Nazeem Hussain sees no shame in the sideline. His resume is a jumble of television’s vestigial limbs and off-peak hours – community TV, SBS 2, the Sunday night shift on youth radio. He never craves the spotlight but he is always on. In the briefest of conversations, he can dive into race and politics with a bravery that shames other ethnic media-types (this writer included) who worry that to talk too easily about race is to make yourself a large target.
Hussain headlines this year’s Verge Festival Comedy Gala, and in tune with this fringe-dweller persona, he seems incredibly excited. He has an affinity for the radical and unvarnished. An admiration for undergraduates. “Student comedy is where you get some of the most exciting acts,” he tells me.
The passion is partly biographical. Hussain got his start through Raw Comedy (an amateur competition designed for first-timers) and still raves about it. “I think it’s amazing because it forces you to write comedy. People think you just get up on stage and start riffing, but stand-up is a writerly thing. There’s a process that you don’t realise goes on.”
Admittedly, he never dabbled in student comedy himself. He graduated with minimum fuss and went into community work. From there it was stand-up, local Melbourne TV, a seat at a desk next to Waleed Aly. But there’s a parallel here that Hussain lets me draw, between campus comedy and Raw Comedy, the community worker and the student activist. There’s a political value to the lack of exposure.
“Student comedy is a sort of safe space. As soon as you get into the broader comedy circuit, you start to see comedy done in a particular way and a lot of people tend to fall into line. They drop their own personal identity.”
Talk of identity means that in quick, cribnoted terms, I explain to him the proud USyd tradition of the autonomous revue. He reacts incredibly well. I float a concept that’s been echoing in collective back-channels for a while now, that of an autonomous people of colour revue.
He sees parallels with his own work on SBS’s Legally Brown and Salam Cafe (reason for aforementioned Aly proximity). He considers the utility of promoting non-white faces to be obvious.
“People of colour are never reflected in the entertainment that we’re forced to consume. As much as a white person tries to write in a way that is inclusive, they’re only able to tell their story. And being able to tell your own stories is important to our ability to feel we have our own cultural capital here, and some stake in this place.”
This is why he still values stand-up, fringe shows and small, discerning spaces. “For artists of colour – or people who want to express themselves more generally – you need to take advantage of the platforms that are out there. Because TV doesn’t really accommodate people of colour as easily as you might think.”
“Trying to infiltrate that main stage is great, but it shouldn’t be the end game. The end game is to engage my community, the kind of people who want that sort of stuff. There’s nothing better than having a room full of people, hanging out for something that they’ve been missing, and being able to say ‘yeah this is our space, and it’s the best feeling in the world.'”
Hussain headlines the Verge Festival Comedy Night at Manning Bar, tonight, at 7pm.