From Pakistan to Canada and back: How this comic learned to make audiences of all kinds laugh
Abdullah Usman jokes about bringing his whole identity to the stage in this Creator Network piece
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It all started with a dare.
Heart pounding and stomach turning, Abudullah Usman stepped nervously on stage and looked out at the open mic night audience.
His best friend had challenged him to do a stand-up comedy set. The prize: $20.
Usman grabbed the microphone and tried out his best George Carlin impression. Unfortunately his set did not land with the audience, and two people in the front row heckled him.
Usman says that's when he began to realize he couldn't copy the speech of others, he had to find his own voice.
But it was still a work in progress, to bring all of himself to the stage, and in particular, to find a way to share his unique story without becoming stereotyped as a "brown comedian."
"I step on stage — people see a 'brown' comic (insert round flat breads joke). I can't talk about brushing my teeth before I address who I am," explained Usman, who is Pakistani-Canadian.
His goal, as he began performing on stages across Ottawa and the country, was to find a way to make everyone laugh.
"I want my humour to work on all audiences, especially the two communities which formed me: the Desi community and the broader Canadian community," he said.
Usman says his sense of humour was forged in Pakistan, where his family is from and where he lived on and off throughout his childhood.
"The culture is strict and the religion is strict, but the people are easy-going and everybody cracks jokes. Punjabi people are some of the funniest people you can encounter. Everything's sarcasm, everything's in jest," he said.
Usman's family moved back and forth between Pakistan and Canada several times during his childhood.
"I was always the different one, who didn't quite fit in," he said, explaining that led him to being the shy kid in school.
Going from an all boys school in Pakistan to high school in Canada didn't help, as the culture shock was intense.
But when he got to university, he decided to reinvent himself as a confident wisecracking guy like his father and relatives, which led to finally taking the stage.
Find his voice in front of an audience
Thinking back to that open mic, Usman recalled how he continued uncomfortably with his set.
But then he heard it.
Someone had laughed at one of his jokes, and that spark was enough to ignite a newfound passion for Usman, who went home that night with $20 in his pocket, and the drive to build a career as a comic.
Five years later, Usman says he's found a sort of home on the stage.
"I don't know if I fit in here or fit in there, but through comedy you learn that the only place you fit in is the stage,'' he said.
It was only when he started talking about all parts of himself that he felt he found his voice.
"As hellishly corny as this sounds," he said with a sigh, "What makes you different makes you stand out on stage. I'm a little bit of everything and I make jokes about this eclectic identity," he said.
His advice to aspiring comedians: don't look for approval from others and understand the audience can sense when you're not yourself.
"So love your upbringing, love your circumstances," he said, adding, "I just talk about my life and sometimes I'm brown, sometimes I'm just a bloke."