Meet Usama Siddiquee.
He’s a Bengali-American stand-up comedian (no daak nam here) hailing from Dallas and co-host of MangoBae, a raunchy podcast where anything goes – sex, religion, family, racism, cancel culture, ISIS – along with fellow comic and friend Pranav Behari.
Once on track to enter medical school and become a doctor, Usama switched gears to pursue his true calling: making people laugh. He has appeared on BET’s “50 Central,” Showtime’s “Desus and Mero,” and this year he performed on “America’s Got Talent” and struck a chord with the audience, judging by the nearly 3 million views his audition racked up.
Earlier this year, we sat down for a Zoom interview. If his South Asian upbringing wasn’t made apparent by the heavy wooden furnishings (completely with canopy bed) decorating the bedroom from where he sat in his parents’ home in Texas, it’s certainly clear by the decibel at which he responded to his mother in the background.
Forgoing the stability of a doctor title for a career track with undefined success metrics may seem like a daring move for a first-generation immigrant. But, according to Usama, it was the best decision he could have made for himself.
On the outside, we’re seeing the inspirational story of someone who strayed off the beaten path to pursue their passion. What I hear is that you were set to go to medical school and turned to comedy.
He just looked at me.
“You’re, like, revisiting my old trauma.”
On the bright side, you’re exploding on social media and you’ve got monumental experiences under your belt. Obviously, transitioning from one of the most traditional career paths for brown people to pursue probably couldn’t have been easy. Tell me your story.
“I was always on the med school path. My whole life, I was doing stuff my parents wanted me to do. The moment the MCAT ended I was like – this is the last thing I have to do for my mom until med school starts. In this interim period, let me see what I actually wanna do. I told my friend about this, and he was already doing comedy. He said yeah you can do comedy in Dallas! And it blew my fucking mind – you can do comedy?
The arcs when you’re desi, it’s very much through a wall. You think other people can do it, but even the inkling that you can pursue that…it wasn’t like ‘don’t do it’ – it was more like, ‘what do you mean, stand up?’ What is that?”
Nevertheless, he took the plunge. He describes his first foray into the spotlight.
“I was the worst comic in the world. I had Bin Laden puns. It was horrific. But it worked really well – I probably killed because my energy was just so nervous and intense, and it paraded through the writing and shocked them into laughing.
But that first reaction was so powerful. Something ignited, and I said ‘okay let me just see, secretly’. Because, first, when a Bengali finds his thing, you can’t tell anyone about it because not only are your parents not gonna like it, your friends will be like what are you talking about? You’re not funny. It’s not just ‘Desi parents shitting on us’ – we like to make it ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ But really, the entire engine is geared for you to not do this.”
It was like your trajectory pivoted once you took the MCAT. Did you have any desire to do comedy prior to that or prior to checking off that last box?
“I was funny with my friends, but I was a shy kid. I was terrified. The first time I remember making a group of people laugh…you remember Julius Caesar by Shakespeare? This would be way more inspiring if this was Rabindra Tagore.
It was the Brutus speech, I did it with a very affectatious British accent, very racist, and I remember everyone was dying. That was the first time I remember a group of people laughing because I was a shy kid. But doing that got laughs and I was like, ‘this – whatever this amorphous feeling is, I want that forever.’
And it was only the offhand comment to my friend after the MCAT when I said ‘hey I wanna do comedy,’ that made him go, ‘hey I do comedy already.’ That was fortuitous, and he locked me into that path.
I was terrified to tell anybody about it, so I kept doing it secretly. Eventually, I watched this documentary right before I had to go to med school.”
The documentary in question is called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
“It’s about this 85-year-old sushi chef who’s the best in the business. The way he described it was, ‘My whole journey, my whole reason for being is this thing that I can give my life to. I can walk the path of someone who has this purpose day in day out – and I did, I gave my life to this and my entire being was devoted to this singular purpose of getting better at making sushi.’
That clicked – that idea of living for a purpose that isn’t acquisition-based. Desis, we are very acquisition based. ‘Get this, get that, achieve this, achieve that’. The Indian dream and the American dream are very much the same thing; it’s acquiring to get status. It’s not a bad thing, it works for a lot of people and helped us out of so many things. I would never want to bash the dream of the immigrant parent. It’s the reason I can do what I do right now.
But the idea of walking a path for the sake of getting better at one thing and nothing else? That blew my mind.”
The notion burrowed its way into Usama’s head, sealing his fate.
“The last day before I had to defer med school forever, I popped some shrooms to see what would happen. I thought the shrooms would tell me the truth. The shrooms told me, that Usama if you don’t do this, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life. The next day, I told my parents I wasn’t going to med school.”
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Confidence didn’t save Usama from his parents’ wrath.
“I’ve never seen such a difference in face – the U-turn of emotion. I was like ‘Ammu, Abbu, medical school korchi nah. Comedy korchi!’ My mom started screaming, my dad did the head in the hand thing. My mom started throwing things around.”
I would imagine that they wouldn’t even take you seriously.
“That’s the fear with Desis. They sing and dance all the time, but they don’t know the world. They don’t know the mechanisms by which to succeed in this idea. So that’s what they were fighting against. But looking back it’s like, they weren’t trying to inflict pain upon you, it’s just a world that they didn’t know. They were trying to protect their kid from something that could bring them a ton of pain.
If I had known what I know now, six years ago, I wouldn’t have done it. The level of pain, the level of bullshit, trauma. But that’s the choice. You’re a naïve kid, but it’s such a pure purpose to give your entire life to something.”
There’s no clear-cut path to success in a creative endeavor. With the path to med school, the route is outlined and then you’re eventually there. With the creative process, its zigzagging and you still don’t know if there’s a result at the end.
“But here’s the thing, you don’t know if you’re gonna get cancer tomorrow. So what is this idea, set your life up so you can get a life tomorrow? You have no idea what’s going on, you don’t know what’s gonna happen in five minutes. It seems like such a Western idea, or it seems like a flippant thing. But if you plan for everything, you’re not gonna engage in anything.
There’s no real insurance in life. Insurance is a complete bullshit concept even at its most stable. It doesn’t make sense to me. If I die penniless, it’ll be with a smile because I went for something. Everything after that moment in saying I’m going to go to New York and do this has been bonus. It seems like a very privileged thing to do, a luxurious thing to do.”
It’s so nuanced. It’s not like our parents didn’t want to pursue their own dreams. It’s really this whole transitional process, and I think that our generation is the first generation to bridge the gap between this old world and the new world.
“Part of having a better life is self-actualization and the ability to make your own choices. What they did was bring their 70s, 80s ideologies and tried to enforce this upon us. Meanwhile India and Bangladesh are growing, America’s growing, and our parents have this time capsule of thought that is locking their brains. Our parents were so badass, the greatest generation. But you wanted a better life for me, let me have my better life.
You came here to survive; let me make us thrive. Let me make a stamp on this culture. There was no stamping of culture for them. They came to survive, they grew the most badass people in recognition. Now, we have this opportunity to make a stamp on this American landscape of culture.”
We talked about his upbringing in Dallas.
“There was fear growing up – it paid to be quick thinking at home, but it paid to be quick thinking at school too. Brown kid after 9/11 in South Texas, that’s a whole different thing. They’re not super sensitive about where you’re coming from so the status is completely low for Brown people down South, at least twenty years ago.
You have Islam on this side, the mom whopping your ass and creating all this tension on that side. You have the school being antagonistic and throwing you in the bottom of the totem pole. All I had was other Indian kids who were just as nerdy and just as scrawny as I was, and we would just joke around and play games.
But what we’re going through in our lives is kind of what Italians, Irish people from 1940s could understand in New York, that same level of ‘what the fuck am I?’”
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What was the immediate experience in moving to New York like? What are some of the things that took you by surprise in this journey and what are things that were unexpected but both good and bad?
“Immediately, what I loved about New York was that you can do four sets in one night. For six years I was doing 2, 3, 4 shows a night, every night, going out, getting better. I loved that so much here – you get as good as you wanna get at your craft. There’s every opportunity to get better at something.
But what was bad was, you buy one smoothie and your fuckin’ wallet’s gone.
It was very expensive. There’s no budgeting, there’s no financial ability, I had no idea what I’m doing with anything, I didn’t have any sort of money. My friends raised some money for me before I moved to New York, but I spent it all in like two days. It’s insane how expensive the city was, and I wasn’t ready.”
We turned to the story of his early days navigating New York City by encountering every newcomers’ first nightmare: finding housing.
“The first place I stayed at was this dingy ass place in Bushwick. I got kicked out one day out of nowhere because the guy I was subleasing from was subleasing from someone else secretly, and that guy got into some trouble. One day I get into my place and it was locked: I couldn’t get back into my own room.
So I’m sleeping on my friend’s couch and I ask him, hey do you know anywhere that I can stay?”
Enter the crack den.
“He said, there’s this one guy who lives in a crack den in Canarsie. I’m like, crack den? What do you mean people just doin’ crack? He’s like, ‘…just a crack den, like crackheads chill there.’
It was a foreclosed house. It had no water supply, electricity was being siphoned off a different house, unbeknownst to ConEd. The bottom floor was a straight crack den, just debris everywhere.
Upstairs, it was a cleaner house. I had one room in the middle that was pristine. I stayed in this room with no rent, saved my ass a ton of money. For water I would go to Planet Fitness and I would get jugs of water and bring them back. I would use that water to microwave spaghetti, to brush my teeth, to wash, everything.
But I never thought it was a harsh life: every day I was waking up and I wasn’t even staying home. I would leave at 9AM, work all day, do PostMates all day, delivery drive – delivery walk, all day. Do comedy from 5-1, come back home, pass out, rinse repeat.
I lived with no income, but I was so happy, every day was so full, every day was beautiful and purposeful.
I couldn’t tell my mom – she had no idea about what I’ve done. She still has no idea; if she did, she would cry immediately. They’ll know one day. It’ll break their hearts a little bit. But it’s what happened, it’s what it was. New York can give you a lot really quick. It’s the only city that can give or take based on what you give into it. So, I gave whatever I could to New York.
If I fail, it’s not gonna be because I didn’t go for it all. So, I did it – I kept going, got a tutoring job that paid better. Started making some actual money… But those couple of years, that’s the worst part of New York. The poverty’s right there, it’s right behind you. You’re just one mistake away.”
How did you come to explore or define your style of comedy? What does your routine look like when you’re writing jokes or being inventive?
“The bravest thing you can do is be yourself. Because that is the scariest thing – to bring your entire humanity for everyone to see. Don’t go out, in – go in, out.
The comedy can be described as rambunctious, a little mischievous, high energy. Kinda like if your raunchy smart best friend was just goofing off with you.
When you’re in stand-up, that’s when the real toughness comes in. Starting the dream and choosing it is one part. But sticking to yourself while you go for that dream is a whole different game. In the beginning, you’re so bad at what you do that all you wanna do is survive. But in that survival era, you could pick some very bad habits because all you wanna do is not have everyone hate you.
All you want to do is be accepted by the people who are good at what they do, more than everybody else. You don’t give a fuck about anything else except the love and acceptance of your peers. And sometimes, the stuff you do might go contrary to what they accept, but it’s totally in line with who you are, and it’s so imperative that you stay true to yourself, even if you’re bombing your ass off.”
People in the creative process get that advice often – be yourself, stay true to yourself, but when so much of what we consider to be progress is contingent on what the audience reception is to you. How do you avoid being pigeon-holed with all the other people who do this?
“South Asians get pigeon-holed pretty quick. We’re attaining respect now, after years and years of struggling in this business. We still have a chip on our shoulders, especially new comics, because growing up we were not lauded in any way in terms of our desi-ness, in terms of our culture. And now it’s celebrated because we did it, we’re making it like that.
But the issue with stand-up and any sort of good art is that if it just stays in your experience, it’s not gonna be something that’s actually used by the masses of people. You have to work on that Venn Diagram and think, where does my experience relate to these people? If you don’t do that second part, you’re just gonna be talking about your parents with nobody understanding what the fuck you’re talking about.
Your journey is important but make it a joke – make it something that’s usable for everybody.”
You’ve spun a lot of things that could’ve served as a disadvantage to your favor. Growing up in Texas in a post-9/11 world, with the name Usama can’t have been easy. Even being Bangladeshi – Indians have found some success in comedy, but not Bengalis just yet.
“I love Bangladesh with all my fuckin’ soul. My parents took me to all the onushtans (events), every function, your boy was at. You don’t realize until later that it’s such a powerful thing. When you’re a kid, the least cool thing you could do was go listen to the singer that’s in the theater when your parents took you to the onushtans. But now you look back and you’re like, that was the most beautiful part of my life.
The idea that we even have to say this is who we are – how can they respect us if they don’t even know who we are? We just gotta show them on a map, this is where Bangladesh is. They can’t even fathom how much our parents did to get Bangladesh on the map. They just think it’s all India. People died for the line to be Bangladesh.
I think it’s on us too. When someone says you’re Indian, it’s like No, I’m Bengali. My Dad is from Calcutta, so I’m technically half nationalistically Indian, half Bengali. But ethnically, full Bengali.”
You do standup, but you also have your podcast MangoBae and have an active online presence. How do you find your niche, and do you feel compelled to test all the avenues or is it best to stick to one?
“Let that Desi idea of diversifying your portfolio stay in. Be smart about what you’re doing, don’t just have the artist mentality– let’s make some money off it, let’s be smart about it. Part of that is diversifying and going into every possible medium. But in those mediums, be yourself…
The podcast MangoBae, that was me and my best boy Pranav, also a hilarious standup comic. We were like okay – a lot of brown comedy online is very sterile. It’s kinda like minority comedy for white people. Easy, never rocks the boat, very ‘whites gave us this fake box.’
So, all these hidden boxes that encapsulate us, we said let’s just make the rowdiest, most rambunctious, the most heartfelt, every emotion on a thousand, and just be the funniest, most loving podcast with no limits, the way you hang out with your best friend. Like if you were hanging out with your best friend, and your conversation would not get you arrested, they’re not your best friend.”
When did MangoBae come to life?
“So we were on shrooms…”
Okay, just how close did you get to your crack-den roommates?
(laughs) “We were on shrooms, and the MangoBae name came from the shroom trip. We were both eating dried mangos and I was kinda like, Pranav you’re my bae. And he ate a mango and was like, you’re my Mango Bae. And I’m like fuuuuck. It was really powerful.
With comedy and New York, there’s only so much that institutions can do. I was getting frustrated with the comedy institutions, and I felt frustrated that they were gatekeepers. And I was tying my journey and my success within the success of these institutions.
But that’s the wrong way to think about it – that’s an out-in mentality. Like, once they give me the ‘thing’, I’ll be happier – but I had to de-entangle myself from tying my journey to an institution. And MangoBae was like a cry against all that bullshit. It’s completely ours, our thing, no one can touch it.”
What has the reception towards MangoBae been like? I’m curious about whether there’s one particular episode or topic that made it skyrocket or rubbed people the wrong way.
“The biggest one was the Hasan Minhaj episode. I knew Hasan from doing comedy before, we would do the same shows. We just started this new podcast, super fledgling, and 8 episodes in I was like, ‘what if we just hit up Hasan?’ And Hasan was like ‘yeah, for sure.’
We put some Muslim clips up and got heavy backlash. Fundamental Muslims, that was a weird thing we had to deal with.
But for one of the Hasan clips, we joked about drawing Muhammad (PBUH) – not actually doing it but just the idea of doing it – and they descended. We knew that them going crazy meant that we were hitting something, we were doing something real. Not flippancy or blasphemy, we were taking a stand for joking about anything. Finding the funny in anything.
The idea of these Muslims warping what is considered decorous or acceptable, it’s bullshit where everyone’s self-policing. We’re like fuck that, let’s just do things that make us feel like we’re creating something for the world.”
Has there ever been a moment in the last five or so years where you’re like, what the fuck am I doing?
“Every day in New York is pain. Every day is a setback. Every day you’re fighting against your own self-doubt, your own fear of what’s gonna happen. You’re just going off this idea that you’re good at something or you can be good at something, but it’s terrifying. It’s an insane thing. There aren’t actual ‘moments’, just an overall hum of fear every day at the back of your ear. A constant, holy shit what am I doing? That’s all the time.
But the difference between successful artists and unsuccessful – people say it’s hard work, but I think it’s mental evenness. Can you channel a negative thought into a positive thought? Because that is what you’re gonna be doing all day. That’s what modern life is. It’s just constant negativity, constant anxiety, constant self-hate, loathing and fear. That’s the new normal.”
Obviously, things are different now with this months-long quarantine. How has this pandemic affected your work?
“In this time, I’m not hustling every fucking second of the day. It’s let me sit down and read some theory books on comedy and screenwriting. Let me equip myself with more lateral skills that will help me get better. Take this moment, because it is a special moment that we’re going through.”
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There’s an uptick of South Asians doing this kind of thing, but not nearly enough. So, what advice do you have for those looking to pursue these things against the grain, facing adversity, lack of support, lack of wealth?
“Don’t pursue it just because you wanna pursue something against the grain. Don’t follow a passion because you think it looks cool. Because the level of pain involved with any sort of artistic dream is so great and so intense that if you don’t love it with every ounce of being, it’s not worth it and you’re gonna waste years of your life.
Only do it if you cannot live without doing it. Then, you’ll transcend culture, you’ll transcend all things, which is its own power, and you will break the mold. You will buck the trend. Just by doing what you wanna do.
Just, really, find out what you want. That’s the hardest thing in Desi culture. There’s so many layers between you and what you want. Break those down and ask yourself what you want. That’s the first step, then follow that with all your heart.
What I’m saying is, do shrooms. That’s all I’m saying.”
Keep up with Usama Siddiquee on Instagram, Twitter and the podcast MangoBae.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.