Nazeem Hussain is making comedy work

Living Well | Interview: Peter Wilmoth | Photos: Matt Harvey | Posted on 22 March 2019

How cathartic stand-up routines landed Nazeem on Netflix.

I first knew I was funny when I was three or four. I used to sit on the front step and people would walk past and I’d go, “Gday mate!” Whatever they’d say I’d say it back to them, imitate them, try and crack jokes. My family would laugh and I didn’t get why it was so funny. 

My whole family nearly died in Sri Lanka. I was six. My two sisters and my mum were on a bus heading to Colombo for a wedding. My sister (aged five) needed to go to the toilet so we got off the bus and took another one. The bus we were meant to be on fell off a cliff and everyone died. It was horrible. After that we said to my sister, “If you ever need to go to the toilet again you just tell us! You could be saving our lives.”  

comedian Nazeem Hussain sittng on a yellow stool with hand to half his face and eyes peeking out
Nazeem balancing atop a yellow stool with feet up in the air
nazeem sitting on stool looking upwards


I went to a predominantly white school. 
It was Ashburton Primary School in Melbourne and there weren’t many ethnic kids at all. It was a great school but there was a lot of taunting going on, name-calling. So I would turn every situation into a joke. 

I never expected to do comedy. I studied law and science. Comedy was a hobby on the side. Most people don’t have the luxury of being able to make their passion into their income. People don’t pat them on the back and cheer for them when they go to work each day. 

I left my job as a tax consultant in 2004. I was so scared leaving the safety of a job but it’s been unbelievably thrilling and surprising. I just wanted to not stuff up the next project, whether it was (TV show) Legally Brown or the next tour. They’ve all done fairly well and led to better and bigger things. 

Some of the themes in my stand-up or TV shows are about racism or prejudice. For me that’s cathartic.

Muslims are spoken about a lot but we never really get to do the speaking. I found that merely being a Muslim and doing stand-up there’s a huge curiosity factor. People sometimes say to me after the show, “You’re the first Muslim I’ve ever met, listened to or heard speak”. That really baffles me, it blows my mind. 

I was interrogated at LA airport in 2014. We were filming the second season of Legally Brown. As a joke in the filming schedule SBS put down: “After landing, four hours interrogation time”. It was just as a joke but it turned out I was questioned for four hours. When I left the airport I texted my friend who worked at the US Embassy: “LOL, I just got interrogated for four hours”. When I got back to Australia I got a letter of apology from the US Ambassador, which they said I should take with me. The next time I went to the US I presented that letter and they said: “Why do you have this letter?” and they interrogated me about that. Another four hours! 

When I’m annoyed or angry about something the easiest way to get it out is by making jokes about it on stage. That’s why some of the themes in my stand-up or TV shows are about racism or prejudice. For me that’s cathartic, for the audience it’s funny to watch. The funniest things are what’s absurd, so if I talk about racism, prejudice or injustice, I like to highlight and dramatise the absurdity. 

My son Eesa is 10 months old. When I started out I thought, maybe naively, “I’ll do comedy and see how it goes”. Now I think “Well I have to, and this show has to be good because I have to pay the bills”. I need the jokes. When he was born I remember looking at him thinking: “I’m going to look after you, provide for you… by telling jokes?” 

Family is the most important thing. I judge people based on the way they relate to my family. If they find things about my family odd then I find them odd. You can do all these exciting things and meet some cool people but it really is only exciting when I tell my family about it and they can somehow be a part of it. It’s not that impressive impressing yourself.  

For a comedian to have a Netflix special is almost a badge saying you’re a verified comedian. Nazeem Hussain: Public Frenemy started streaming on Netflix in January. It’s part of a series called Comedians of the World. Me and Joel Creasey were the two Australians. We filmed it in Montreal. Now I’m getting messages about it from all over the place – Brazil, Canada, India. 

Nazeem Hussain’s new show Basic Idiot is part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and runs from 28 March to 21 April at Melbourne Town Hall. Nazeem Hussain, Public Frenemy is now streaming on Netflix. 


Flashback 

Peter Cook dropped the ‘F-bomb’, Sir Les Patterson dropped his trousers, and so it was, from these inauspicious beginnings, that a cultural phenomenon was born.  

It was 1987 and Melbourne’s comedy scene was thriving, with world-class venues like The Last Laugh and Comedy Cafe attracting comic luminaries from around Australia and the globe. Why not, reasoned Last Laugh founder John Pinder, showcase the city’s comedic cachet with a home-grown festival?  

black and white image of Sir Les Patterson with Barry Humphries out of focus in background. image by Peter-Cook

Barry Humphries as Sir Les Patterson (left), and Peter Cook. Image: Peter Milne


So flanked by a tired and emotional Peter Cook and our own Minister for the Yartz (aka Barry Humphries) John presided over the chaotic launch of Melbourne’s inaugural International Comedy Festival. That first fest featured 56 acts including Rod Quantock, Gina Riley and a trio featuring a teenage Colin Lane and Frank Woodley.  

Thirty-two years on, MICF is now Australia’s largest cultural event and ranks among the world’s top three comedy festivals. It has launched the careers of countless stars including Hannah Gadsby, Ronny Chieng and Wil Anderson (who got his start putting up festival posters) and routinely draws a who’s who of international comedic talent, who return again and again.  

This year’s program features no fewer than 615 acts including YouTube sensations Flo & Joan, US star Michelle Wolf, and some of the biggest names in Australian and international comedy, as well as dozens of yet-to-be-discovered stars.