As a headliner, Yemeni-born comic Ali Sultan has helped build a comedy tribe around him. "White comics don’t see you as a comic right away when you’re a person of color or an immigrant," he says. "Same with the audience." Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Over the last decade, the Twin Cities comedy scene has witnessed a transformation that reflects the size and diversity of the region’s immigrant community. At venues around the cities, comics are using their personal experiences, not only to make audiences laugh but to build bridges across cultures. 

Yemeni-born Ali Sultan has helped pave the way. For the past nine years, Sultan has worked the stand-up scene in Minnesota and the country, bringing his experience and insights with him. He has become a featured act at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis and a headlining act on the road. 

But he is also a role model and mentor. Ali has introduced several comedians to Minnesota’s comedy fans and helped create a network of diverse comedians with his own comedy shows. Among this group of up-and-coming comedians are Moe Yaqub, an immigrant from Pakistan;  and Ahmed Khalaf and Daina Ali, both born in Somalia. 

“Stand up,” says Ali, “is the one job where everything you went through shows up.” And everyone, regardless of whether they are a white, native-born Minnesotan or an immigrant, goes through stuff.

“We all have family issues. We all have bosses. We all have awkward situations where we try to do our best,” says Daina, who got her start in Minneapolis but now is based in Seattle. 

The four comedians spoke with Sahan Journal about their craft, their experiences in transforming the Twin Cities comedy scene, and what they hope to see for the future. Their comments have been edited for clarity. 

“The only person who looked like me on TV was Aziz Ansari”: (left to right) Ali Sultan, Moe Yaqub, Ahmed Khalaf, Daina Ali

How did you get your start in comedy?

Ali Sultan: I started comedy close to nine years ago in Minnesota. I just went to Acme’s open mic night. It was Martin Luther King Day and I just kind of tried three minutes and the rest is history. I did at least seven mics a week and wrote as much as I could. I performed at the Gong Show, 2 Stooges, Willy’s, House of Comedy, and Acme. 

Moe Yaqub: I’ve been doing comedy for four and a half years. I’m an immigrant from Pakistan, born and raised there. I moved to America nine years ago. I used to be a television actor in Pakistan and wanted to get back into acting, but I didn’t know where to start. 

The only person who looked like me on TV was Aziz Ansari, so I looked him up. It said he had started his career as a stand-up comedian. At that time I didn’t know what stand-up comedy was. I YouTubed it, and was like okay, you go on stage and say funny things. Two hours later I did my first open mic. 

Ahmed Khalaf: I got into stand up when I was in college. We used to kick it outside and there was a comic there by the name of Drew Haher. He and I just became friends, and when we kicked it in our friend group, I’d make people laugh with stories. Drew turned to me and said, ‘Hey man you know you’re really funny, and you could do what I do.’ 

He took me from my house to the clubs and introduced me to people. Plus he was looking for someone to do it with, because it is a lonely experience.

Daina Ali: I was turning 30 and I started a bucket list of things I wanted to do. One of them was to get up on stage and do stand-up comedy. I’ve always been a huge fan of stand up, but didn’t have the guts to do it. 

I did three minutes at Comedy Underground at the Corner Bar. I had tons of written jokes from over the years and I had enough to pick for those three minutes. I was so nervous I didn’t really know what was happening. I went through it, did the motions, heard some laughter, got off stage, and had a full panic attack. What I got out of it was this instant, crazy high from hearing laughter from something I said, and I was like, ‘I want to keep doing this.’

When did you find your tribe in the comedy scene? 

Ali: I probably created the tribe, to be honest. When I started it was predominately white guys. Once my name got out there and started getting some notoriety by winning contests and being on TV, I think that inspired other people to show up, or at least they saw an example of success. 

White comics don’t see you as a comic right away when you’re a person of color or an immigrant. Same with the audience. They’re like, ‘Aww cute, he’s doing stand up!’ I can see that especially if I’m pushing the envelope on stage, people are like, ‘Why don’t you stay in a box?’

A lot of people are reluctant to take a person of color or immigrant on the road. If I see a POC and they’re taking this seriously, I make sure I take ’em on the road or put them on shows that I produce. 

Daina: Your love for the craft and wanting to try is essentially what people notice and kind of respect in the comedy scene. Not every joke is going to be good, especially when you’re starting out. Eventually I started to get to know quite a few people. I looked up online what other open mics there were, but there was a lot of ‘You can’t do this mic, we don’t know you. You’re new, you have to put in your dues’ kind of thing. I had to look for open mics that were essentially more welcoming to new people. Minnesota actually has quite a few of them. 

Ahmed: The thing is, all comics are a tribe. There are different cliques, but it’s the same tribe. You vibe with who you vibe with, naturally. You gravitate towards who you think is funny and somebody you can have a conversation with. I keep it real with the real. 

I have friends like Ali and Mo who are successful guys. I wouldn’t say we’re part of a group, but we all work at Acme together and I love those guys. They’re my friends and I have others who don’t work there, but who are on their way up.

Moe: It’s hard to connect with people right away, but the key is you keep doing it, put your head down, work hard enough, and focus on comedy. I was in comedy for a while before I had a proper introduction with any of the other brown comics or even white comics in the scene. Once you start doing that, people will start recognizing you and work with you.

How much of your experience and cultural identity comes through your work?

Ali: Chappelle said it best. Comedy is a craft where you use everything that you know. Stand up is the one job where everything you went through shows up. Whether you talk about it or not, you carry it. I’m kind of confrontational on stage, and that’s because that’s my culture. It’s how we grew up. I also draw from the stories of my life, which is a big part of it because you are what the world perceives you as,and comedy is the space to talk about it. 

Moe: My goal in comedy is to tell my own story so that people can relate to that, so when they think of a Pakistani guy or Muslim guy, they think of me. My thing is to never alienate the audience. But how do I bring them together at the same focal point? I can only do that if I’m true to myself. 

Daina: A lot of my standup is about either real stories that happened to me or secondary stories where there’s some truth to them. A lot of them have to do with me being a woman or my race or interactions with people. I do come off as different to a lot of people, and they don’t know what to make of me. That’s something that I try to exploit on stage. Especially with white audiences, there’s certain truths that we have. We all have family issues. We all have bosses. We all have awkward situations where we try to do our best. 

Ultimately what I think I found doing stand up is the idea that comedy kind of just glues people together. It’s a way for people to bridge gaps and communicate. 

Ahmed: I feel as though identity to the outsider is very important to stand up. They want to know about identity politics and what kind of person you are. They want you to put yourself in a box. The problem is these identity games are the antithesis of comedy. I allow my experiences to dictate what I speak about, because experiences are far more powerful. I was Somali before comedy. My experiences are my truth and I feel like that’s where the real funny lies. 

What would you like to see in the future?

Ali: I’d like to see more of the same. A lot of times in the scene what happens is, toxic people get into the top tier and then create a toxic culture. Those types of people attract the same type of people. I think I’m part of the new wave, and as far as the top tier comedians I’m the most active and contribute to the scene. I help book, I help build showcases, get all types of people on the road as the most successful immigrant comedian. 

Because I’m in that position of power, I get to set a trend where I’m not going to make this like some high school drama or cliquey thing, or be abusive and attract only people like me. We’re just being people and helping out, it’s trickling down. 

Ahmed: I would just like to see comedians of all ilk, but who are focused on comedy. There are gatekeepers, and they will try to hold you back, but if you are funny and if you work hard, you will trounce any obstacle. Just work on you, keep a good head on your shoulders. There’s no stopping you. You have to be so funny that they can’t hold you back. 

Moe: Our scene in terms of brown people is great. We all have our own individual voices, perspectives, and things that we talk about that separates us from one another. It’s very open here and anybody can start and join in. I didn’t even know what standup comedy was four years ago and now I’m doing all these shows with big name people. 

Daina: I think Minneapolis is on this unique path compared to other cities. I want to see it continue and evolve. It’s opening up. You see a lot of opportunities and mics with more people and more voices. 

Nobody wants to see the same trope and the same kind of person or hear the same kind of jokes. Diversity not only gives a voice to people, but at the same time, I think it opens up an opportunity for people to just hear new stories. There’s no such thing as a standard story. 

Abdirahman Mohamed is a Somali journalist, filmmaker, and contributing reporter for Sahan Journal. Born in Mombasa, Kenya, Abdirahman was raised in St. Paul’s East Side. He works as a producer and specializes...