This spring has been a comedy nerd’s dream come true. The last few months have brought many streamable specials from today’s best comedians, including Fahim Anwar. Anwar has been doing stand up for 14 years and this past March, Seeso released his first hour-long special: Fahim Anwar: There’s No Business Like Show Business. If you like to laugh, if you are interested in joke writing, if you want to work in comedy, you have to watch it. This isn’t a passive suggestion. Watching this special is necessary. There is nothing like a comedian’s first special–Anwar’s is a perfect example of that. His hour is impeccably structured. His joke construction is supreme, surprising, and sharpe. In this interview, read about how Anwar developed his comedic voice and how he crafted his hilarious first stand-up special.
When did you realize you wanted to be a comedian?
I think I knew pretty early on that I wanted to do comedy. I loved SNL growing up. I was like, how do people get on the show? I found out that they either came from improv or stand up. So I started stand up. The romantic Hollywood version is that I was a paper pusher and had enough one day.
Did anyone on SNL or any sketch in particular inspire you?
I think that when I was researching it, I saw half and half—some improv and stand up. I saw that Dana Carvey was a stand-up, Kevin Nealon was a stand-up, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler. Those were guys I loved and admired.
How did you develop your voice as a comedian?
I think the beauty of when you’re first doing stand-up is that you don’t really know your voice. There is a charm of throwing anything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Another 14 years deep, I know my voice. When I think of an idea, I know how to package it and everything. You never get those years back where you’ll try the craziest things. Like now I’ll have an idea and be like, “I can’t do that.” There is naivety when you’re younger to do anything.
I think with developing your voice overtime it’s just trial and air. With my comedy, I’ve always been guided by what I thought was funny myself. Hopefully the audience would find it funny as well. When people are first starting they just want to laugh. They’ll do anything they think will make the audience laugh. There’s a detachment between them and the material. You should always start with what you think it’s funny. Then hopefully the audience will [be receptive]. And if not, tweak it or go to the next thing.
I loved you’re special. There are so many specials coming out this spring, but I think your set had such original, new material with awesome construction.
That’s really cool to hear because there are so many specials from heavyweights coming out. Chapelle has two. Louis has one. To stick out of the crowd and for anyone to even see it is nice to hear. We’re saturated with so much content out there. Like, who am I, you know? [Fahim laughs] I’m a good comic but I don’t have a high-profile.
Something I’ve noticed with some of the heavyweights is the deterioration of their joke construction. There’s nothing lazy about what you’re putting out there.
This happens in hip-hop as well. The first album is just so pure and there’s the luxury of coming out of nowhere. No one’s comparing it to prior work. So no one’s been exposed to me and also its my first product. There’s this hunger as an artist that I think is hard to replicate. Louis is coming out with like his sixth special or whatever, He’s competing with himself. He’s been told, “Yes,” a lot.
How did your Seeso special come about?
What’s funny is that I have been trying to find a home for this hour for a long time. I feel like I have been ready to have a sour for like two or three years. Even if you’re talented, as an unknown, it’s a harder sell. I think a lot of outlets want to keep their jobs, so it’s gotta make sense on paper. When we were trying to get an hour, people would only have bits and pieces to form this image of what I am: a late night set on here, a clip or sketch there. Then they’d hit a dead end.
I was about to shoot my own special because I was tired of waiting. I knew I could do this thing. I was tired of getting “Nos.” I wanted to grow as an artist and I wanted to do other stuff. So I was going to shoot on my own. But then it hit me, they’re just saying no to the idea of me doing a special. They don’t even know what my full hour is. I was doing a headlining we can in La Jolla— the Comedy Store in La Jolla. I brought a buddy to help me. We shot it with two consumer grade cameras, the audio from the soundboard. We got together proof our concept of what the hour would be. Then we sent that around and response was much better. They were looking at what [the set] would be. They didn’t have to extrapolate what this would be in practice. Then I realized, you have to cut the stake for them in Hollywood. No one has imagination. Imagination is lacking these days. You literally have to put it up in front of them.
So I sent it around. Comedy Dynamics liked it and they had a deal with Seeso. They were so supportive and let me do whatever I wanted to do. There’s something nice about just showing up and doing it. They took care of all the other production elements of it.
Leading up to the shooting date, how did you prep the hour? Did you have to make any adjustments from what you did at the Comedy Store to make sure it translated on screen?
Once I knew that I had the hour, I had a general idea of what I wanted to do and what I wanted the hour to be. I started by writing down all the bits I would want to do for the hour. And then I started plotting them into a set list: what I believed would be the best flow, how it would work thematically, what made the most sense. I didn’t want there to be any jarring transitions during the set.
I had my agents set up some tour dates to run the hour a ton. What’s great about stand up is that you get immediate feedback; the audience informs you as to what works and what doesn’t. There were jokes that would do well in a 15-minute set that would ruin the flow for an hour set. I didn’t want to sacrifice the fluidity of my set. If I wanted to fight for a bit, I’d find another place where it could connect. Doing an hour set is a different art from doing a shorter set. At first when you’re doing comedy you have to think about how you’re going to write a joke. The next level beyond that is, how do those jokes fit and intertwine with one another? A music analogy would be like a song to a playlist.
Your comedy is a little bit of everything: characters, physicality, verbal humor and wit. Do you try to vary the type of jokes you have in your sets? Or is it more whatever comes to you?
I think it’s more whatever comes to me. I was born in Seattle. I’m very American. I’m Afghan and that is a part of me. I do address it somewhat in the special, but it doesn’t dictate all of my comedy. It’s an element. I find the world to be funny. I’m very observational. Whatever find funny, I want to work it into my stand up somehow. If I feel like I have an angle that’s right to developed. From doing this so long I’ve learned how to package these ideas and flush them out into a larger chunk instead of just one joke. When you do a lot of tiny jokes with different themes, it can be jarring…Jokes are like Lego pieces to me: different colored Lego pieces. They’re floating around in my mind and then I just figure out how to slide them together to make a set.
What’s your advice for aspiring comedians?
You can’t skip steps. You have to put the work in. It’s not something you can do every three months. It’s analogous to working out. Get on stage five times a week. People like to talk about networking and all that stuff to shortcut the work. Get on stage. Grind. That’s the only way. It is a journey. Some people want it now but just enjoy the process. It takes however long it takes. Settle down and enjoy the ride. ♦