Aamer Rahman

[music interlude]
Nia: Welcome to We Want the Airwaves, my name is Nia King. Usually I’m only able to
put out one episode of the podcast a month, but this month I have a little extra something
special for you. Back in April, I had the opportunity to interview Australian comedian
Aamer Rahman while he was in Oakland performing at the New Parish.
Usually on this podcast I interview queer and trans artists of color about their lives and
their work. This podcast is a little different because I initially did the interview for my
friend Channing Kennedy’s podcast Just Jokes, but he later decided to let me publish it on
my own podcast instead. Aamer Rahman, if you don’t already recognize the name, had a
comedy bit that went viral called Reverse Racism. I’ll include a link in the show notes.
If you like the idea of me being able to put out two podcast episodes a month instead of
just one, the best way to help that continue to happen is by pledging $5/a month or more
at patreon.com/artactivistnia. $5 a month gets you access to over 45 podcast episodes.
Right now only about 18 of those episodes are available for free via iTunes, so there’s a
whole other world beyond the paywall, which you can have access to, for $5 a month.
One more quick thing, I’ll be doing a reading at Left Bank Books in Seattle on Saturday,
August 29th with some really great queer writers of color: Nyky Gomez who runs Brown
Recluse Zine Distro and writes the zine Skinned Heart, Shannon Perez-Darby who had a
chapter in a little book called The Revolution Starts at Home, which hopefully you’ve
heard about, zinester and cartoonist Sarah Raisinbread, and Shannon Barber. Shannon’s
twitter bio describes her as the Matriarch of Cunt Lit. I don’t know what that means, but
I’m excited to find out.
So if you are in the Seattle area on August 29th, come on down to Left Bank books for an
amazing night of readings. I believe the show starts at 7:30 but it probably wouldn’t hurt
to show up at 7. Without further ado, here’s Aamer Rahman.
[music interlude]
Nia: So I read that you were born in Saudi Arabia and then moved to Australia when you
were three—
Aamer: Six.
Nia: Six. Actually, I have it written down here so I don’t have to guess. (laughs) And then
you moved to Oman when you were ten, and moved back to Australia at age thirteen. So
how do you—do you still remember anything from those years of moving around so
much as a kid?

Aamer: Yeah, definitely, a lot of clear memories, even of Saudi Arabia.
Nia: Okay. How do you think moving around—living in three different countries before
you were thirteen shaped your perspective?
Aamer: I think the main difference was moving from Muslim countries to a non-Muslim
country, basically a place where I was definitely a minority. I think those were kind of the
biggest factors that shaped me. I guess the real feeling of exclusion that I felt like living
in Australia. I felt an overwhelming feeling that I didn’t belong which I didn’t feel when I
lived in the Middle East.
Nia: That’s interesting because you weren’t—that’s not where your parents are from.
They aren’t from Oman and they aren’t from Saudi Arabia, but you didn’t experience that
feeling of being an outsider?
Aamer: Well you know, at least I was surrounded by Muslim culture, and Islam was the
norm. It wasn’t something that was strange or unknown or a threat.
Nia: And so how was that different when you moved to Australia? (laughs)
Aamer: Well, I mean when I moved to Australia it was still the mid-90’s, so you know I
never really got picked on in school for being Muslim because people just didn’t know
what it was, I was the brown kid. But that has completely changed now. I actually don’t
know what it would be like to be harassed based on your culture, your parent’s culture
and the way you’ve been—your beliefs, because that wasn’t ever something I was
targeted for… not because our culture was in the news every day.
Nia: And, please excuse my ignorance about Australia history and politics. But when did
that shift in terms of Muslim visibility?
Aamer: 9/11. The same way it shifted everywhere.
Nia: Oh, ok. (laughs)
Aamer: 9/11 was just this huge—you know, I was in my second year out of high school
by then, so I never got that on the playground.
Nia: I know you do a lot of work around immigration and refugee issues in Australia. I’m
interested in how—one of the things I’m really interested in is how race is constructed
differently in different countries and how racism operates differently in different
countries. Like here, in the US when we talk about immigration, people tend to think of
Latino immigration, but my understanding is that in Australia most of the immigration is
from South Asia and to a lesser extent Africa?
Aamer: South Asia, Africa but a lot from the Middle East—

Nia: Okay.
Aamer: and Central Asia. So in Australia when it comes to asylum or “illegal
immigration,” that’s completely part of homeland security and war on terror rhetoric.
“You know, we don’t know who these people are, if they’re a security threat, we need to
protect our borders,” and all that regular stuff, that they’ll steal our jobs, that they’re on
welfare, and all that kind of stuff. But it really is completely fused with that anti-Muslim
kind of sentiment and that whole war on terror framework.
Nia: RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees. I read that you were involved with
this organization since it started?
Aamer: Yeah, I mean I’ve always pretty much been around RISE since it started, but
definitely I haven’t been a central person in terms of the work they do. RISE is the first
and the only refugee support organization in Australia and I’d say one of the few in the
world that is completely run and managed by young people from refugee backgrounds.
Nia: Young people like under thirty?
Aamer: Yeah, I would say mostly under thirty.
Nia: Cool. So how did you first become involved with them?
Aamer: Actually my adopted brother sort of established it. So I’ve been around, I’ve
supported them in whatever way I’ve could. They’ve really managed something quite
amazing, to become a real frontline advocacy group, having started with really nothing.
And they still take no government funding, they are entirely grassroots and volunteer run.
It’s quite a phenomenal organization.
Nia: That’s awesome. Texta [Queen] told me that it’s rare to find DIY, POC stuff in
Australia, that a lot of it is government funded—
Aamer: Yeah, absolutely. I mean Australia banned non-white immigration until basically
the early 70’s. So, you know the way you have long histories of people of color resisting
the way you do in the US and the UK, other than Aboriginal people in Australia, there
aren’t organizations that have been around for a long time combating racism in Australia.
So RISE is actually quite historic in that sense.
Nia: I don’t know how much you’ll be able to speak to this. But I was wondering if you
feel like there is more solidarity between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people
of color in Australia than you see here in the US?
Aamer: I’d definitely say no.
Nia: Okay.

Aamer: I mean, I don’t really know what the situation is here—
Nia: Mhmm.
Aamer: But in Australia there’s such a strong overwhelming kind of pressure to
assimilate. One of the first things every wave of immigrants learns is how to look down
on Aboriginal people. You know, that’s the first step towards becoming Australian, is
learning how to hate Indigenous people and just completely swallowing and internalizing
all of that sort of racism. So there’s definitely a huge disconnect between Indigenous
people in Australia and non-Indigenous people of color. There’s a lot of work that needs
to be done.
Nia: Okay. I think I’m gonna backtrack a little bit. How did you initially become
politicized around race and racism?
Aamer: So I think that just experiencing racism through my whole childhood and as a
teenager in Australia just automatically just kind of made me really angry and upset. So I
was always looking for outlets to deal with and people who would understand how I felt.
I think one of the most common experiences for people who experience racism is not
being able to find people who actually understand what is happening to you. You are
surrounded by people who tell you it’s not real, it’s not there, or that you’re the problem.
So really growing up as an outsider is still is kind of the basis for that.
Nia: It sounded that when you were talking before that 9/11 was a turning point though.
It was sort of non-specific racism being aimed at you because you were brown, as
opposed to very specifically racialized and Islamophobic antagonism? Is that fair?
Aamer: Yeah, because there was no way not to be Muslim after 9/11. Even someone like
me who is not necessarily visibly Muslim, like people wouldn’t automatically assume I’m
Muslim. But the fact is that when your community is under pressure, when your friends
are being attacked because they are visibly Muslim, when your culture is in the news,
when your communities are being constantly dissected and pulled apart and pitted against
each other, there’s no way to escape it. So I think like a lot of kids, I started looking into
my identity and my culture sort of more deeply, identifying more strongly as Muslim and
then getting involved in a lot of issues that were affecting the Muslim community, like
surveillance or asylum-seeker legislation and stuff like that.
Nia: So when you say after 9/11 there was no way not to be Muslim, it sounds like you
actually made a conscious choice to take pride in your Muslim identity in the face of this
new wave of violence and antagonism. So I guess on one hand I hear that there’s no way
not to be Muslim, and on the other hand I hear that because of the antagonism you
experienced you became more proud to be Muslim. Does that make sense?
Aamer: Yeah, I mean I guess for me there was no way for me not to be Muslim. Because
definitely people do take the option of going under the radar or making whatever effort
they can not to appear or identify as Muslim, that’s the choice you’re given basically.

That’s the choice racism gives you, either assimilate or face the consequences. So for me,
assimilation was just not an option. It never had been, growing up, it was never an option
for me.
Nia: So when did you become involved in organizing. My understanding is that for you
organizing came before comedy. Is that accurate?
Aamer: Yeah, long before comedy. I probably started organizing when I was eighteen,
basically after high school. I didn’t get into comedy until I was about twenty-six, which is
very late for comedians. Most comedians would start much earlier because most
comedians grow up wanting to be comedians. And I loved comedy but I never, it just
never occurred to me that I would try to become a comedian. So I’d been organizing for a
long time before I started doing stand-up.
Nia: And how did you initially become involved in organizing?
Aamer: The issues that were important to me… The first time I voted was when I was
eighteen. That election revolved entirely around asylum-seekers and it was days within
9/11. I think that was a critical thing for me because I had just watched politicians
completely exploit that anti-Muslim hysteria and just play the race card in such a clichéd
but completely effective way. Successive governments have done it again and again, so I
think that was a real turning point for me in terms of just witnessing just how vicious and
how widespread that kind of hatred could be, you know, in a matter of days.
Nia: And I apologize if this sounds sort of—so from talking to Texta, my impression is
that—and this is going to be a weird thing to say, but that racism in Australia is sort of a
lot more blatant and more extreme than in the US?
Aamer: Yeah, yeah absolutely.
Nia: Could you give and example of like—
Aamer: It’s so hard to explain, it’s not something that you witness immediately. People
are just much more comfortable being racist in Australia. I’m not saying there’s not
racism in places like America or the UK, but people I think understand on some level, not
everyone, but most people understand the things you can and can’t say. Whether they like
it or not, they know that you just don’t say stuff like that at work, or you don’t say stuff
like that school or around people of color. Whereas in Australia, it’s like those rules just
don’t exist.
(background noise)
Aamer: Is that going to be a problem?
Nia: (laughs) It’s a little distracting

Aamer: What is it?
Nia: It’s a vacuum cleaner. (laughs)…So Fear of a Brown Planet is the name of a show
that you did for a long time?
Aamer: It was a group that I was in, a comedy duo that I was in.
Nia: Okay. I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about Black American protest art
and its influence on your own work, because you know it’s the name from a famous
Public Enemy album.
Aamer: Well, so the people who got me into comedy, Azhar Usman and Preacher Moss,
actually were in a group Allah Made Me Funny. It was one of the first, openly Muslim
comedy groups. They started doing comedy straight after 9/11 and I saw them perform in
2006. They were the first people who really explained comedy to me as a protest art. You
know I’d grown up on Chris Rock and Chappelle and I love Margaret Cho and Wanda
Sykes and all these comics. But they really explained the history of comedy as one of
America’s homegrown traditions and its tradition as being a real protest art. And I think
without meeting them, without having that kind of seed in my mind, I don’t think I would
have really picked up comedy as a tool later on, because until then, comedy was
something that I loved but was just entertainment. When I thought about political art, it
was always music.
Nia: Hmm.
Aamer: It was always hip-hop, which is another huge influence for me. I mean without
listening to Public Enemy and KRS-One, I wouldn’t have thought about really deciding
to make political art.
Nia: So was your comedy political from the onset?
Aamer: Yeah. I think that because I started late, because I started at the age of twentysix, I’d already knew what I wanted to say, I knew what was upsetting me. I didn’t go
through this whole period of finding my voice and stuff that understandably much
younger comedians do. Thankfully, I did all that painful stuff outside of performance, so I
don’t have to live with that embarrassment. (both laugh) I mean I do on the inside, but at
least there aren’t videos of me saying and doing things I completely regret on stage,
which I think that is something that now, every day you hear about another comedian
where someone has dug up a tweet or a video or something where it’s just, where they
have to answer for it. And they do have to answer for it, because it’s there. I think when it
comes to people of color in the West resisting white supremacy, I think Black radicalism
plays such an enormous part in terms of laying the foundations and the influencing of
how white supremacy has been resisted in an organized way. And that’s definitely fed
into my artistic influences.

Nia: Yeah. That was a great answer. (laughs) You had a great quote, which I’m not going
to be able to quote word for word, but we’re talking about Twitter. And you were
interviewed for a piece recently where it was like “six comedians on Twitter”…And you
had said something, I wish I could remember it word for word, something really great
about how there’s all this resistance—comedians fear Twitter because it gives minorities
a voice essentially and have to answer essentially for the things they have to say—
Aamer: Yeah, even if that’s your support base.
Nia: (laughs) What has your experience been with that? Do you find that your fans are
very critical, or that you’re mostly dealing with trolls on the internet?
Aamer: I’m mostly dealing with trolls
Nia: (laughs) Okay—
Aamer: But that’s because I’m hyper paranoid about saying the wrong thing. I’ve seen it
happen to so many people and I just realized that if I say something and people
misinterpret it or it hurts them, or people feel offended by it then that’s it. No one wants
to hear your back-peddling, and “I meant it like this or I meant it like that”. Once people
are upset, they’re upset. Within reason, obviously, if white people get upset and start
calling me racist, I don’t really care. But if the people that I’m trying to engage with and
the people that I’m trying to validate through my work, if they get upset by something I
said and that’s not what I’m trying to do. So I try to be very careful with Twitter because
it’s just dangerous. It’s just dangerous to just start running your mouth on social media
like that.
Nia: Yeah.
Aamer: Because the response is instantaneous. It’s not even like there’s a time period
where you can reconsider what you said. By the time you’ve deleted it, someone has
screen-capped it. There’s no taking anything back, unless you apologize immediately.
Nia: Is there any upside to that?
Aamer: The upside to it is that you can respond to things immediately, you know for
example, Patricia Arquette…
Nia: (laughs) I really loved your Patricia Arquette tweets—
Aamer: …At the Oscars, just made all these confused and ridiculous comments about
feminism and gay people and people of color. So in that sense, you can literally, as it’s
happening, you can respond in a way that comedians couldn’t before. You know what I
mean? A politician gives a speech and you can live tweet your response line by line to the
speech. That was never possible before. So there is a huge advantage to that kind of realtime medium, like social media.

Nia: Yeah. You know we’re talking about how fans can be critical and I would imagine
that as a political comic you’re attracting people that are critical thinkers. How do you
make decisions about what’s appropriate to joke about? …Because you made jokes about
the Chapel Hill shootings.
Aamer: Did I? On Twitter? On Twitter.
Nia: (laughs) Yeah, about how the media was trying to say it was about a parking dispute.
Aamer: Right, right.
Nia: And so how do you deal with those questions of, “Is it too soon? Am I taking shots
at the right people?”
Aamer: (sighs) For me ultimately, comedy always comes down to who is the target.
Because that’s what the problem is with the majority of comedy, is who is the target.
Usually the target is women, or people of color, queer, trans, [insert minority here].
Nia: (Mmhm)
Aamer: Right? Because that’s the easy target. It’s the easy target. It’s the easy way to get
everyone in the room laughing, is by picking on the outsider. Comedy is so powerful
because it’s so raw, but it’s also so easy to bully people with it. It’s very easy for comics
to be bullies. So the whole thing for me is “what is the target?” And in terms of Chapel
Hill, that was me taking shots at the media and anyone and everyone trying to run for
cover, saying that it wasn’t about race. It wasn’t at all about making light of the murders
or the deaths of the victims. But, having said that, those kind of jokes about Chapel Hill, I
wouldn’t do on stage. It’s too soon. People are not ready and they might never be. I don’t
really plan to ever do that stuff on stage. You know that was a response to news articles
and print media and stuff that was appearing online, so you can do that on Twitter.
Whereas you get on stage and it’s real people in a room next to each other, you’re talking
about three people who were basically executed in a hate crime very recently, that’s not
something that anyone wants to laugh at.
Nia: Sorry, I keep losing my train of thought.
Aamer: It’s fine. This is so much more interesting (Nia laughs) than ninety percent of my
Nia: (laughs) Thank you, that means a lot to me (laughing)
Aamer: When I do an interview, they’re like so how did you start in comedy? I just want
to run out the room. You didn’t just Google me once, (Nia laughing), there’s seven
hundred interviews that answer that question.

Nia: A number of American comics that I’ve talked, particularly comics of color, feel like
they face pressure not to be political. Even Hari [Kondabolu] said that he didn’t want to
be branded as an activist comedian or a social justice comedian because being pigeon
holed as niche or outside the mainstream would ultimately hurt his career and his ability
to forward his politics. But it sounds like for you, it’s been smooth sailing. You found
your voice before you became a comic and you’ve always been a political comic since
you started comedy. Did you ever face any kind of pressure not to political, or resistance?
Aamer: I mean, indirectly. If you do that stuff, you’re not going to get opportunities from
the mainstream. That’s the reality. But I kind of knew that. I never thought, “Oh, I’m
going to say these things and magically a lot of people are going to be interested.” I just
thought, “I find this funny, my friends find this funny and people I organize with find this
funny,” and that’s still how I write. I’m realistic about where that’s going to take me.
The point of it for me is always—you know, when I was growing up, I was always
looking for art, or whatever experience that would validate how I felt, that’s what I’m
trying to do now, just create something that makes people feel normal. My comedy
doesn’t stop racism, doesn’t stop racist things happening to people. But when people
experience that stuff, they can come home and watch a two-minute video and feel better
about the last two minutes of their life. People say that to me all the time, “Look, I was
having a bad day and I just watched one of your videos and it cheered me up.” I think for
artists to claim that they are doing more than that is kind of a stretch. Unless we’re
talking about things on a scale of Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine, groups that
really captured the popular imagination and managed to mainstream a certain type of
politics for a short period of time, that’s the exception. For the rest of us, I think it’s just
that. It’s providing relief to people as they survive the things that happen to them day to
day. Am I giving you too long answers?
Nia: (laughs) No, no, they’re perfect. They are really good. They are very succinct and I
feel like most of what’s going to be edited out is me trying to figure out what my next
question is going to be. There’s something I read on your Wikipedia that didn’t seem to
make any sense and I was hoping you could explain it to me. (laughing)
Aamer: There’s so much stuff on my Wikipedia that is not true!
Nia: (laughing) Really? Like what?
Aamer: Okay, it describes my style as cheerful and upbeat—
Nia: (laughing) I do remember thinking “that is not accurate!”
Aamer: And then it say—actually, can you please put these parts in your official
interview because then there will be an official source that refutes the incorrect facts on
Nia: Sure.

Aamer: Because there’s this fake stuff on Wikipedia. At one point, it had these extra
siblings I didn’t have. (Nia laughing) It said that I left home when I was twenty-seven.
Nia: Moved out of your parents’ house?
Aamer: Yeah, I moved out of my parents’ house when I was twenty-one, or maybe
earlier. It mentioned all these facts. You know when someone hacks your Wikipedia page
to make it look stupid? It wasn’t even like that. It was just random incorrect facts about
my life and you can’t change those unless you have a source to refute them.
Nia: Huh.
Aamer: I would get my friends to change stuff and then someone would come and
change it back. (Nia laughs) I’m like who is committed to me having siblings that don’t
exist? I just couldn’t understand it. And then I gave up! It’s still there, “has a cheerful and
upbeat style.” I went to the article that it’s referencing and they’ve misquoted. It’s
actually a description of my comedy partner Nazeem in Fear of a Brown Planet. I saw
someone edit the article, say “This is incorrect, you’ve misquoted this line in the article,”
and then whoever did it just changed it back! It’s just ridiculous. And now I gave up.
How many times can I read this…So tell me what didn’t seem—
Nia: It’s nothing that outrageous, it might have just been badly written. It says Rahman
and Hussain performed their first show in 2007, and their second show, and I think this is
speaking of the hour-long show not the—
Aamer: Yeah, yeah.
Nia: Their second show in 2008 and then were given a network development deal for a
year and a half. That seems very quickly, for things to have happened.
Aamer: It’s not entirely incorrect. We were given a network development deal. It was for
six months… and it went nowhere. And it was because it happened too fast…we
achieved a certain level of success very quickly, which always gets industry people
excited. They gave us a development deal, which wasn’t great. Yeah, it wasn’t a great
Nia: What does that look like? Is that when they give you money to develop a sitcom and
not talk to other networks?
Aamer: Yeah, they give you money. They put you with a producer and they basically let
you throw around ideas and pitch a concept.
Nia: Okay, so again I know nothing about the media in Australia or the comedy world in
Australia. So, who are the people that approached you, how did this happen and what did
it look like once you were actually at the table?

Aamer: The development deal?
Nia: Yeah.
Aamer: It was a regular network. They put us with a producer; they wanted some sort of
satire. I think the reality was that we were just too young, we were just way too young,
too inexperienced. We didn’t have mature ideas. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, but I
think the networks saw the fact that we had access to a new audience, a very loyal and
committed audience.
Nia: When you say new audience, are you talking about a particular demographic?
Aamer: Yeah, definitely Muslims, people of color who were not catered to when it
comes to TV or most popular culture. So that’s how it started. We just didn’t have the
skills at the time. We’d barely been doing comedy for not even two years.
Nia: But the hour-long shows that you were doing were selling out in Australia?
Aamer: Always, always. Fear of a Brown Planet always sold out everywhere.
Nia: How big venues are we talking about? What size?
Aamer: We would do festival seasons. We would do three-week, two-week long seasons.
So in a season you end up getting a few thousand people for the show.
Nia: I think that what I’m trying to understand or to get at is how… it seems like you
were able to tap into a critical mass of people that were not being spoken to by the
comedy that was available, people who were people of color, who were political. And I
guess one thing I find confusing about that is that knowing about the white Australia
policies and how limited immigration was from brown countries for such a long time…
again, I just feel like here comics are really pressured to just be mainstream—
Aamer: Mhmm.
Nia: And even looking at like, I love Hari and Kamau but their audiences, when I go to
their shows are often (Nia laughs) fairly white. Not as white as other comics. So how did
you tap into this hungry audience? Was it just this because literally no one else was
talking to them?
Aamer: Well, yeah it was a combination of things. It was never in—well, it was
intentional at first; I shouldn’t say it wasn’t.
Nia: I mean did you go into comedy thinking like—

Aamer: I mean comedy happened by accident. But once I realized we had an audience, I
wanted that audience to be us. It just didn’t make sense to me that I would be talking
about racism and complaining about white people to an audience of white people.
Nia: But sometimes you don’t have control over that.
Aamer: I mean you don’t necessarily have control, but you can do a whole lot of things
to influence who comes to your show.
Nia: Can you give an example?
Aamer: So, you know, we were catering not only the people who weren’t catered to in
terms of content, but who also had really been excluded from venues and events. You
know festivals had never made any effort to engage with our audience. People were not
familiar with the venues that we were going to. But I think…because I had a background
in organizing, I just knew that we had to network very effectively to get people to our
shows. We had to advertise very specifically. If I didn’t have that, I probably would have
just listened to people and tried to advertise our work in the regular ways. But I just knew
that to reach our family and friends, we’d have to do things completely differently.
Nia: So does that mean that you took your comedy out of mainstream venues and went to
where your audience would be?
Aamer: We have done that. But at other times, especially at a festival, you can’t afford to
do that. And also I think we had the sense that why shouldn’t we perform at the center of
this festival? We have just as much of a right to be here as anyone else, so it was about…
and we’d get good venues, because financially, we were a viable option. That’s the only
reason anyone took notice of us, because we were financially viable. So it was really
about getting our communities to those venues, and that sometimes meant a lot of free
tickets. Sometimes that meant a lot of extra convincing and reminding the people the
show was on. Because when people know you in the community, sometimes it’s—
Nia: They’re like “oh, I’ll just go see you—“
Aamer: Yeah, “I’ll see you some other time. You’re always around.” You kind of have to
convince people this show is different, this is how we make money and you have to bring
your friends. After doing them for a while then it became automatic. So now we don’t
have to do that anymore, because people are used to coming to see us… For me, because
of the content, it didn’t make sense for me to create something for people of color and
then not have people of color there. So I’ve always been one hundred percent explicit
about who my comedy is for. That’s why I wanted the show and I think that plus the
content, automatically makes it a majority non-white audience every time.
Nia: You mentioned that giving away free tickets was one way to make sure that people
of color were at your shows. How did you get to a place where financially that was a
possibility for you, something that you were able to do?

Aamer: I think just the popularity of the shows meant that they were always selling out.
Even our friends would always be scrambling to get tickets. I think it was just a supply
and demand thing where once people saw that it wasn’t easy to come to the show, the
value of the show went up in people’s eyes. And people would know when we announced
the show, they learned, one, two, three times, that you can’t just wait around and get
tickets at the last minute. Even our slackest friends would learn to buy tickets
Nia: I listen to a lot of interviews with comedians and I feel like for American comics,
the narrative is often very similar where it’s like they start out going to shitty open mics
and having to deal with a lot of bullshit and then eventually they develop more and more
time. Did you have a shitty open mic period?
Aamer: You know what, we actually had the total opposite.
Nia: Okay.
Aamer: So Nazeem and I, because we never took it seriously, because we were never
trying to be comedians, I mean if you’re trying to be a comedian then you’re going to go
to comedy clubs and you’re going to go to open mic nights, and you’re going to try and
network with other comedians. But because for us, it was just a dumb thing (Nia laughs)
that we were doing just to make our friends laugh. We were not trying to be comics. Our
whole experience was completely different.
Basically, it would be us and fifteen of our friends going to a place, getting on the
microphone saying stuff that was just for our friends (who would end up in little places
being the majority of the audience) having fun, and then just leaving. The first open mic
competition that Nazeem and I did, we’re doing our first five minutes of material again
and again and our friends would come laugh at the same jokes. (Nia laughs) But we’ve
always had that cushion around us, which was great. I have no desire to go and do
comedy to people who are not interested in it.
Nia: Again, for a lot of folks, there’s that period of being a struggling artist. But how was
that for you to go straight to—straight from school to being a somewhat successful
Aamer: No, no. Even when the show was extremely successful, because of the
economics of entertainment, it’s always been a struggle.
Nia: How old were you when you started becoming a successful comic?
Aamer: I would still say that I’m not a successful comic. (Nia laughs.) It’s still,
especially being based in Australia and having the majority of support base in the UK and
the US, it’s really hard to make money because travelling and touring overseas is so

expensive. It’s so expensive. I have to pay rent and bills in Australia while I’m living in
the US for two months.
Nia: And you’re married, right?
Aamer: And I’m married.
Nia: Is your wife back in Australia?
Aamer: She is. So financially still it’s nowhere near something that’s really making
decent money.
Nia: So, is that how you define success as a comic?
Aamer: No, I thought that’s what you were asking. (Nia laughs.)
Nia: Well, my next question was going to be how you define success.
Aamer: If success is connecting with the people that you want to speak to, then I’m
happy. I’m really happy. I’ve always managed to do that. I’ve seeing artists who are
saying something, but are not getting the people that they want to speak to come to their
show. And I can only imagine how frustrating that would be. So for me, that’s the part
that makes me the happiest, is the people I’m making this for come and enjoy it…
You were saying before how do you pick the right target and I think for me it’s about—
especially with political comedy you have to speak with some authority, you have to be
confident about what you’re saying. You have to know it inside out. For me, that’s race. I
don’t normally move away from that. A few people have said, “Why don’t you talk about
this more, why don’t you talk about that more?” But that’s just not my area of expertise.
Even if I see a political or white comic talk about race, it has to be really, really good for
me to be interested. Sometimes it just comes across as the person taking the box, “I’m
progressive, I’m going to talk about xyz” and it’s not always authentic. I never want to
address topics just for the sake of it. You know what I mean? I think everyone has a
certain experience and can speak honestly about that. I don’t really want to be jumping on
other people’s experiences and taking up time and space talking about things that I
haven’t experienced.
Nia: Yeah, that makes sense. I read this thing on your Tumblr that initially looked like a
news article, I thought it would link to The Guardian and it didn’t—about Tony Abbott?
Aamer: Oh, the parody article that I wrote?
Nia: Yeah, yeah. Can we talk a little bit about that?
Aamer: Yeah, sure.

Nia: So for folks who don’t know in our US audience, who is Tony Abbott?
Aamer: Tony Abbott is our prime minister. The easiest way to understand it is he’s our
version of George Bush.
Nia: (laughs) Okay.
Aamer: That’s not an exaggeration, in any sense. He’s super conservative, extremely
racist, just one of those guys that says ridiculous things, constantly putting his foot in his
Nia: So your piece was about how he was encouraging extremism among Australians?
Aamer: Yeah, the whole thing was about how he was a radical preacher encouraging
young men to fight overseas.
Nia: For the IDF?
Aamer: Umm, no. For the Australian military, so this was when Australia announced that
they were sending six hundred troops to fight ISIS. At the time the whole security
situation in Australia was “young Muslim men being radicalized to join ISIS”. So I just
turned that around and did an article about Tony Abbott encouraging young people to join
the military who invariably end up going out and killing civilians overseas.
Nia: There was some reference to the IDF in there.
Aamer: So there was a reference to the IDF because there’s this whole thing about how
as an Australian citizen, “how can you fight for a foreign military or foreign paramilitary
organization?” But Australia has no problem with Australian citizens joining the Israeli
military, doing whatever they want (inaudible).
Nia: Is that fairly common?
Aamer: In a sense, yeah, it happens a lot. People go and serve in the Israeli military for
one or two years and then come back.
Nia: Okay. I feel like we covered a lot of good stuff. I feel really good about the
interview. Is there anything else that you want to say before we wrap, in terms of—
Aamer: I’m just trying to remember my stupid Wikipedia. It said that I was a youth
worker for the Islamic Council for Victoria. I did one project for the Islamic Council. But
it’s written like that’s still my job.
Nia: It also says that you are a graphic designer. (laughs)

Aamer: Yeah, I know how to design stuff. (Nia laughs) I’ve never had a job as a graphic
Nia: Never done any freelance graphic design?
Aamer: No! I used to design the fliers for protests and screenprint tee shirts, just geeky
stuff like that I do at home. I don’t know.
Nia: Because I feel like—
Aamer: Please include these things so I can use them to edit my Wikipedia. I mean for
someone else to edit my Wikipedia (Nia laughs) because you’re not allowed to edit your
own Wikipedia.
Nia: I still feel like there’s this piece of your story that I’m missing. I know that you went
to law school, but really all I know is that Wikipedia says that you went to law school.
Aamer: Well, okay. The difference with law school in Australia is that it’s an
undergraduate degree. So you come out of high school and you can go into med school or
law school and do four years, medicine is five years, and you come out and you are a
doctor or lawyer. Really, it’s like a liberal arts degree. So I was enrolled in it and I
completed it. I didn’t attend a lot. (Nia laughs)
Nia: But that was as an undergrad?
Aamer: That was as an undergrad, yeah. I never did anything else at a university after
that. (Aamer laughs.)
Nia: (laughs) So again, I’m trying to understand your trajectory in terms of last non
comedian job that you had. Would that be as an organizer? Would that have been right
after college?
Aamer: Yeah, I’ve done so many different jobs.
Nia: Okay, let’s talk about that.
Aamer: I’ve done community organizing, I’ve done social work, I’ve worked in
factories, I’ve worked in car washes. I never—
Nia: So you started working when you were fairly young?
Aamer: While at university, I think my first job was… Well even before university I had
a couple of jobs. But I never really found something that I stuck with for any extended
period of time. Comedy would always turn up as this thing that would happen for a few
months and I’d tour or do festivals. I’d come back and just have to scramble to find other
work. Sometimes it’s still like that. There’s this long period of time between tours, I still

have to make money, I still have to pay bills, so I’m always scrambling for other kind of
Nia: So you started comedy at twenty-six, you graduated law school at twenty-two?
Aamer: No, it took me a little longer to graduate. (laughs) I think I graduated when I was
about twenty-four. It took me about six years to get my undergrad. As soon as I finished, I
was bouncing around these part-time community organizing or social work jobs, or
factory gigs, or stacking shelves at a grocery store.
Nia: What kind of social work did you do?
Aamer: Some youth work, I did some stuff with young people in police custody, young
people in juvenile detention. But I always found that really frustrating. I felt like a lot of
those organizations didn’t operate the way I would have wanted them to. I felt like a lot
were actually very conservative.
Nia: You felt like you were limited by operating within the system?
Aamer: Definitely. But I feel like even more than that, because I have seen people do
good and effective work in that framework, but I felt that the organizations were worse
than that. They were really not helpful to the people that they claimed that they were
trying to help. That was really frustrating for me. I would always just prefer to just end up
working in a factory than some “social justice” organization on paper that turned out to
be kind of fake.
Nia: I guess what do you want to do next? What are your goals and aspirations?
Aamer: Well the thing is, in this industry, it’s so impossible to plan your future. People
will want to make movies and TV shows. Early on, we tried to pitch that stuff. But it’s so
beyond your control, who takes notice and who gets behind any of your ideas. Ultimately,
at one point I was going to quit. That’s why I put my reverse racism video online.
Nia: Oh…that’s the kind of thing that I would know if I’d done better research. (laughs)
That was your attempt to—
Aamer: Well, I just felt like I hit a real dead end in Australia. I had all this support from
overseas but I kind of didn’t have enough currency for people to actually book me. So I
took some footage I had from one of our last Fear of a Brown Planet show and I thought I
would slowly exit comedy. I’d just put this stuff up online. I liked this material, I think
that people will enjoy it.
So I randomly put the reverse racism video up as one of the clips that I was going to put
out. It took on a life of it’s own. It got me UK tours, US tours. That really showed me
everything that I had tried to plan had never really worked out. All the great stuff that
happened just happened.

So for me now, it’s just about seeing what works and what works now is my stand up. I
could try to write films, I could try to pitch TV ideas and I have them. But that could be a
total waste of time and frustrating. When I know for a fact that stand up is something that
people want to see.
Nia: But what do you want to do? (laughs) I mean if it wasn’t dictated necessarily by
what people want to see?
Aamer: If it wasn’t dictated by anything, I’d like to be in the next Spiderman movie!
(both laughing) Write some Batman comics, that what I would like to do.
Nia: Nice!
Aamer: When I was growing up I wanted to make cartoons. I wanted to write comic
books and make cartoons and I’d still do that. If someone just emailed me one day and
said “Hey, we’ll pay you to do this,” I would drop everything and do it. (Nia laughs)
Transcribed by Amir Rabiyah