"I never wanted to be known as an ethnic comedian or a Muslim comedian or a Pakistani or whatever it was. I just wanted to be known as a comedian. I wanted to be a great comedian. That was the goal. Now that things have taken a little bit of a left turn, it's hard for me not to be known as a Muslim comedian. But I'd rather still be called a comedian."
– Ali Hassan
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Ali.
Ali Hassan: Nice to hear from you, Guy. I'm talking to you through my laptop. Can you hear me okay?
GM: Yeah, you sound good. Where are you? Montreal?
AH: Well, that's a fair guess, with the 514, but I've been in Toronto for the last six years.
GM: But you're from Montreal.
AH: I am. And they'll pry that area code from me from my dead, cold hands, or whatever the Charlton Heston quote is. I have a nostalgia for Montreal but more than anything I just see my friends in the U.S., nobody needs to change their area code ever. Technology has caught up. Everybody has nationwide long distance. It's a basic feature. I'm just waiting for Canada to do the same.
GM: Then how can we tell where people are?
AH: Yeah, that's it. I mean, do we need to?
GM: Do you speak French?
AH: I do.
GM: Do you ever perform in French?
AH: The first time I'm performing in French is on February 15th. It's coming up very soon. I've never done this before. It's actually a funny show. It's a purely bilingual show. Do you know who Derek Seguin is?
GM: Yeah, the fake French guy.
AH: Well, he's a French guy but he performs in English with a French accent.
GM: But he doesn't really have a French accent.
AH: He does not, no. It's a put-on 100 percent. Exactly. He will perform with his French accent in English, Mike Patterson will perform in French with his anglophone accent, and there'll be a French guy performing in English, and I'm the English guy performing in French.
GM: Why haven't you performed in French before?
AH: It's a fair question. I was just at the crossroads in my career. I was five years in and I was like, well, this is the next step in Montreal, to start performing in French. And then I met my wife and she has two daughters who are now my girls, and I'm like, Man, maybe I should move to Toronto. I always thought I might at some point. And then I made the move to Toronto and it just never happened. No looking back from any perspective. No regrets but I'm happy to have the chance. I have to do some translating work on my material very soon.
GM: When did you start doing comedy?
AH: I started in 2006, so it'll be eleven years in April that I've been doing comedy.
GM: And you came from the world of cooking?
AH: That was my thing. In fact, I started doing standup because my goal was to have a show on the Food Network. There was no way to practice that. I tried to get on this ethnic channel in Montreal. I was talking about food and I was taking people on a tour of food in certain areas, and I'd like, Okay, I'd love to be back next week, and they would be like, Well, we can't really do that; we have about a hundred people in the Indian and Pakistani community who want to be on it so we'll have you on again in maybe five or six months. There was no sort of open mic for cooking except where you just cook, but you don't talk into a camera at the same time. So I just started doing comedy. The goal was to treat the audience like a studio audience, get some stage confidence, and just build up my personal as I tried to get on television. But I fell in love with comedy along the way. I still, I think two or three times a year almost, I talk to production companies. It's still a thing. It's still sort of in the works; it just hasn't landed yet. Ten years later I'm still not a host of a food show, but that's been the goal for about twelve years now.
GM: You would think with all these food channels that there'd be a place for a guy who can talk and be funny and also be proficient at cooking.
AH: I'll tell you the sad reality – and apparently it's changing now, so the rainbow's coming out. But when I first started I was grossly underqualified. They wanted proper chefs on television. Then this transition began about four or five years ago where I became grossly over-qualified because the guys they want on television are people who have zero knowledge of food. My friend John Catucci hosts You Gotta Eat Here! Eat St. is hosted by James Cunningham. These guys, by their own admission, know nothing about food. James can't fry an egg, he said, but I'm sure he was joking. His point being that he knows very little about food. But he has his name on a bunch of cookbooks. The Eat St. Cookbook by James Cunningham and he can't even cook. Because they wanted to make sure, these networks are so scared of offending or disturbing the sensibilities of their non-cooking audiences. They realized that's who their audiences are: people who primarily do not cook but live in the knowledge that if, God forbid, one day they were called upon to cook, they would be able to. It's armchair chefs, you know?
GM: Does he cook on the shows?
AH: No, neither of them cook on the shows, James or John Catucci.
GM: What was their background going into it?
AH: Standup comedy, both of them.
GM: Oh, okay. I'm not familiar with them.
AH: Eat St. is a Vancouver-produced show and it follows food trucks around North America.
GM: I think you know Kevin Foxx.
AH: I do know Kevin Foxx.
GM: He's a great cook.
AH: (pause) That's right. That's right, I'd forgotten about that. Because when I have worked with him, he's on the road, you know, and he's just staying in a hotel or condo so there's not a lot of cooking going on. But we have had long conversations about that.
GM: Well good luck with the cooking dream. I bet you it'll happen.
AH: One certainly hopes. I've been on the doorstep a couple of times.
GM: Were you in a restaurant working as a chef?
AH: I was. I co-owned a restaurant for a couple of years. Before that I was managing restaurants. I didn't like the managing. I didn't like telling people what to do. I realized I just liked cooking. And then I had a catering company for many years.
GM: Do you have a specialty?
AH: Well, you know, I would teach cooking classes and I would teach sort of Mediterranean classes. That way I could teach a few Lebanese dishes, Greek dishes, Moroccan stuff. You know, Mediterranean is a nice broad umbrella term almost. So I enjoyed that. My specialty was really Indian fusion stuff. Like, I'd make a tandoori chicken frittata, for example. So it's a frittata, which some people will know if they're Italian or anybody who likes eggs will typically know what a frittata is, but its base was tandoori chicken in cumin seeds and fresh cilantro so it had that Indian feel to it but it wasn't overtly Indian. I wasn't making the dahl and the butter chicken stuff.
GM: You're going to be at the Chutzpah Festival. Do they know you're not Jewish?
AH: They will find out quickly as the material comes out of my mouth. But yeah, they know that. My whole thing is as soon as I get on stage I'm going to say, 'People say what does chutzpah mean?' My opening joke is going to be like, 'I'll tell you what chutzpah means. It means having a Muslim guy at your Jewish arts and culture festival! That's chutzpah!' The balls on these guys. I'm so thrilled to get this news. This is the kind of things we need to do. These stereotypically embattled communities, there's no need for it. There's absolutely no need for this. Two friends of mine just got married, a Palestinian girl and a Jewish guy. It's just so wonderful to see every time these communities reach out together to each other and have these links with each other, like when Senegals are taking in Syrian refugees. This kind of stuff really warms my heart so just to be part of the Chutzpah Festival, I was really overjoyed to get that news.
GM: I was watching Leah Remeni's Scientology show on A&E and they had a guest author. He was Jewish and his last name was Hassan. And I thought, Oh, maybe they think you're Jewish!
AH: Oh, that's hilarious. That happens sometimes. You do have Iraqi Jews and Persian Jews so their names will be typically more in line with the cultural names du jour but their faith is different. No, I believe they're aware.
GM: Yeah, yeah, they must be because your show is called Muslim Interrupted.
AH: Yeah, exactly. I'm laying it all out there.
GM: You're on a bill with Judy Gold. Are you doing the whole Muslim Interrupted?
AH: It's an abridged version. I've done a 90-minute version, a couple weeks ago when I was in Sherwood Park. That particular venue asked me to do 45 and then a 15-minute intermission, then another 45. So I've done 90. Seventy-five is typically the sweet spot for me. I really enjoy a 75-minute show of this. But I'm shrinking it down to 45 for this.
GM: Have you met Judy Gold before or did they hook you guys up?
AH: I haven't. I don't know her at all and I'm very excited to meet her. She's a force.
GM: She's very religious. Are you?
AH: I am not. I am not. That's part of the interrupted in Muslim Interrupted. I've had numerous ups and downs and ins and outs with my faith. Part of what I talk about is the inspiration from a number of my Jewish friends who are cultural Jews. In hearing that so many times and looking into it, I realized I am a cultural Muslim. So the Jews have helped me in that respect. My friends, in particular, have helped me form my clear understanding of myself in relation to my faith. So the Jews have been there all along. I know a guy who keeps a kosher home but doesn't believe in God. The Jews were a tribe before they were a religion so it's very different. I can't be inspired on everything. I'd be launched out of my community quite quickly for talk like that. But as far as a cultural Muslim goes, that definitely comes from my Jewish friends. But no, I don't practice my faith.
GM: You must have Muslim friends, as well, who are just born into it but don't practice or don't believe.
AH: Absolutely. It's just the term 'cultural Muslim' was never something used. But no, definitely I have friends of varying degrees of faith. I have a friend who's a borderline alcoholic but doesn't drink a drop for the month of Ramadan. So that's his one thing that he does that makes him feel like he'll be getting to heaven eventually. And then some people don't practice anything at all and they're almost – not just unreligious but anti-religious. And then there are others who are practicing Muslims. I don't have many but I do have a number of Muslim friends practicing, and family members.
GM: I guess most Christians, whether they're cultural Christians or practicing Christians, if they don't have a wide range of friends might tend to lump all Muslims together – all practicing Muslims – even though they themselves have varying degrees of faith.
AH: Right, right. Well this is it. The goal of the show is to entertain but if I get the message across that we all have similar shared experiences, with the exception of a few loons who exist in every community – and they provide a good source of embarrassment for me personally. And Muslims are caught between a rock and a hard place because we suffer the racism from the non-Muslims when it comes our way, and then we also suffer equally from the extremism within our religion. As I'm sure you're aware, no terrorist ever said, 'Well, let's wait until all the Muslims clear out of the building and then we'll go in.' They don't care. They have this sick, twisted relationships with God where they think they're doing something that will be of benefit to us, too. So we lose out on both sides. I do this show and I have Polish people saying, 'Your stories about Sunday school reminded me of this; your story about this reminded me of my parents taking me back to my homeland and my awkward experiences.' So it's a very personal show. At no point do I get preachy at all about Islam or anything like that. It's my own personal experiences delivered in the most comedic way I can. And a lot of people find commonalities there. That's basically what this show is.
GM: Some ethnic comedians will get preachy. Others will just go up and do comedy. I think that can often be more powerful because any racist in the audience will see them and potentially think, 'Oh, they're just like me.'
AH: That was my entire shtick for the last nine years. If it's five minutes, you don't have the chance for that, but if it's over ten minutes, I would go out of my way to at least mention something about a Muslim or Pakistani part of my identity, but that was it – only for the very thing that you just said: in the hopes of doing some positive PR where somebody goes home and says, 'You know, I always thought Muslims are like this or Pakistanis are like this, but we saw a Muslim guy tonight and he was pretty relaxed. He was able to make fun of himself, have a good time.' That was always a hope in the back of my mind. And now I've gotten a chance to do that in a much more narrow way, or exclusive way, I guess, if that's the right word. It gives me a lot of pleasure. I was telling somebody the other day, when you're a comedian, you have no control of who's coming in the comedy club. I still love the comedy clubs. It's like when I was a chef in a restaurant, you didn't know who was coming into the restaurant; but when you're a caterer, you can control it a little bit. Sometimes somebody calls you on the phone and goes, 'I want to hire you.' And you're like, I just don't like the tone of this guy's voice. This guy seems rude and yet we haven't even worked togther yet. So you can just refuse business. I still work out in the comedy clubs. Those are the gyms. But you get to a point where you've been doing comedy for a while, your name is on the marquee, you're the headliner, but most of the people aren't there to see you; they're just there for comedy. And then in the front row you have a bachelorette party of eight people and they're like, 'Talk to Brenda! Talk to Brenda!' And Brenda's wearing some florescent phallus stuck to a headband on her forehead. You start wondering, Oh man, this is not joyful for me. This is not what I really thought would happen. When am I going to get to a stage of my career where people are going to come see me and I'll be able to talk about what I want to talk about. And I think now in the last year, that's where I've come to. So the comedy clubs are great because I know that is not my be-all end-all. I have my own shows that I'm doing. And it's 20 to 30 bucks a ticket. Racist hecklers aren't going to pay 20 to 30 bucks a ticket. When they pay money to see something else and you give them something else, that's different. But when they're coming to see a show called Muslim Interrupted, they know exactly what they're getting. No one's going to be 30 minutes in and going, like, 'Is this guy still talking about his Muslim stuff?' Right? It's very clear what this show is. And the word 'narrow' comes to mind, but I don't know if that's the right word. It also makes you think of narrow-minded. But I mean narrow in the sense that it's a niche type of show, you know, and select people will come to this. It's not for everyone and that's okay. I entertain people who want to come and see me entertain them, which is a great feeling.
GM: I guess the flipside to the clubs is that you might get new fans who didn't know about you.
AH: Sure, sure. Oh, there's no doubt about that. I couldn't do what I'm doing without the clubs. The clubs help you be strong. They help you really work. They help you figure out how to get out of jams. They help you figure out how to entertain a broad spectrum of society. That's important.
GM: Have you noticed any backlash from audiences since Trump? I read about this in improv, where people are feeling emboldened to yell inappropriate things out.
AH: I know about that and I've heard about that and I've not seen it myself. I feel like in Canada, it could definitely take place where somebody just yells out the word 'Trump' but we also live in a country where people would look at that person and go, 'Why don't you shut up, dude?' It would definitely turn into an awkward situation. But I haven't seen it yet. What I do know is that I have two Muslim friends who are comedians in the U.S. and both of them recently said they said they were Muslim on stage and they got 30-plus people in the room clapping for them, which was a bizarre experience for both of them because both of them are kind of on guard a little bit, the way I am – you just don't know what somebody's going to say about that, especially in a club. It tells me something that I truly believe more than ever in the last couple of months, especially: that physics axiom, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I think it applies in society, too. Trump's inauguration was on the 20th. I was in Calgary and it was kind of a dark day. Then the 21st, the national women's march the next day, was awe-inspiring stuff. And that was because of the inauguration. They'd never had numbers like that before. You just keep seeing things like that. A lot of people are like, 'Well, let's wait and see, and see what he does. It's too late. You didn't vote for him and now he's in power; let him do his job.' I disagree with that. I disagree with that. You don't let somebody who speaks about large groups of communities as rapists or problematic in some way and speaks misogynistically about women, you don't just wait and see what they're doing; you let them know that what they're doing is inappropriate. You know, the president was supposed to, in theory, anyway, be responsible to the people. He took a salary and he worked for the people. This guy has no interest in that. He's working for himself, trying to help his own cause. So people should be infuriated by that and they should take a stand against that.
GM: You were just starting out when Bush was in power, right?
AH: That's right. The good old days!
GM: That spurred the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour with Maz Jobrani and those guys.
AH: Yeah, sure. Those are the guys who are my buddies. Those guys were a source of inspiration. I think of them often, actually.
GM: Maybe there'll be other groups and tours pop up now because of Trump. It's the action and reaction, as you say.
AH: I don't doubt that at all. There was another called Allah Made Me Funny Comedy Tour. Another one called The Muslims are Coming. I think you will see more of those. And people will come out to support just to show us all there's still reason and civility and common sense that exist. It's not prevailing, necessarily, but it exists. And so many of us want to show others that that is the case.
GM: I gather when you're not doing Muslim Interrupted, you do just everyday kind of comedy, whereas Muslim Interrupted is more political.
AH: Political to a small degree. I do talk about what it means for me to have my kids ask me, 'What's a registry?' and 'Are Muslims weird?' 'What's wrong with us?' 'Why are Muslims being treated this way?' I guess it's socio-political in that respect but it's mostly a chronology. The first 80 percent of the show is a chronology of my life and my ups and downs with Islam. And then 9/11 plays a role in the show, and different experiences I had that helped me understand who I am. The background is my kids asking me, 'Are we Muslim? How come we don't pray? How come we don't do this? Why is there chorizo in the back of the freezer?' They have a variety of questions as part of their own personal interrogations.
GM: Are your step-daughters Muslim, too?
AH: Yeah, my wife is Muslim and they are. We assumed they understood they were. We just assumed they understood we're not practicing Muslims. But they go to school with kids who are like, 'Are you Muslim? How come you don't go to the mosque?' And then they're like, 'Uh, we'll be right back with an answer.' And then they come to me: 'How come we don't go to the mosque?' I don't know what to tell you; I tried to get out of that racket, you know? Papa's more of a freelance Muslim; he doesn't really do that kind of stuff.
GM: So all that is what we're going to see here?
AH: That's right. Now the challenge for me is to shrink it to 45 minutes because it is a 75-minute show in essence. I guess you'll get the greatest hits of Muslim Interrupted. And so it should be if I'm being followed by Judy Gold. I don't want everybody to be like, 'The first guy was dull but Judy really ripped it up.' I have to make it as light and entertaining and powerful at the same time... Light meaning not taking away my message but not spending too long going into deep dark places, either. With 75 minutes, you can spend a minute or two without laughs; it's a solo show, it's almost like a theatre piece. You can do that. But with 45, it's gotta be pretty hard-hitting the whole way through. So that's my challenge over the next few weeks. I'm in Moncton this weekend, 75 minutes. Charlottetown is going to be, I think, 60 to 65 minutes the weekend after. As I said, I just did 90 a couple weeks ago. So I've got to shrink it down to the greatest hits and figure out how best to do that.
GM: Just talk really fast and don't wait for the laughter.
AH: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. 'Quiet down, everyone! You're killing my time here!'
GM: Do you still host Laugh Out Loud?
AH: I do. I host that weekly. And I'm doing Canada Reads coming up in March. I'll be hosting that for a week as well. Some people think I'm hosting Canada Reads so that means I may not be on Laugh Out Loud. I'm not sure if that's where you were going. But I host both of those things. This year I'll be the host of Canada Reads, as well.
GM: It's great having your name out there. That brings in fans to your live shows.
AH: Of course. Absolutely it does. It's a funny thing but fans are getting younger, which is nice, because previously the first CBC experience I had was on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. In 2010 and '11 I was the lead panelist on the comedy panel that he used to do. We aired at 7, and at 7:30 we were followed by Coronation Street. You know it's an older demographic that watches Cory. God forbid they miss a second of Cory. They get set up, have tea, a little dessert. They'd set up right before Cory and that was us; we were at the tail end of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, so I think a lot of older people would see me. We go to this German bakery here in town and men would sort of lift their canes and point at me and say, 'I know you from the TV!' You know, that kinda thing. My wife would always laugh at that. She's like, 'Well, at least I know you're never going to cheat on me with your comedy demographic.' So it is an older demographic. It's a strange mix when you see who comes to see my shows. There's older people who've had hip replacement surgeries that they're telling me about and they have canes, and then there's these younger, hipper, I wanna say in-tune Canadians, who are down with the CBC and like a lot about what the mothercorp does, or at least they can pick and choose some good stuff from CBC content. And some of them will come to the shows, as well. So it's interesting. It's quite a broad demographic. I'm also a recurring character on a kids show called Odd Squad. So if it was an all-ages show, I think I'd also have six- and seven-year-olds. It would be a very strange mix.
GM: You're diversifying.
AH: I am. Which is good because a lot of the George Stroumboulopoulos fans are not going to be around in another ten years.
GM: I like that the video you have of that clip on your website has Jian Ghomeshi on the panel with you.
AH: Oh, crap, I gotta get rid of that. What am I doing? Is that on my website?
GM: It's on your video page. It's you and Naomi Snieckus and Jian Ghomeshi.
AH: I know that clip! I actually asked my web guy to replace it with the Andy Kindler clip a long time ago. But anyway, that's something I gotta work on. I don't want to be associated with Jian.
GM: Hosting Laugh Out Loud, you must know all the comedians across Canada now.
AH: I do. If somebody says to me, 'I have a friend in Canada. They're a pretty big comedian' and I ask their name and I've never heard of them, I'm a little suspicious. I always think, 'Your friend might have been exaggerating.' Because not only do we play them on Laugh Out Loud, but many of them submit their stuff even if we haven't gotten a chance to play them. It's kind of like, 'Hey, well, the next time we're in Winnipeg or Halifax, let's look into this person.' So I get a lot of exposure to young up-and-comers from that, and then obviously the established comics. It's good. It's like a feel-good show for me because we have such great talent and I get to showcase it. We need that show.
GM: Did they hire you or was that your creation?
AH: They hired me. It was actually while I was at the Stroumbo show. I was in the building and I was one of the people who auditioned. And Tracy Rideout, who's a producer of the show, I guess she liked what I did on the air. It's still taken me a few years to get super-comfortable on radio, but it's happening.
GM: And it's a podcast, too.
AH: It's not as casual as a podcast, where you're out of your basement. It's CBC so they have certain ways of speaking. Not only journalistic standards and practices but I can't just go, 'Hey guys, how's it going today?' They don't want that kind of stuff. They want you to be speaking to basically one person. You know what I mean; you've listened to CBC shows. It's a little bit more formal. I think my personality and the formality of CBC, and fusing the two, has taken some time, but it's coming together.
GM: I just meant it's available as a podcast, as most of their programming is, so then you get people who aren't necessarily CBC listeners, but just comedy fans. The Chutzpah Festival is at the same time as the Vancouver comedy festival.
AH: Yeah, the Just For Laughs. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing for Chutzpah. I kind of feel like it might be a good thing because it's a week of comedy, the gears are in motion, you want to see comedy, this is happening. There's no law restricting you to just seeing Just For Laughs stuff. So I don't know if it helps or not. I don't know what their perspective is.
GM: If you're in town longer than a day, you can go see some comedy.
AH: That's right. I will be getting out on the 23rd and 24th to see some local shows that are part of the Just For Laughs lineup.
GM: I may see you there.
AH: Yeah, the Corduroy on the Wednesday and another show that Kyle Bottom runs on the Thursday.
GM: I spoke to Aparna Nancherla. You know her?
AH: I'm a big fan. I've worked with her a couple of times. I've quoted her a few times in the last few interviews I've done. I didn't do that today, but one of the best things she said after the election, she was like, The time to fun of small fingers and orange hair is over. Like, if you really want to prove your mettle as a comedian, now we have to go further. We have to dig deeper. It's not about making fun of a clownish-looking human being. And I'm fully behind her on that. There was a time for that, obviously, but if you want your comedy to make a difference, that's not making a difference. And I do want my comedy to make a difference. She's fantastic. Is she coming for Just For Laughs? Is that what you were interviewing her for?
GM: Yeah, yeah. It reminded me when we were talking earlier about comedians of colour. She's just up there with her whimsical comedy talking about life and observations and funny offbeat things, but aren't necessarily about race.
AH: Agreed. And I never wanted to be known as an ethnic comedian or a Muslim comedian or a Pakistani or whatever it was. I just wanted to be known as a comedian. I wanted to be a great comedian. That was the goal. Now that things have taken a little bit of a left turn, it's hard for me not to be known as a Muslim comedian. But I'd rather still be called a comedian. But the show that I'm presently working on is a themed show. Who know, in two years down the road, God-willing and the dust settles and I can go and do a show about food, I can do an hour, hour-fifteen about food. But there's almost a sense of responsibility to do this show, as well. I don't have anything else. I can cook and I can make jokes. Those are the only two things I can do. I'm not a diehard activist. I can't build things. These are the two things I do and if this can serve as some sort of either inspiration or resistance or whatever it is, then I continue to do it, happily.