“When I was 5 years old, I used to sit on the front steps of my house. Whenever someone was walking by on the footpath, I'd scream out to them 'G'day mate, how's it going? Do you wanna beer?' They were just going about their day. All my aunties and uncles would be inside watching. They’d tell me off, but I could tell they found it funny. It must have been a ridiculous image to see this little Sri Lankan boy offering strangers a beer. I was a weird kid.”
His knack for tickling funny bones has gotten him out of trouble on many occasion. “I never thought about doing stand-up comedy, but I thought, 'eh, I'm a fun guy, a bit of a clown.' It was also my defence mechanism, I'd be late with my assignment at school, and somehow make the teacher laugh by doing something cheeky. I'm someone that procrastinates well, and uses comedy to evade responsibility.”
Many such anecdotes will feature in his live show, 'Hussain In The Membrane’. “Including going to Japan and getting mugged by the most organised gang in the world. They did take $1,500 dollars, but it was the most professional and polite muggings one could experience. They had a system and everything. In hindsight it was scary, but at the time, I felt comfortable enough to bargain down and get a 50 per cent discount. There was another American guy there and he only got mugged for $990, but I got mugged for $1,500. At the time, it was pretty confusing, I wasn't sure if there was some kind of social hierarchy there. Afterwards, he said the reason why he charged me more than the other guy was that Indians love to bargain. So that was an interesting experience.”
A hallmark of Nazeem's comedy, from his stand-up to his acclaimed sketch show ‘Legally Brown’, has been talking about his experiences with racism. “I don't know any other way (to reach people). I studied law and did all that, but comedy works better. I think sometimes when you watch the comedy, people think, 'oh, he's trying to make a point about this' but in reality that's the kind of thing I joke about all the time. I don't necessarily sit down and go, 'I want to make a point.' When I'm trying to write a joke, I just go with the stuff I naturally find funny. Especially as a brown person in Australia, every time I say something concerning race, it’s personal. It's not about making an important point. People just say really awful things and it just goes by unchecked.”
The two mediums he’s worked in have their unique challenges. “Stand-up comedy, I find a challenge to write. But you can write it, go on stage, and respond immediately to the audience so like a moment-to-moment craft, you've got complete control of it. Whereas on TV, you've got a lot more moving parts. You've got to be a control freak in TV.”
Many times, Nazeem has clashed with bigots. “It's always the most exhausting thing to try to argue with them. That's the cool thing about comedy, you go to a room, and everyone's already onside, you can cut straight to the chase. You just feel like the energy's sapped out of you when you have to convince people of something so self-evident to any reasonable, thinking person. Comedy, when you're making those sorts of points and people are laughing it's the exact opposite, it's not energy sapping, you actually start to feel more re-energised.”
Nazeem Hussain performs The Garden of Unearthly Delights 29 February – 6 March as part of Adelaide Comedy Festival and Brisbane Powerhouse 8-13 March as part of Brisbane Comedy Festival.