One of the leading comedians currently working out of Australia, Nazeem Hussain created and stars in Legally Brown, a bold and hilarious mesh of sketch comedy, hidden camera work and stand-up that satirizes the experience of being Muslim in Australia.
He also tours his sharp and socially aware stand-up across the globe, and recently became a correspondent on Bill Nye Saves the World. We caught up with the comic before his China debut to find out what to expect.
What was it like making your American TV debut as a correspondent for Bill Nye Saves the World? Were you a fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy when you were younger?
Being cast on Bill Nye Saves the World happened out of nowhere; it was a total surprise. I was on tour in the UK, and towards the end of that trip, I was getting ready to go to Spain for a holiday with my wife – and all of a sudden Bill Nye’s people got in touch, and we had a couple of quick phone interviews.
They’d watched all of my stuff online, and a week later they sent a 13-person film crew to film with me in Northern England. I’ve always been a fan of Bill Nye – so getting to meet him, let alone work alongside him, has been a total trip out!
What are some differences in your writing and performing when it’s for TV rather than live stand-up?
Writing for TV is a lot more formulaic than writing for stand-up. Stand-up is a conversation between you and an audience, so you don’t want to make it sound like you’ve memorized some script. Having said that, a lot of the time I’ll have a punch line or two memorized, and I’ll figure out how to get there on stage.
Why is it important to you to connect the personal and the political in your comedy?
Politics is personal, for me anyway. I feel I have grown politically, or resonated with a political ideology, when it is personalized or comes from someone’s lived experiences.
I think if I want to make a political point or joke to an audience, it’s more interesting for the audience if I can explain how it directly relates to me, or someone I know, so that we’re not disconnecting the ideas from lived realities. Depersonalized politics is what has resulted in us locking up asylum seekers in offshore detention centers, because we don’t talk or think about them as people with stories, aspirations and families.
What are your thoughts on words like 'challenging,' 'controversial,' 'provocative' etc when applied to your comedy shows or to other comedy that focuses on race and identity?
I think when people don’t know how to describe political comedy, or don’t want to sound like they support what I say in case their readers disagree with them, they use words like ‘challenging’ and ‘controversial.’ However, thanks to Twitter, etc, I think it’s suddenly becoming hip to be down with identity politics and critical race theory, so discussions of race in comedy are becoming less foreign to younger audiences.
How and when did you realize that you wanted to focus on comedy full-time?
I was working in tax at a large professional services firm, and juggling comedy on the side. I’d frequently leave my jacket on my seat and run to the ABC down the road to do an interview, or a photoshoot. During the Melbourne Comedy Festival, I’d leave work in my suit, run down to Melbourne Town Hall and change backstage in to a t-shirt and jeans. I was a Batman of comedy of sorts.
The decision to leave full-time employment was made for me when Legally Brown was commissioned on SBS. I decided to just quit and fully commit. It was nerve-wracking, not knowing if I’d survive being a full-time performer, but thankfully, things have been good so far.
What’s the most difficult thing about your social experiment and hidden camera work on Legally Brown?
Staying in character is actually the hardest thing for me. I’d find most things hilarious, and would have to disguise my laugh with a loud cough or a weird sneeze. Having my director in my ear laughing too didn’t help. A lot of the time, the director was also telling me to step back or run if things started to look dangerous, so that was helpful, too!
What are you looking forward to about performing in China?
I’ve never been to the Chinese mainland, and I’ve always wanted to go. I’m super excited about merely being there – doing comedy makes this trip ten times more exciting. I’ve heard great things about the stand-up scene in China, so I’m really looking forward to the shows. I’ve done shows in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong – and audiences in Asia are really appreciative and savvy with their comedy.