IT’S Friday night, and Lazy Susan’s Comedy Den in this West Australian city is packed. Among the lineup of performers is Sami Shah, late of Karachi, Pakistan.
His 15-minute routine is peppered with the issues of the day: a looming national election, racism in multicultural Australia and the country’s seemingly intractable problem of boat people seeking asylum from far-flung places, including his birth country, Pakistan.
“They’re illegal immigrants. They’re taking our jobs. I hear that one a lot,” he told the audience, interjecting the odd expletive for emphasis. “What do we do?” Try being better at your job, he counseled.
“If a guy who’s spent the last two weeks on a boat, can’t speak the language, lost half his family on the trip over, then spent two years in Nauru can take your job away from you,” he told his listeners, then they should lift their game by upgrading their LinkedIn profiles.
“That’s all I’m saying.” Mr. Shah, 35, moved with his wife, Ishma Alvi, 34, and their daughter,
Anya, 4, to Australia a little over a year ago. In Karachi, where Mr. Shah was making a name for himself as a comedian, some people failed to see the humor in his work. The death threats alone did not drive him away, but with the birth of Anya, the couple finally decided to leave.
Unlike refugees who must apply for asylum, the family was able to immigrate on a skilled migrant visa because Ms. Alvi, who studied in Australia, where she has other relatives, is a psychologist.
There was, however, a catch.
To provide services to rural communities, Australia sometimes requires migrants with certain skills to live in small towns for the first two years, after which they are free to move anywhere.
“I’m on a visa that says I can live in Australia for two years, but I have to spend those two years in regional Western Australia,” he told the audience. “Which lets me live in Australia for two years, but makes me feel like I never left a third-world country in the first place.”
The couple grew up in Karachi, where Ms. Alvi’s mother founded Pakistan’s first nongovernmental organization aimed at helping female victims of sexual violence. Mr. Shah earned an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Virginia in 2002.
Back in Pakistan, he did a stint in advertising before becoming a journalist, a producer of a political satirical television show and then one of the country’s first stand-up comedians in English.
His routine there included jokes about such things as Pakistan’s uneasy relationship with the United States and suicide bombings. But Mr Shah, a nonpracticing Shia, soon learned that religion was off limits when a member of the audience told him to stop midway through a performance.
It was a world away from Northam, a town of 7,000 people in the Wheat Belt of Western Australia that is also home to a detention center for 600 asylum seekers.
Northam’s social life revolves around the pub or the high school parking lot, where residents gather next to their pickup trucks for beer-fueled weekend afternoons watching the local Australian-rules football team.
Shortly after Mr. Shah arrived in the town, a local who saw him at the Woolworths grocery store thought he was a refugee on the loose from the detention center. That and other slices of his odd-couple relationship with his new home were to become grist for his comedy routines.
But not right away. He first did some freelancing as a graphic designer and a radio commentator, but mostly he became a stay-at-home father, minding his daughter while his wife went to work. He got depressed. “I was definitely worried about him,” Ms. Alvi said over a burger lunch at Fitzgeralds Hotel in Northam. “There were a lot of days coming home and finding him eating straight from a jar of Nutella.”
So when Mr. Shah announced that he wanted to pick up his career as a stand-up comedian in Australia, she was cautiously supportive.
His first attempts at getting a gig in Perth, about 60 miles from Northam, were met with a mixture of bemusement and disbelief. “I’m sure that to them a comedian from Pakistan made about as much sense as a kickboxer from Geneva,” he said.
After Mr. Shah complained in a newspaper interview about the lack of a bookstore or a cinema in the town, the couple worried it would be even harder to fit in. In Pakistan he was never certain which remarks might lead to violence, but all the couple got in Northam were a few glares, “which you can actually live with,” said a relieved Mr. Shah. Since then his career has taken off. He won an award at the Perth International Comedy Festival this year and has been featured on “Australian Story,” a documentary series produced by Australia’s national broadcaster.
That has led to corporate bookings and to regular performances not just in Perth, but around Western Australia.
ONSTAGE, Mr Shah is a swaggering dynamo, despite his diminutive physique, a nervous energy ebbing and flowing as he meanders between drawn-out setups and tight punch lines. With a beard, Buddy Holly-style glasses and a perpetually wrinkled black hooded sweatshirt, he has the slightly disheveled look of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
“Everyone asks me, ‘Where do you come from?’” he says in a typical routine. When he tells them he is from Pakistan, the questioner often asks suspiciously, “And how’d you get here?” His retort: “I tell them the truth. I took the boat a few times. I got sent back. But I collected enough miles to upgrade to Qantas, and I flew in.”
And then there’s what he calls the “obligatory shark bit.” Mr. Shah says he read in the local newspaper that the state government was so alarmed about the increased number of attacks that it was “thinking of revoking the shark’s status as an endangered species.” Surprising, he says, because “I didn’t realize that being on the endangered species list was dependent on good behavior. It’s not like it’s a United Nations sanction, you understand that, right?”
He is mindful that but for his particular circumstances, he, too, might have become one of the asylum seekers he jokes about. He criticizes Australia as racist and slightly backward. But one of the great strengths of his delivery is that it allows the audience to assume that he is really talking about someone else. On this night, the packed house roared its approval.
“Everyone knows that Australia is sort of racist, but he got to that point without” offending anyone, said Amy Hutchinson, 27, after the show.
She added, “It was really intelligent and well spoken, and everyone watching was like, ‘Yep, that’s the case.’”
A year from now, when the two-year visa requirement expires, Mr. Shah and his family hope to put the difficult days of settling into Northam behind them and relocate to Melbourne so that he can continue his comedy career in a bigger market.
“If it ends up with Anya growing up in a country where she is safe and secure and has a future that she can decide what she wants to be, then, yes, it will have totally been worth it,” he said.- The New York Times. –New York Times