In March last year, Comedian Usama Siddique was at the crossroads of his life. He was awaiting his turn to audition at America's Got Talent (AGT). Eight hours after he was in the greenroom, Usama was called on stage in front of the judges. The judging panel included Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum and Sofia Vergara (whom Usama thinks is more gorgeous in real life).
What did Usama Siddique, the first Bangladeshi on the stage of AGT, have to offer? A recap of his yesteryears can answer.
His Bangladeshi parents had erupted when he chose stand-up comedy over medical school. He took the road less taken, but funnier. Now, 29-year-old Usama was squatting in New York. He could barely cover his bills. Small gigs at small clubs paid little, but he continued to carve out his future in stand-up.
Usama was born to Bangladeshi parents in Canada. But his frequent visits to Bangladesh held his ties to this country. His Bengali accent is sharp. When The Business Standard reached out for an interview, Usama flipped to Bangla whenever needed and told us about his journey.
Back to the stage of AGT. As host Terry Crews ushered him to the stage, Usama announced: "I am a comedian. My worst gig was my brother's wedding."
Usama's slot was short. He had only two minutes to make the judges laugh. He started by clarifying he is not associated with the terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Later, a few racial jokes and the audience were chuckling back and forth.
On that night, Usama received a Golden buzzer; meaning, all the judges were impressed and wanted to see him in the next round. It is quite a rare feat in the talent show. Not many contestants get it.
Just years ago, comedy was alien to Usama. "I did not know how to do stand-up until I met a friend who did," Usama confessed from New York via Zoom.
His friend took him to a club in Dallas. When Usama saw his friend performing, a lightbulb flickered. "Why don't you do comedy yourself ": the voice inside his head told his heart.
Comedy is hard. Even George Bernard Shaw agrees. Usama's first shot at comedy was passable. He went to a club in Dallas. Just before midnight, he got onto the stage. "The jokes were bad, but the people laughed," Usama said.
Was it beginner's luck? We asked.
"Sort of," Usama chuckled.
Rightfully so. Because the next eight gigs were horrible for him. "No one laughed at my jokes," Usama recalled his career lows.
This one time, Usama was watching the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." It was about the life of a Sushi master in Japan. It sparked inspiration in Usama. "I knew what I wanted to do then, which is a comedy," Usama said.
But which Bangladeshi parent would be okay with their son suddenly quitting medical school? Usama politely rebelled. "Sorry ammu, I am going to be a comedian," he said to his mom.
"All right, go be poor!" his furious mother said.
We always hear celebrities romanticising their struggle. People go to New York, stay homeless and bingo, one fateful audition puts them on the couch of success. But Usama dispels this "Shakespearean" notion.
"When I moved out of my parent's, I did not have money. All I knew was I have to eat. But looking back, I do not find it worth glorifying," Usama said.
At that time, Usama was doing all sorts of things a jobless man would do. Stealing from groceries, check. living in abandoned houses, check. As Usama put it, "comedy is the worst investment," and he was living the consequences.
But good days were about to roll. One fine morning, an email popped up on Usama's screen. It was an invitation from a producer who knew people at AGT. "Hey, would you be interested to audition at AGT? I believe they will like your stand-up," the producer wrote.
So, how was his first day at AGT?
"I was nervous. The contestants were diversely talented. It is no easy deal to win at AGT," Usama said. When people like Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum and Sofia Vergara sealed your fate in the show, it was an acid test for Usama to prove "Yes, I am funny."
Impressing the judges was tough. "Heidi Klum was the toughest," Usama said how the supermodel reacted when he cracked a risqué "unfeminist" joke. After all, comedians are supposed to make fun of issues. Usama did it well without sounding woke.
"I had to name-drop Simon Cowell in a joke. I was terrified whether he would be pissed at me!" Usama laughed. No, Simon was not off. Matter of fact, he loved Usama's set.
Usama thinks people are unreasonably "woke" these days. "It is so unhealthy. There is no heart to always being woke," he recalled about the media backlash he faced when his so-called "controversial" jokes offended people.
"Comedy begets humiliation. If you are making fun of something, it requires a dose of humiliation per se. But that does not allow you to cancel anything you want," Usama added.
Besides stand-up, Usama co-hosts a podcast with his best friend Pranav Bihari. It is called "Mango Bae," where the duo talks nonsense and has fun with guests. "From Hasan Minhaj to Uber drivers, we have had diverse people on the show," he said. "It is important to myth bust the Brown people stereotypes."
After his AGT success, Usama is also doing acting gigs. His parents are happy now. They are going through the "I am proud of my son" phase and Usama hopes it will never end.