The Politics of Making People Laugh

By Aundre M. Herron Sep 15, 2003

Stand-up comedy is one of the most challenging and complex of the performing arts. After doing stand-up for nearly 10 years, I’ve seen talent that runs the gamut of ambition. Some comics are after the cheap laugh. Others are enthralled by the sound of their own voices or the cleverness of their own wit. Still others are in it strictly for the money. Some folks are just trying to get laid. The comics the world remembers, however, are the ones who tell the truth. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, George Carlin. They make us laugh, but they make us think, too. They have something funnier and more important to say than recounting their latest sexual exploit or bodily function. Through trial and error they have all learned that comedy is a rare medium that lets you tell the truth through the palliative of humor. And therein lies its power.

No one, for example, would call for the return of assassination in the United States during these times of terrorist hysteria, amber alerts, and super-vigilant security. It’s not that the president is well loved or worthy of longevity. In the current climate, however, such a statement would be perceived as threatening, maybe even illegal. But put that same idea in a joke, and edgy as it might be, it somehow transcends offensiveness to evoke the laugh. A few weeks ago, I tried out this one:

"You know the country’s goin’ down when we start producing black snipers. Finally white folks have succeeded in driving black people so crazy, we resort to doing the crazy stuff only they used to do. My only problem is why couldn’t he take his act up the beltway a little bit? Do us all some good. Cause I think it’s time to bring back assassination in this country! How come since Squeaky Fromme, everybody’s a bad shot now? We’ve had an assassination in this country every century since it was founded. I see no reason to discontinue the tradition now." This joke provoked some strong responses, including ominous warnings that I should be "very careful about that assassination joke" and hushed murmurings about the fate that might befall me for telling it.

Put to its highest and best use, comedy has the power to transform by pushing us to the edge of our comfort zones and beyond. It helps us to face ourselves squarely-our fears, our failings, our prejudices and lapses of character, decency, and common sense. That it can do this while at the same time providing release from these burdens is comedy’s wondrous mystery. It is the truth behind the comedy that makes comedy meaningful. When done well, it’s a place where we can all find freedom for a time, whether we are the ones doing the laughing or making people laugh.

No one embodies these ideas better than Shazia Mirza, a devout Muslim woman whose quest to pursue the simple-and quite personal-ambition of being a stand-up comedienne is literally taking the world by storm. It’s not just that she is Muslim and is doing jokes about 9/11 and the backlash and hysteria that has followed. " "My name is Shazia Mirza. At least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license." It’s not just that she is funny: "If the comedy thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to be a suicide bomber. I spoke to my counselor about it. She said no experience is required, you don’t have to wait for payday, and it’ll get you out of that marriage to your ugly cousin" or "Comedians and suicide bombers have one thing in common. Me, me, me." Indeed, what is most striking about Mirza and the condition she brings to her work as a comic is that her very existence is a powerful, if unintended, challenge to the countless social, cultural, political, racial, and gender paradigms that have the world locked in an endless, unwinnable battle with itself.

Mirza is a Pakistani Muslim woman born to immigrant parents in Birmingham, England. Hers is a new and welcome voice giving an insider’s look at growing up female and Muslim: "I can’t talk about sex cause I’ve never had it"; as well as her take on American culture and insularity: "Wouldn’t it be great if a Muslim woman were ‘the eyes of Revlon’?"; [to a European audience]: "How many people here know where Denmark is?" [after several affirmative responses]: "I was talking to the Americans.") What sets Shazia apart, however, is not simply that she is a Muslim woman doing stand-up comedy, it is that she has paid a high price for the privilege. She has twice been attacked on stage by men (presumably Muslim, she says, who object to her work as a comic because of the cultural restrictions placed on women). She has played to a non-responsive New York audience afraid to laugh at her lighthearted but pointed barbs at all things post-9/11. I spoke with Mirza by phone at her home in London. We did not talk about the art of comedy very much, but she did mention several of her favorites, including Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, and Lenny Bruce.

When our conversation began, we were discussing an article about her that recently stirred up controversy in The New York Times Magazine:

The man that interviewed me sensationalized the fact that I was this Muslim woman doing stand-up comedy and "wasn’t it a novelty and wasn’t it amazing" that I was still a virgin at 27? And that just shows a lack of understanding of my religion and a lack of understanding of my culture if he is shocked by the fact that I am a virgin at 27. If you go to the Middle East, if you go to any Muslim country, you’ll find that most women are virgins ’til they get married. It’s no big deal. And he sensationalized the fact and in some areas he even joked about it.

And in the process trivialized your comedy?

Yes, and trivialized my belief in my religion…it’s a very personal thing. And to have it splashed across some of the biggest papers in the world, I felt exposed. My manager was saying to me, "Look, in America it’s a different deal. In America sex sells. In America it’s the basis of everything." I’ve gone against everything that the West stands for: sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll. Here’s this Muslim woman who has gone against all of that, yet she’s got a Western career.

I read how you got into performing in elementary school in school plays. What made you get into comedy, as opposed to the stage?

Well, it wasn’t planned at all…my struggle began long before I set foot on the stage. It began basically the day I was born into this Muslim family where there were so many restrictions. My struggle was: "I want everybody to listen to what I’m saying. I want to make people laugh. I want to be a star." When I was nine years old I played Mary Magdalene in the school play. You know, everybody was shouting "exit right" and I just wanted to stay there. I wanted everybody to listen.
It takes a while to develop your persona and your material. When I started off I
wasn’t very good, but I loved it. I loved the fact that I could say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do and nobody could stop me.

The Times article says you insist you are not political. Do you still think that you are not political even though what you do might have some political impact?

I think there is a fundamental thing that everybody connects with. When I look at people like Richard Pryor, the reason he was so successful is because No.1, he told the truth and No. 2, he laid his soul bare. He was very vulnerable. He stood on stage and told people that his mother was a prostitute and that he was a drug addict. And it’s that feeling that you have when you can relate to something that someone else is saying. It makes it political when there are lots of people involved. When you’re having an impact on lots of people’s lives all over the world, it makes it political.

The pilot’s license joke has an impact in so many different ways. You know it’s just one line but people can think of so many different things that surround that one line. It’s not just about Muslims, it’s not just about race or religion or color or war or people dying or the politics of countries or male or female. It’s about so many different things. When I say I’m not political, I mean I don’t do material about… "politics," about Bush and Blair and wars. When people say I’m political, I think it’s social politics. It’s to do with race and religion and color and creed and sexuality-it’s that kind of political. People have said to me, "Oh you’re political just by being a Muslim woman standing on the stage. That makes you political."

It seems like you’ve spent your whole life trying to figure out how to address that pain that you’ve been feeling because of the restrictions that are placed on women.

I felt like a prisoner. I would have been like my mum’s generation…It was difficult to do what I wanted to do, difficult to put it into practice…I’ve suffered in silence, and I’ve suffered in public.

And what lesson do you draw from that?

I didn’t know that I’d suffer in public. I didn’t know that people would try to kill me. I just don’t think I understand it. I don’t understand why somebody would try to kill me for telling jokes.

I want to shift gears and talk about something more frivolous. I was reading about how you want to be a rich and famous-

There are a lot of easier ways of getting rich than to have been through what I’ve been through to do what I’m doing. What really annoyed me was when [The New York Times Magazine article] said that I wanted to be the face of Revlon. That really worried me about the Americans…I thought, yes, some of them do not have a sense of irony, because I actually made a joke and said, "You know, wouldn’t it be great if a Muslim woman was the eyes of Revlon?"

That’s hilarious.

It’s bloody hilarious. But it was changed. I said, "Wouldn’t it be great if a Muslim woman could be the eyes of Revlon?" And it was changed to "I want to be the face of Revlon." But that totally contradicts everything that the story was about prior to that. It’s actually a joke. I was wondering whether the Americans would take that as a joke.

What helped keep it in perspective was the information about you being attacked and getting death threats. For me as a comic, that was the most poignant and the most powerful part, because here you are on stage, you don’t have any weapons. The most powerful weapon you have is your mind, yet people are so threatened that they would attack you physically or threaten your life. That is a profound thing to think about on so many levels. Not only for you as a Muslim woman, but as a woman in this male-dominated world culture, as a woman of color, as a part of the group that’s targeted now by the United States the way Muslim and Arab communities have been targeted. To stand up there and tell your truth, it’s a powerful metaphor.

And to give everybody the opportunity to listen-black, white, whatever color or wherever you’re from. Everybody seems to be listening. And they all agree that jokes are the biggest guns. People are scared of that.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, "In an unjust society telling the truth is a revolutionary act." That’s what you’re seeing there. That’s how threatening the truth and change is to people. It makes you think back to so many other struggles for human liberation. As a child I watched them turn hoses and sic dogs on black people. And it was very hard to understand that as a child. Like, what is it about the color of my skin that would make people act this way?

You know, I have a new joke, which I did in Paris. I said, "You know they don’t like Muslims much these days.We’re the new black people. But I’m not worried because soon they’re gonna be wearing our clothes and playing our music."

Muslim men have some sort of visibility, but what about Muslim women?

Yeah. There’s Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. No one can name a Muslim woman in any position of power. And it’s almost like we don’t matter. So, maybe I make it matter.