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Interfaith Comedians Find Virtue in Laughter

June 2008
Interfaith Comedians Find Virtue in Laughter

First came interfaith dialogue; now there’s also interfaith comedy. So besides “make love, not war,” we have “make chai, not war,” which is the tag line used by Rajiv Satyal and Azhar Usman, a comic duo who can be seen as counterparts to HinJews (Hindus and Jews). In this case, though, we could call them HinMus (Hindu and Muslim). Their aim—modest rather than lofty—is to bridge the religious gap through humor.

In the American Midwest, Satyal had a typical—well, not so typical—upbringing. Keen on shedding his ‘geeky’ image, he tried hard to become the class clown; instead he was made the class president. It didn’t get much better when he applied to colleges. The application forms for Indians like him, Satyal jokes, came with the ‘pre-med’ box already checked. So he settled for a degree in engineering and became a working stiff at Proctor & Gamble, where he specialized in marketing. But Satyal, being persistent, eventually found his inner comic and graduated, so to speak, in clowning. Now he’s one of a handful of well-known Indian American comedians.

Usman, too, grew up in the Midwest, although he studied law before ending up as a comedian. It was the fallout of 9/11 that pushed Usman in a new direction. This former lawyer and lecturer, having discovered the power of comedy to bring people together, is also a community activist. He belongs to a Muslim comedy troupe called “Allah Made Me Funny.” A devout Muslim who sports a long beard and a skullcap, Usman embraces the moniker ‘Bin Laughing.’ Which just goes to show that he takes the business of being funny very seriously.

Another interfaith group that thrives on humor refers to their act as “Coexist Comedy.” The California-based performers include a Christian (John), a Jew (Chad), a Hindu (Tapan), a Muslim (Tissa) and an atheist (Keith). Born and raised in India, Tapan Trivedi became a performer in this country only after being dragged—literally—to the stage by his friends. How did Trivedi manage to read the Bible while traveling in the American South? “One billboard at a time,” he points out, tongue-in-cheek. Trivedi, who draws on his immigrant experiences, punctuates his act with the line “I can’t understand America.”

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