An Interview With Sami Shah

2 years ago
Til Knowles

When comedian, broadcaster and writer Sami Shah is having a run of bad luck, he sacrifices a goat. It’s a common ritual occurrence in Islamic countries, and the centre piece of Shah’s new show, Sacrificing the Goat. It sounds like classic Shah – outspoken, engaging and straight to the meat of the issue (pun intended). We caught up with him to discuss the new show, the evil eye, comedians’ egos, and got some tips on where to eat during MICF.

Your show is called Sacrificing the Goat. Have you ever sacrificed a goat? What was the occasion the first time you remember seeing a goat sacrificed?

Sacrificing a goat is a ritual, of sorts, that most young Muslim’s have to, if not partake in, then observe, while growing up in Pakistan. It’s for the religious festival of Eid, and wasn’t even something I consider out of the norm for someone from my background. You don’t mind either, because the end result is a delicious series of goat-based dishes for the next week. There are no vegans where I come from.

The show is about superstitions more broadly – are there any Australian-specific superstitions that you were surprised by when you moved here?

As far as I can tell, the one superstition every immigrant community holds on to in Australia, is the evil eye. We’re all positive we still have to deal with the evil eye, and from Italians to Palestinians, we have ways of handing that leering bastard. But Australia seems to be a largely superstition free place.

Do you have any personal superstitions or habits, things that are unique to you or your family?

We still sacrifice a goat every time we think there’s a spate of bad luck to get rid of. Not here, I ask my family in Pakistan to do it on my account. Plus, I can get as atheist as I want, but karma seems to be something I factor into my daily life. It’s a weird thing to say, because it feels like admitting I don’t believe in God but I do believe in the Devil.

What does being a journalist have in common with being a comedian? Do you find that the two careers help or hinder each other?

A journalist, and a comedian, have to look at any topic from every angle possible, and regardless of their personal bias, present it in a way that makes it more accessible for everyone. The journalist’s agenda is the ugliest truth. The comedian’s agenda is also the ugliest truth, as long as it’s couched in a joke about penises. For me, doing both means remembering which one has need for the dick joke.

Freedom of speech is an issue that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing. What do you think the relationship between freedom of speech and comedy is? Do you think comedians have particular responsibilities? Do these responsibilities differ from other kinds of public presenters?

Comedy is the true frontier of free speech. More so than any other profession, comedians need access to unfettered freedom of speech, so they can work out their ideas on stage without fear or oppressive censorship. That’s why, whenever society draws a new line, it’s the comedians who fall afoul of it first, because they’re the one’s whose art depends on transgression. The only ones afraid of comedians are cowards afraid of being the punchline. Everyone else knows, it’s the court jester’s prerogative to point out the emperor has no clothes.

The only responsibility a comedian has is to be funny. Everything else is negotiable.

You also have a recent comedy album out called Punching Down. What do you think of the idea that comedians should be ‘punching up’? What does ‘punching up’ mean to you?

I think when comedians say comedy is about “punching up”, they’re exhibiting false modesty. In every comedian’s ego, there is no one above us; because we’re each the smartest, fastest and funniest person in the room. We’re the uppest of the up. A good comedian is better than a great politician, a brilliant composer, or most learned intellectual. At least that’s what we all think. So the truth is, everyone we make fun of, is us punching down. But people hate knowing how low we think of them, so we have to say nonsense like, “comedy is about punching up.”

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald a few years ago, you mention that you began doing comedy by performing on Second Life. In 2019, that seems like such a bizarre beginning. What was it like? How was the transition to real life stand up? Has it shaped how you perform at all?

I didn’t start in Second Life, but I did hone my craft in Second Life. At the time, in Pakistan, there were no comedy clubs or open mics. There are still no comedy clubs, but there’s more of a comedy community now. But back then, it was just a handful of us, performing once or twice a year to audiences in the know. I knew I could only get better by performing regularly, so I took to doing comedy sets live on Second Life. I performed as a steampunk gentleman chimpanzee, in post-apocalyptic ruins and underwater palaces, to audiences from around the world, who paid me enough in the in-world currency for it to translate into a sizeable side-income in real life. I even, briefly, had a real life TV comedy show that started as a Second Life performance. I think, then and now, I’ve always had a commitment to stand-up comedy, which meant whether I had to go into an online virtual world in Pakistan, drive several hours from a country town in WA to Perth every day for gigs, or do a full festival run in Melbourne despite having to wake up at 3:30 am every week day.

What advice do you have for young Australians, particularly young Australians of colour, who are looking to get into comedy?

Get up there, as often as you can. Find your voice, by telling your own truth, your own perspective. Don’t worry about failing, because you’re going to fail more times than you’ll ever succeed. And don’t worry about not having welcoming spaces. You’re going to make them welcoming and inclusive for the next generation, by being there yourself. Despite all the nonsense in the rest of the world, true stand-up comedy is the last great meritocracy. If you show up, night after night, and learn to be funny, night after night, you’ll find your audience.

Finally, you do breakfast radio, and you’ve got a full run scheduled for MICF; you’re going to need a lot of coffee. What’s your go-to Melbourne spot?

I don’t drink coffee in cafes. I’ve tried, I really have. This is the one true Melbourne blasphemy. But I just don’t care about coffee. The taste does nothing for me, so I don’t see the point in having a local. I much prefer the Italian cappuccino I make at home on the stove top. My go-to Melbourne spots are all food related: Shujinko for Ramen, Aunty Franklee for Bak Kut Teh, Chef Lagenda for Laksa, Nerudas for Ceviche, Bar BQ Lounge for Chicken Biryani, Zia Teresa for Pasta. These are where I find my joys.

Sacrificing the Goat is on at 7:15 pm at the Melbourne Town Hall from 28 March to 21 April as part of the 2019 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets can be purchased via the MICF website.

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