Panel discusses rise of Muslim comedians

Dr. Samah Choudhury, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Ithaca College, spoke Friday, Jan. 21 on the disjointed rise of the Muslim American comedian.

Prof. Katherine Merriman of the Islamic Studies program moderated the talk which was viewed by approximately 100 people live via Zoom.  

The 40-minute presentation covered topics of racialization, progressive consensus, neocolonial masculinity and approximation of American Blackness. 

Controversial Muslim American comedian Aziz Ansari served as Choudhury’s focal point. Ansari gained fame initially for his portrayal of Tom Haverford on the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation.” Ansari is also the creative engine behind Netflix show “Master of None” which completed its third season last year. His most recent standup, filmed in New York City’s famed Comedy Cellar in December 2021, premiered on the streaming service last month.

In her upcoming book, tentatively titled “American Muslim Humor, Secular Aesthetics, and the Politics of Recognition”, Choudhury also examined two other Muslim comedians, though  neither has achieved the fame Ansari has.  

Choudhury’s talk utilized footage from Ansari’s standup shows as well as other informational slides.

Choudhury, who specializes in Islamic Studies, humor and comedy and race and gender, was also a recent recipient of the award for outstanding research on Muslim Americans from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in 2021. 

She opened her talk by expressing the hope that by “upholding diversity and difference as a civic and social American beauty… this colors the lens through which we think…” 

Choudhury sees Ansari and other Muslim comedians’ views of Islam and being Muslim as “a mode of secular discourse.”

“The expression of humor is a central signifier of the modern 21st century Western self and subject,” she said.  “By examining it this way, we can understand what makes one legible in that image.”

Muslim comedians center religion in their stand-up routines, unlike Dave Chappelle, who is also Muslim by way of conversion in 1991 but chooses to not discuss it publicly.  

A brief question-and-answer period rounded out Choudhury’s talk. 

Choudhury’s presentation was brought to Detroit Mercy by the Islamic Studies program, the Department of Religious Studies and the Women and Gender Studies program.