Though Sami Shah’s show is named after his 2015 memoir, much of the material is current. I have read the memoir and seen his TedX video and still found in his hour several entirely new and hilarious bits.
Whilst his cosmopolitan sophistication is always obvious, Sami’s manner and subject matter come across as very boy-next-door. He tells a good fart joke, dissects his own narcissism, angsts about the zombie apocalypse, laments Internet dating woes, and sighs about having to fund his comedy habit doing soul-sucking advertising or thrilling but deadly newsroom journalism. He paints a silly and moving portrait of the frustrations of single fatherhood without descending into cheap melodrama or men’s rights activist self-pity. With his thick cut-last-month tresses and dark window-pane jacket, he combines a boyish earnestness with the gravitas of highly educated, well-travelled, storied, accomplished 37-year-old creative professional.
(Photo supplied by Sami Shah)
The average boy next door, however, has never risked losing his life over a blasphemy charge, seen a corpse’s lungs on fire, gotten tweeted at by the Taliban, or been mistaken for an asylum seeker.
An ex-Muslim, Pakistan-born-and-bred, U.S.-educated man forced to live three years in rural Western Australia before settling in inner-city Melbourne, Sami has much to say about race relations in Australia. He discusses the hypocrisy of the notion of stopping boats at sea in order to save asylum seeker lives. He explores how travel, which means freedom and leisure for white travellers, is an invitation to humiliating discrimination by international government authorities. He points out how Australian cities react differently to his material on race (Spoiler: marvellous multicultural Melbourne doesn’t get off easy). He pulls no punches but handles the heavyweight stuff with nuance. His humour is punctuated with breathy exclamation marks but never feels didactic; he is a storyteller, not a schoolmaster. And he is so full of stories that it’s hard to imagine him ever running out of steam.
Sometimes exciting stories risk being told with mediocre style; sometimes it is too easy to let an interesting life tell itself, with no room for further reflection or attention to how a storyteller’s expressive powers might be best deployed. But it is precisely the most exciting stories that should be handled with the greatest care. Only by making unusual and potentially unsympathetic scenes and characters come alive and become unforgettable, does the storyteller’s mastery of craft becomes evident. Sami’s show is an exercise in smart, humorous characterisation and scene development. Just when you think you’ve figured him out, he comes at you with a twist that has you laughing, not just at the joke but at your own limited imagination.
A final note:
As the title suggests, much of the show is about the immigrant experience. It’s tough to be a first-generation migrant, and not always for the reasons Australians think. Language barriers and cultural differences are often believed to be the biggest obstacles to happily-ever-after integration of new immigrants into mainstream Australia. Sami’s Melbourne debut hour shows the irony of having to fight a battle that is usually associated with second-generation immigrants, a struggle for recognition as an English-speaking, socially liberal, arts-loving, politically engaged subject highly capable and willing to take on the burden of active citizenship. In a time when the mantle of citizenship is worn lightly, there are new immigrants who invest their newly acquired residency and citizenship rights with a deep-seated intensity that surprises those who don’t know what it’s like to permanently uproot their lives and pack up their bags forever, with absolutely no idea of what’s waiting on the other end.