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Ali Hassan talks food and exploiting his kids for comedy

By Drew Thomas, January 19 2016 —

Muslim Canadian comedian, actor, chef and family man Ali Hassan will bring his Muslim Interrupted tour to Calgary on Jan. 20 at the Arts Commons. He will also act as host for this year’s Canada Reads event from Mar. 27–30. The Gauntlet spoke with Hassan about his comedic style, advice for aspiring comedians and cheap food.

The Gauntlet: What kind of reception are you expecting from the audience? What do you hope people take away from it?

Ali Hassan: I put this show on a few times in 2016. A one-nighter in Ottawa [and] three nights in Montreal for Just for Laughs. My primary goal is to entertain and I feel people do walk away entertained — mission one accomplished. But then there’s a separate thing happening here obviously, against the backdrop of Islamophobia or whatever you want to call it — tensions involving the Muslim community. I feel people walk away a little bit informed as well, which I didn’t set out to do, but it’s a great feeling to do comedy that entertains, informs and pushes boundaries a little bit. Particularly with my own people, Muslims, it might push boundaries, but even with other people because they have a certain narrative — non-Muslims have a certain narrative of what Muslims are and seeing a show like this will challenge that.

G: How often do you write jokes?

H: I go through waves. Sometimes I’m gonna sit and I’m gonna write and that lasts a couple of weeks and then it fades. My best jokes have always come when I’m doing the most mindless stuff — I’m vacuuming, taking a shower. My jokes that have come to me from writing are ideas [that] have premises, then I work on them onstage and then they become something. In the shower, vacuuming, lawn mowing or snow shoveling — that’s when bits come in my mind that are fully formed and I’m already taking them to the stage. Those menial activities really free up your mind to be creative, but you can’t guarantee that like, “okay, I’m gonna vacuum, let the jokes come!” It just sort of happens.

G: As a comedian and chef, how has cooking and food been a part of your comedy?

H: You joke about what you know and I was a chef before I was a comedian, so it was naturally something that I took to the stage. [At] the Winnipeg Comedy festival, there was a food gala — Glorious Food, I think it was called. I think I was an obvious choice. You don’t have too many comedians who’ve been at it for a long time who are also chefs or have a chef’s background. So I know that I get called upon often when food related-themed shows are happening. I’m happy to do that — I was immersed in that life so there’s a lot of material. Comedy comes out of pain too and the kitchen in a restaurant can be a painful environment too sometimes. Egos, knives, heat — all that stuff mixes together to make a pretty volatile environment that when you finally step back from it you’re like, “oh I can laugh at that for sure.”

G: You’ve got a Youtube show called Bland is Boring: a Cooking Show. As university students, a lot of us have trouble making good food for the cheap. What is best thing you’ve ever made for under $10?

H: I don’t think students will be happy with this answer, but when I’ve made pasta from scratch I’ve always felt amazing about it and you can do it for under ten bucks. You can have pasta sheets or you can buy pasta and roll it out, but that’s a bit more time-consuming. Making the filling — you can braise some lamb or some beef in coconut milk and let it soften and really flavour and then stuff that into pasta and then cook the pasta with some sauces. Those things that take three or four steps, for some reason I really like them because I love cooking, but a student who’s got stuff to do and places to go might be like, “that’s ridiculous.”

The other thing is Indian food. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, Indian food or Mexican food can go really far. I really enjoy making tostadas and tacos because what you get is variety. First of all, it’s not very expensive and second of all, you get variety. So you can have three tacos with three different toppings on them [and] three different ingredients inside of them. Pork taco, chicken taco, beef taco or fried fish or something like that. All three of them have different toppings  — a lot of variety for not too much money.

G: As an actor, a comedian and a family man, how do you balance all these things and how does that play into your comedy?

H: It’s one of the interesting things because part of you would think on paper that having a big family robs you of your time and your creativity, which is partly true. But also my kids just constantly feed me material and I pay them back in the form of food and a roof over their heads, so they’re getting something out of it. Sometimes, these kids present me with a joke that’s ready to go right to stage. I don’t even have to work on that. It’s like having a team of writers. It’s like I’m a late night talk show host and my writers are working around the clock without their knowledge and without pay, which is amazing. A family helps and I think it also motivates me. I don’t think about this outright but I can’t deny that there’s four kids who need to live, they need to survive, and it’d be good if they didn’t die. So I get out there and I work a little harder probably because of their presence.

G: Is there any advice you’d like to give for any aspiring comedians out there?

H: I think the best advice I can give is that there is no quick solution. If you’re looking for quick fame, quick money or quick success, this is not the field for you – because we’ve watched people who get shortcuts. Ultimately, it’s the audience that decides and sometimes the audience gives you a big fat thumbs down because you rushed it, you pretended you had 20 minutes of material but really you had three to five.

This is what all these great comedians talk about. You have to be ready to fail, you have to be able to go up, fail, learn, fail, learn. I see comics who are two or three months into their comedy — they’re already putting up a set on YouTube and I’m like “Buddy, you don’t realize that in two years you’re gonna be embarrassed of that but that’s what people are gonna judge you on from YouTube.” So it’s about really putting in a lot of work because there are really no short cuts in comedy – you have to find funny. You have to build the material with rare exception. At the end of the day, it’s a journey. There’s no race for comedy and there are people who find great success by their fifth year that others take 15 years to find, but you gotta put in that effort. You gotta put in a hell of a lot of effort. It looks like it’s easy because we look like we just woke up and got on stage taking some t-shirt off a pile of clothes [and] put it on, but for many of us it’s a ton of work going into it too.

Muslim Interrupted will show in Calgary on Jan. 20 at the Arts Commons. Tickets are available at artscommons.ca

Edited for brevity and clarity.

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