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Australian Comedian Aamer Rahman Thinks Stand-Up Can and Should Tackle Racism

We talked to Rahman about the idea of reverse racism, Charlie Hebdo, and the place of politics in stand-up.

by Oscar Rickett
Mar 24 2015, 5:50pm

A couple of years ago, a clip of the Australian comedian Aamer Rahman (then part of the comedy duo Fear of a Brown Planet) skewered the absurdity of "reverse racism" when it was put up on YouTube. In it, Rahman, whose parents are from Bangladesh, admits that yes, "reverse racism" could exist, but only if Europe had been colonized by the rest of the world and not the other way round. The clip went viral and Rahman has since established himself as one of the sharpest, funniest voices on race, religion and life in the West.

His current show, The Truth Hurts, isn't afraid to engage with reality in a way that most comedians would rather avoid in their desperate scrabble toward the panel show circuit. It's very funny but ends with a devastating story about asylum seekers and detention centers. If that sounds too heavy, fine—there's plenty of Michael McIntyre and Russell Howard to be going around.

I sat down with Aamer over a mocha (for him) and a cinnamon bun (for me) to ask him, amongst other things, about racism in Australia and the place of politics in stand up.

VICE: I wanted to start by talking about your background...
Aamer Rahman: Well, I was born in Saudi Arabia and spent my childhood moving between Australia and the Middle East. My dad's an engineering professor and my mum's a kindergarten teacher, so there's a strong emphasis on education in early adulthood.

Were you a studious kid or did you rebel against that?
There was no option. You were a studious kid, whether you wanted to be or not... Rebellion is possibly what's happening now!

A lot of anger runs through your work. When did you start feeling angry and when did you realize that comedy could be a vehicle for that?
I think I felt angry growing up in Australia because of the racism. And then I naturally got involved in political campaigns about immigration and stuff like that. I think comparatively I started comedy quite late—I was 26. People start a lot earlier because they want to be comedians but it never crossed my mind that I could do comedy.

Were you a funny kid?
Yeah, I was a pretty weird kid. I was a strange child—I wasn't necessarily a class clown but I did love comedy—I loved sitcoms and Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Bill Hicks.

When you talk about racism in Australia, was that something that you felt directly, in a personal way? Was it that as well as the institutional racism?
Both. I went to public schools and private schools. Public schools, it was direct, in your face... Even if the school was racially mixed, there was plenty of racism. Then, in the last two years of school, I got a scholarship to a very elite, prestigious school, which was also quite mixed. That's where I really felt institutional racism. There was this idea that I wasn't supposed to be there, but someone wasn't going to come and punch me in the face over it.

I think especially in respect to race, people forget that Australia's a colonial state and they don't realize that black and brown people weren't allowed to migrate there until the early 1970s. The whole dynamic and history of the place is like a weird experiment contained on an island. It's like a strange experiment in race.

Were your parents political?
Well, it turns out that my dad was actually quite radical. But this is all stuff I found out much later. Fundamentally, they both lived through a liberation war, which was not drilled into our heads growing up. We'd hear stories and stuff, but it was kind of like background noise...

What do they think of your comedy?
They like it. They're torn because they have that very South Asian insecurity about their children being financially stable or whatever. But politically, I know they agree with what I'm saying, even if sometimes they pretend not to or pretend it's over the top.

Your bit about reverse racism skewers an idea that's been around for a while. How do you deal with being serious in comedy?
In political comedy, you're always walking a fine line between what might be funny and what might be a boring speech. So it's a real balancing act. But, the reverse racism clip—a lot of people assume that bit is designed to speak to racists, to educate them—but it's not, it's meant to entertain people who already understand. It's like, let's laugh at the racists and confirm what we already know. It's very much preaching to the converted. I'm not ashamed of that in any way.

I read that the clip basically saved your career. Why was that?
As a performer you're at the mercy of people who book you and Australia is just a very small audience. Even though I was connected online with a lot of people I just wasn't getting any bookings.

How would you define your audience?
My audience is the same around the world. The majority are people of color and, out of that, maybe a quarter of them are Muslim—politically-minded Muslims. Overall, my audience is left-wing types. They're everywhere.

I know, we just crawl around the globe attending comedy shows...
Exactly! So that was it. It just financially wasn't working and I thought maybe it's time to do something else and pay bills and that kind of stuff.

And then the clip got you out of Oz... Are there Australian comedians that you like?
Absolutely. There are some political comedians that I've worked with for years. There's Matthew Kenneally, Toby Halligan—they're all guys my age that I came up with.

In your show you describe Australia as like Britain if it had been ruled by UKIP for 200 years. It should be so rich for satire.
I've analyzed it non-stop and I can't figure out why but there's not much political comedy out there and there's not much of a push to get it mainstream. There has been great satire and really good satirical shows but again, you're dealing with a very small population.

You get laughs in your show just by pointing out the absurdities of Australian life...
Laughing at Australia is something permanent in the UK and I find that really, around the world, people just laugh at Australia. I don't think Australians realize how deeply there is a sense of Australia being this redneck outpost in the corner of the planet.

What do you think about Dieudonné's sentencing in France and the relationship between free speech and comedy?
With France it's become such a ridiculous, inverted scenario because their brand of secular liberalism is itself so extreme. To suggest that [some of Charlie Hebdo's] cartoons are satirical—that is a joke. To purposefully provoke a bullied minority about things that you know are fundamentally sacred to them—what kind of institutional power are you critiquing? I think it's really a part of being white—not being able to differentiate and recognize differences in power. Magically, everyone is equal and everybody is fair game.

There's a bit in your show that's like classic old school comedy where you talk about stereotypical south Asian parents, and there's a certain kind of internet warrior who might be like, "Come on Aamer! We have been fighting these stereotypes!"
Absolutely. I probably was one of them myself. But now I have enough credits in the bank that I can finally unleash! I do genuinely find some of that stuff funny though, because if it's told in the right way and it's told from our own perspective, I think it's funny. In Fear of a Brown Planet I always had to do very staunch, hard-line material, so now I'm going solo I have room to breathe and do slightly sillier stuff. Even then, I'm very careful about it. I can't bring myself to do accents.

And yet, Aamer, you do a white person accent in the show. How dare you... I'm shaking my head over here.
[Laughs] It's OK to do it with your friends.

When I first saw your stuff, I thought of Stewart Lee...
Who I'm a huge fan of. My favorite thing about Stewart Lee is his pace. He will take as long as he wants—especially in comedy, where there's pressure to deliver laughs, that helps me a lot because some of the stuff I talk about takes a while to explain. To be able to see comedy that takes its time was a big thing for me.

What made you want to end the show on a serious note?
I wanted to tell the story and the reality of the story is that it's so heavy that you can't do it in the middle of the show and then go back to jokes. You put it down and the audience just has to deal with it. But there's also a part of me that really loves dumb slapstick, like videos of people falling off their bikes and stuff. Like Stewart Lee's bit about how there's nothing funnier than a fart. I don't care how serious and political you are, you can't deny that.

Aamer Rahman is currently on tour in the US Follow him on Twitter.

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