INNER VIEWS WITH ZUBI AHMED
Afsana Ahmed: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Zubi Ahmed: I’m Zubi Ahmed, I’m a comedian, writer, director and I was born in Chicago, raised in New York. I love donuts and watching television. And bothering my siblings.
AA: Where did you grow up in New York?
ZA: I grew up in East New York, at the border of Queens and Brooklyn. So if anybody knows New York very well, you’ll know Liberty Ave. I lived in that weird intersection where Brooklyn meets Queens, where nobody can find me. I give people my address and they’re like, “I can’t find… yeah no.” I just tell them to take the A train.
AA: Did you like growing up there?
ZA: When I was growing up there, I actually hated it. But now that I’m getting older, I’m starting to see all the things that made me who I am today. I hated it because you know, we were getting a huge influx of Bengali immigrants. Not saying I hate Bengali immigrants, but because of that, my parents were really strict with me and I couldn’t go out or do things I love like riding my bicycle and rollerblading because of the older Bengali people outside that might have something to say about it. I wish I didn’t have that experience, but now that I’m getting older, I see how much of this neighborhood changed me. It’s so culturally diverse and this area would be really hard to gentrify. We have needs in this neighborhood that Starbucks can’t give us. I’m really proud to be where I’m from, other than those instances where my mom would be like, “Put a scarf on before you leave the house!” and I would be like, no…
AA: Oh my God. I can relate. Actually, I still get that.
ZA: Me too. But now I’m just like, ok bye Mom.
AA: Was there anything you watched or did as a child that indicated your love for comedy?
ZA: My dad introduced me to (laughs) the Three Stooges. You know, slapstick is so looked down upon, but slapstick is universal comedy. Immigrants can understand it, and that’s why I appreciate it so much. High brow comedy is the thing now, but who doesn’t laugh when they see someone get slapped in the face? I grew up watching Three Stooges, I Love Lucy and a lot of those black and white sitcoms that I could enjoy with my parents. Nowadays, you can’t really watch comedy shows with your parents because you never really know what’s gonna happen. Like, I thought this was PG-13! That’s what I grew up watching with my parents, and we also loved SNL.
AA: Did you grow up watching any Bengali comedy, any natoks? I feel like Bengali people are such clowns and natural-born comedians. They just don’t know that a comedy is a thing you can do professionally and get paid for.
ZA: Yeah, I agree. It’s so great that you brought up natoks. Did your parents ever make you watch Ityadi?
AA: Oh my God, I watched Ityadi all the time. I think it really influenced me as a kid. Can you explain what Ityadi is?
ZA: Ityadi is a variety show, similar to SNL. They have one host, this nerdy brown guy with glasses (Hanif Sanket) and I look at him and think, Uncle. He introduces the sketches and different segments. One of the things I remember really well is the Mr. Bean sketches, where they would have Mr. Beans videos, and then dub them with Bengali dialogue. So funny, and so dumb. But that was the shit that I grew up on. It was just so good. Natoks are good too. Bengalis are so good at satire.
AA: I’m so glad you brought up Ityadi, it was buried in the crevice of my memories but I just realized how much it has influenced me. There were so many brilliant sketches on it, and pranks, and that recurring segment where they would have white people do their own skits while they talk in Bangla… so funny.
ZA: Now I really want to watch an episode. I don’t remember the titles of the funny natoks I grew up watching, but I remember enjoying them with my parents very much. Nowadays my parents are really into ZTV and whatnot. The drama shows are so annoying. Like how many times can this couple get kidnapped?! I don’t understand. But yeah, Bengali people are truly just naturally funny. I think it comes with coping with the trauma of being a nation of people who were oppressed for so long.
AA: What are your favorite comedy shows? All-time, and some recent favorites.
ZA: For all-time, I would say I Love Lucy. I love that show so much, it’s timeless. Watching a woman be as funny and silly as she is, and being allowed to be that dumb is amazing. I think you understand this as a Bengali girl, we were taught that we have to be more mature and carry ourselves in a different way, and told we can’t laugh too loud or take up too much space in a room. Be invisible, but be respectful; all these rules are put on us. Then you see women like Lucy, and you think, 'I want that for myself!' That’s who I am. Clumsy and dumb and just having fun, living life. It’s refreshing to see stuff like that. Now we don’t see a lot of I Love Lucy type comedy, I don’t think. I love Brooklyn 99, but I can’t watch it with my parents, because they won’t get it. Not because they’re dumb, they’re smart people, but they have no context for the comedy. Without slapstick, it’s just dialogue for them. It’s hard to watch that kinda stuff with your parents. I wish there was more I Love Lucy so I could watch it with them. I even watched Malibu’s Most Wanted with them. I was like, why are we watching this? This man’s ass is in our face! But they had such a good time because it was just so dumb. Stupidity translates in any language. So right now, I’m obsessed with Brooklyn 99. The writing is just incredible. The characters are so great, and that’s the type of comedy I would love to create one day. I also love Killing Eve. It’s a drama, but it’s hilarious. It’s a really good show. I think both Sandra Oh and Jodi Kulmer are both so funny in their own ways. And Barry is so fucking funny.
AA: Where did you go to college?
ZA: History major at Fordham University in the Bronx.
AA: Was it in college that you decided to pursue comedy?
ZA: discovered my passion for writing television in college. We grow up in these low-income neighborhoods where resources are not available to us, and we just don’t know the shit that’s out there and how it works. I didn’t know people wrote for television.
AA: I didn’t know it was a real job.
ZA: I had no idea. How are you going to do that to people in the 'hood? How are you gonna keep it such a secret? It’s so unfair, I hate Hollywood for this. They make it look so mysterious. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t pursue comedy for such a long time because I didn’t know jobs in comedy existed. I remember watching Arthur as a kid once, and my mom was like go read a book, don’t watch TV, it’s not like you can write for them. And lo and behold, there are people writing for these shows, and I could be one of those people! It’s so crazy that we just don’t know, and that’s taking away the opportunity before we can get it. How are we going to apply ourselves if we don’t know that something exists? It makes me so angry because I grew up in a neighborhood where nothing was easily accessible, I hate the way poor people are treated. One of my biggest goals in life is to make it known to these kids that there are opportunities they can have, and this is an avenue they can take because it’s not known to kids growing up in these places. I took a class called Writing For TV Sitcoms, my last semester of college. I’ll be honest, I did not do well in college. I got to college and I was like, what the fuck is an MLA format? That sitcom class is the first class I got an A in. When I was a kid I loved writing short stories, I read a lot of books because you know, for us, that’s a form of escape. We read these books and saw a different world. I loved to make up different worlds. And I wish I followed that intuition to continue writing, and I wish that I was encouraged to do so. People would say there’s no money in it, you’re gonna be struggling, etc. But at the end of the day, I’m still struggling! I’m going to struggle no matter what. At least it’s struggling while doing what I love.
AA: So I’m assuming you wrote your first script in that class. What happened from there?
ZA: Yes, that was my first script. So, that pilot was definitely trash. (laughs). I took everything that I learned from that class and I worked on my first pilot, and I started to submit to screenwriting competitions. That shit is expensive. Fifty-nine dollars for one competition? I’m out. It’s unfair.
AA: I can’t afford fifty-nine dollars to get rejected.
ZA: Exactly. I won semi-finalist on a few competitions but didn’t win any of them. And I thought this was great, at least I’m learning a lot about the industry and writing, but I need to learn how to really get into the industry. So I started applying to film programs. I got into AFI but I didn’t go because it’s so expensive. Then I got into Brooklyn College and got my masters in Television Production. I learned so much in the two years I was there.
AA: Is that around the time you started going to open mics?
ZA: No, I actually started stand-up earlier than that. I started improv and sketch writing at UCB first. I got the diversity scholarship, and I took sketch writing classes, then improv. Improv helped my writing. It helps you get out of your head and just try to think of, what’s the next thing that makes this funnier? After that, I started going to open mics. I prefer stand-up because it forces you to write better. Because the reactions to your jokes give you instant feedback on what's working and what’s not.
AA: Does it take a great deal of confidence to do stand up knowing that you’re a Bengali woman performing in front of… not a lot of brown people? Where would you perform?
ZA: When I first started, I wanted to use my brownness as an advantage in the way where I would tell myself that my experiences are unique. I would go to Laughing Buddha, Climate Lounge. It was a lot of white people. Very white, but I was hoping that me being brown would show a different perspective to things and that comics would appreciate that. But at the end of the day, you just got to be funny. That’s all. Whether you’re white or a person of color, you really have to be funny. It’s the only way to grab their attention. Doesn’t matter what you look like. Even in Kutti Gang, I’ve been in a fully brown room and people won’t laugh at a joke from a brown comedian that’s not funny, and that’s not their fault. You just gotta be funny.
AA: Can we talk about that? What is a Kutti?
ZA: Kutti is the Bengali word for “bitch”. We named it Kutti Gang, because of… Gucci Gang.
AA: I had the pleasure of seeing my first Kutti Gang last week, it was awesome. Can you tell me everything about meeting Pooja Reddy, your co-creator, and how you both made this show?
ZA: I met Pooja at an open mic at the Creek and the Cave, hosted by five women. One of them was Fareeha Khan, another South Asian comic. I saw Pooja perform, and she killed it, she was so funny. I waited for her to finish so I could get her number so we could connect. Pooja and I just started talking, we saw each other at more open mics and we would DM each other. Our friendship moved so fast. Cause you latch on to the brown people you meet in this community because we’re so hard to find. I told her we should do a show together. We started sharing ideas with each other and I started talking to The Tank Theater. They were down with letting us host the show there, and eventually, Pooja and I decided to make a stand-up show with female South Asian comedians and showcase their talent. We went into planning, and we named it Kutti Gang. It just went off from there. We were getting nervous about ticket sales. With the first show, I was like, just thirty people showing up would be amazing. But then we started talking to Product of Culture (Product of Culture is a South Asian Creative Incubator), and they were like this is great, this is what we need in our community. They really spread the word, and once they put it on their Instagram, that was a wrap. We sold out a week ahead of schedule, and we were like holy shit. This is amazing. We cannot thank them enough for their support and involvement. All of our shows have been sold out. We just did our fourth show.
AA: Really great line-up in the last show. Aparna Nancherla blew my mind. Was the show being filmed?
ZA: Yes, the show was filmed for PBS, and it’s going to be in their streaming services.
AA: At the last show, I met your sister and cousin who were the sweetest. How does the rest of your Bengali family feel about your pursuing comedy?
ZA: So they don’t know that I’m pursuing comedy. I hide so much from my family that I’m afraid one of these days they’re just gonna find something and it’s gonna bite me in the ass. Even when I went to school, I hid the fact that I was in a TV Sitcom class. The only reason why I’m scared to tell them is because of the places you have to do comedy. At bars and basements…
AA: If they knew about the two drink minimum, it would be over.
ZA: Exactly. Yeah, I’ll tell them eventually.
AA: Let’s talk about your web-series, Polterheist.
ZA: Polterheist is a comedy about a ghost who finds someone who can finally see her and tries to get him to help her cross over to the other side. We get to see their relationship develop in these short, five minute episodes. Six in total. We see their journey together and the teacher is Usama Siddique (Bengali Comedian/Actor). He’s like, you know those teachers that try to make history cool or whatever? He’s doing his thing, and then the ghost comes into his life and disrupts it. We meet the ghost’s ex-girlfriend and her sister, and we see the ways that the ghost helps Usama’s character and also the ways that she fucks up his life.
AA: So this was your thesis. You wrote, directed, and produced it yourself. Have you learned anything new in the process? Are you looking to produce more projects?
ZA: I wanted to do a web-series because I felt like, getting noticed for your writing by agents or representation requires showcasing your own work and showing that you know how to progress a story. I love short films and all other forms of media, but I think that a web-series really challenges you to get yourself in the mindset to create characters arcs, and how to push the story forward, especially because you probably have a short amount of time to do it. I thought this story goes well with the web-series format. I don’t know yet if I want to continue Polterheist, but I’m excited just to create more, whether it’s Polterheist or a whole new project. I just want to make more content. This project has taken me to hell and back, and at times I felt like it was falling apart. But I learned a lot. Always go with your intuition. Just go with your gut. Don’t try to save money in the beginning, because it’s going to backfire. I made the mistake of doing that and I ended up spending more money in the end than I intended. I know it’s really hard financially when you’re creating things, but it’s better to raise money and just pay the right people because only you know what you want it to look like, and there are people that can help bring your vision to life. I had a wonderful team who was so down for the cause and super helpful. Without them, none of this would have been possible.
AA: Who are your favorite comedians?
ZA: I have a lot. Aparna Nancherla has paved the path for us South Asian comedians who just want to be ourselves. Sometimes I wonder, is she making jokes, or is she just saying what’s on her mind? I love her so much. And Hasan Minhaj. I found him when I was in college, around 2011. I was just like, what? There’s a brown guy doing comedy? I was so excited to see Hasan because he’s Muslim! That’s awesome. It’s so exciting to see the beginning of more Muslim comedians. Even within the community, there are so many different stories. There are so many things Hasan has said that I don’t even relate to - I didn’t go to Masjid the same way other people did. There was this one joke he made about a Toyota Camry in the parking lot and we don’t have that.
AA: Yeah, I think that Mosques in NYC are totally different. They’re very local and like… first of all, it’s just a house.
ZA: Exactly. Oh my god. It’s someone’s house.
AA: It’s a neighborhood thing, so people just walk there. Plus most people here don’t have cars. I got his reference but I can’t relate.
ZA: Yeah! I have family in Long Island and they can relate to that. They all drive to one Mosque and it’s a real unifying thing in the community. But yeah, poor people just do shit different, it doesn’t matter if you share a religion. Socioeconomic has so much to do with how you live and what you experience.
AA: Are you noticing a rise in South Asian and Muslim comics and creators?
ZA: For sure. And I think Hasan Minhaj really inspires us. Homecoming King is such a special project for people like us. A lot of the time, Muslim kids are like, who would want to hear my story? Who would want to hear about my life? We’ve been in the media for so long as the token terrorist and nothing else. Hasan is really an inspiration to me. There are comedians out there doing shows that are just incredible. Ayanna Dookie is so funny, I love her so much. And there’s Ismael Loutfi, who writes for Patriot Act. Fareeha Khan is hilarious. I aspire to be like that. I look up to Usama Siddique as well, he’s hysterical. Now that I’m doing more comedy in these spaces, I’m finding more inspiration with people who are just like me, struggling just like I am. It’s all about that camaraderie.
AA: Any future projects you can talk about?
ZA: Currently, I’m editing things for my web-series, and I have another web-series I’m working on with a couple of friends that I’m actually acting in as well. I wrote and directed, and I’m editing episode two. It’s called Token, and it’s about three friends who get really high and think that they killed their Uber driver. So they’re trying to figure out what to do with his body, and it’s so stupid and I love it so much. Other than that, just trying to work and get paid. Gonna be submitting to some film festivals. I also want to build a community of brown women and just … sit and eat with them. I want there to be education around the entertainment industry.
AA: What does work look like in the next five years?
ZA: I would love to be a show runner, which is wild to think about. I’ve been writing some pilots, and I’m really drawn to one of them. And if I’m not show-running, I would love to write for a show, be a director, and just be in that space in general.
AA: Where can we find you?
ZA: Come to our Polterheist screening on August 21st! I’ll keep you posted on the location. Follow me on Instagram @damnzoob or check out my website, if you’re I don’t know? Looking to hire? And my Twitter is @damnzoob.
AA: Thank you so much for being here today.
ZA: Thank you!