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Not Seinfeld, the other guy

Courtesy photo
Comedian Ashar Usman is a fan of Jerry Seinfeld, but he won't be seeing Seinfeld's show Friday at the Municipal Auditorium. Instead, he'll be performing his own right down the street.

WANT TO GO?

Ashar Usman, at Cafe A La Fikr Comedy Night

WHERE: Civic Center Little Theater

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

TICKETS:  Advance $26.50, day of the show $36.50

INFO:  Call 304-345-1500 or visit www.charlestonwvciviccenter.com _____

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some comedians might feel a little intimidated to be performing a show on the same night, in the same city and just a short walk down the street from comic giant Jerry Seinfeld.

Seinfeld is a household name, a gigantic star even though he hasn't done a whole lot lately (besides his web series, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee"). He's at the Municipal Auditorium Friday night.

Meanwhile, down the way at the Civic Center Little Theater, there's Muslim comedian, Azhar Usman. Usman is not a household name; he doesn't have a television show, a book deal or even a HBO comedy special.

And he's not afraid of Jerry Seinfeld.

In fact, Usman said, "I'm pretty excited to be doing a show on the same night, in the same city, at basically the same venue as Seinfeld. Oh, wow, I'd love to meet him!"

Usman's love of the New York comedian borders on the obsessive.

"I've studied him, his standup. I've read his interviews."

The family-friendly comic knows a lot about Seinfeld. Usman said one of things that impressed him about Seinfeld is he heard Seinfeld practices Zen meditation.

"I don't know if he's an actual Zen Buddhist," Usman said. "But his comedy is reflective. There's a lot about the search for wisdom in him. I heard that someone once asked him about comedy and he said he saw it as a journey into self. I mean, wow. That's amazing."

Pretty clearly, Usman is the underdog in Friday night's comedy matchup. Even he's a fan of the other guy. Regardless, if you don't already have tickets to see Seinfeld, he'd love it if you'd come to his show.

Usman's got into comedy in what might be considered the usual way.

"I was always a funny person," he said. "I loved to make people laugh."

In the mid-1990s, while studying law at the University of Minnesota, Usman used to tag along with a friend who haunted the local comedy open mic nights.

 "It was totally voyeuristic," he said. "I totally wanted to do that, but I didn't have the courage."

He graduated, moved back to Chicago, started work and spent several fruitful years not doing comedy -- just thinking about it. Then in 2000, Usman dragged his wife to an open mic night at a club.

"Her recollection of what happened is very different than mine," he laughed. "She recalls me bombing totally. I remember getting laughs."

The laughs kept him going. Usman performed at more open mics, slowly working his way up in the Chicago club scene.

"And then 9/11, 2001," he said and sighed. "What a terrible, horrible thing."

Usman stopped performing. For six months, he stayed away from it, but when he came back people started paying attention.

"Frankly, the interest in me as a Muslim doing comedy eclipsed whether I was funny or not," he said, and Usman wasn't sure whether he was really all that funny then.

"I was just starting out," he said.

But the attention got him bookings. At first, a lot of Muslim community groups would bring him in to do a little show. Suddenly, he was working a lot and became part of a kind of alternative comedy circuit.

"The Kabob circuit, if you will," he said. "But I kind of thought I was cheating. It was too easy. So, I decided to quit my law practice and devote myself to working on my craft."

That was almost 10 years ago, and comedy has been good to him. It's taken him to more than 20 countries. Usman has opened for, shared the stage with, or gotten to know some of the best-known comics out there, including Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho and Jim Gaffigan.

"I've been very blessed, very fortunate," he said.

 Usman said he's not looking to parlay his standup act into a TV show or a movie career. He's not an actor.

"That's a whole different craft," he said.

Usman just wants to make people laugh, which he can do -- but if Jerry Seinfeld isn't doing anything after his show on Friday, Usman would love for him to stop by and maybe give him a couple of pointers. Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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