few gaps. You went to McMaster, you were an IT guy in Chicago during 9/11, and then you ran a catering business, did a bit of comedy on the side, and then all of a sudden you’re opening for Russell Peters in Jordan.

That sounds like the resume of a very shady person at best and a liar at worst. Do you want me to fill in some gaps?

That would be great.

I always enjoyed doing comedy and I’ve been cooking since I was a teenager. When we’d go on ski trips my buddies would always be like, “OK man, what do you want for ingredients?” They wouldn’t even ask, “Are you cooking?” It was just understood. I was the guy who was obviously going to cook and nobody else knew what they were doing in the kitchen. And I didn’t know much, but I knew much more than anybody else because I loved it.

But when it came time to work professionally, my parents were like, “You cannot be a chef. That’s ridiculous.” A chef in Pakistan is nothing. It’s like a guy people come in and slap on the head and go “Hey, clean up.” That’s the image my dad had. And he was an English teacher, he was a professor, he had a PhD. It was a nightmare for him to think about his son as a chef. So, I started looking around and I thought, “OK, who are my buddies who aren’t that smart, who are doing well in their careers? Now, there are a bunch of guys who are in IT.” And I looked at them, and went, “Oh, my friend Deepa is one of the dumbest guys I’ve ever met and he’s in IT. I can do IT.” And that’s the worst logic you can ever use to justify your career path. Because you might be dumb in something, but other things make sense, and that’s exactly the case with him.

And in fact, I wound up being very dumb with IT. I went to this IT program called ITI in Toronto and because of that degree, which I barely got, it wasn’t a degree as much as a diploma, but with that diploma I applied to Chicago and a friend of mine worked at this company, The Revere Group, they hired me. They hired me and a month later, the dotcom bubble burst. In 2000. So, I was promised, like, “Oh, your first project will probably be in Austin, then we’ll probably have you in Raleigh-Durham after that.” And I was like, oh, amazing. I’m going to travel around the U.S, I’m going to eat well, I’m going to work . . . None of it happened. I just stayed in this suburb of Chicago called Deerfield, Illinois, nine to five every day. Working remotely. Never spoke to anybody, did work I didn’t enjoy, and I hated it. I hated every minute of it. And then I got laid off the Friday before 9/11.

So, Friday I get laid off, I’m super happy, I’m the happiest guy you’ve ever met who’s been laid off. Partied all weekend. That was Sept. 7. [The] 8th and 9th are the weekend. Sept. 10 is my birthday. I don’t apply to any jobs. I just spent the 10th hungover, just chilling out, and then it’s Tuesday, Sept. 11. I’m like, today’s the day I’m going to start applying to jobs again, and that was 9/11, first thing in the morning.

And so that was it. I was like, “Oh shit.” Not only was nobody hiring to begin with . . . But even long term, any person with any vision could be like, well they’re not going to be hiring an Ali Hassan for quite some time. And so that was my thing. You know, not to thank 9/11 or anything, but genuinely, 9/11 helped me. You know, cause I’m 29 or 30 years old, I’m living in a great city, Chicago, and I’m making like, $66 000 a year. I was like, “This is fantastic.” I hate my job, but I was [willing to] suffer through it because of all these other benefits I had. And then all of a sudden, once the job and the money go away, you’re like, “OK, now I don’t have that so maybe it’s time to take a better, harder look at what I’m doing.”

Obviously, I couldn’t stay in Chicago. I didn’t have a work visa. So I came back to Canada and I completed this MBA that I had started and a program that I had actually been kicked out of for not being a good student. So I completed that MBA and while I was [doing that], I was like, “You know what? I’m going to start a catering company. I’ve been fantasizing about food for so many years, I think it’s time to realize that this is what I want to do. It’s not going to be an embarrassment to my parents anymore because now I have a degree under my belt and I’ll run the catering company.”

So I started doing that, slowly, and then my goal became: “I want to get on television, I want to be an entertaining host of a food show on television.” And that is actually why I started doing stand-up. I was like, I want to entertain people. But that’s not an option at every street corner, right, so you’re like, let me practice, let me practice, what can I do? So I said, oh, I’ll start going to these open mics and I’ll treat the audience like they’re a studio audience, I’ll gain some confidence.

Next thing you know, fast forward a couple of years and this woman who was the assistant to the mayor of Amman, in Jordan, she was in the audience one night of a show I was hosting. And she came up to me after the show and she was like, “We would like your information.” And I was like, “Who’s we?” She’s standing alone. I go, “Are there more people around you?” I didn’t know who she was, what she wanted, but anyway, we had some laughs after the show as well, and then that was it. I get this call and they’re like “Would you consider coming to Jordan for the first ever comedy festival in the Middle East?” And I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been doing comedy for three years, this is unbelievable.” And I went and I was surrounded by great comics. It was an incredible experience.

After you perform in Victoria, you’ve got one more show in Winnipeg on April 5. What comes after that?

Yeah, it’s a bit of a hiatus in the summer . . . But September, we ramp up again. So, in the fall I’ve got three more dates, all three of them are in Ontario right now . . . That kind of stuff is going to ramp up again. And then a friend of mine, Dave Merheje, he and I have a development deal for a show that we’re putting together. We have a development deal with Viacom UK. So, our hope is to put that into a place where Viacom is like, “OK, let’s start filming.” So, it’d be great to start filming this summer.

I was just on a CTV show called Cardinal. That’s been renewed again for two more series, so hopefully . . . I was a coroner, and it’s crime series, people will die, so hopefully they’ll need a coroner. No guarantees obviously, but it’s that kind of stuff. So more acting-related stuff. And then two weeks from now, right after Victoria, in fact, I host a show called Canada Reads on CBC Radio and TV. So that’ll be good. That’ll be a nice big deal.

And then I’ll maybe even enjoy the summer. Because I have kids and I missed their summer last year, man, I went to Just For Laughs for a week, and I went to Edinburgh for a month, and all I could think of is how I can’t even throw a baseball to my son for five weeks. And they only have eight-week summers. The whole summer is two months and I missed five weeks of it, so I was killing myself. So, this year I’m really happy that a lot of shows will be a little bit more local.

Ali Hassan is performing at Sugar Nightclub this Saturday, March 18, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available for $20 in advance online, or at Lyle’s Place.