When he isn’t performing his comedy on stage, Ali Hassan is a familiar voice to millions of CBC Radio listeners (Photo: Katia Taylor)


On laughs and literary pursuits

Ali Hassan, BA’95, the host of CBC’s wildly popular Canada Reads literary competition, offers his thoughts on how to build a comedy career in the digital age and the role his Muslim faith plays in his comedy.

Story by Sheldon Gordon

March 2019

Unlike the two million audience members who tune in to CBC’s annual literary competition Canada Reads, the challenge for host Ali Hassan, BA’95, is not to have an opinion after reading the five shortlisted books. “I enjoy reading the five finalists,” he says, “but I have to work hard on keeping my mouth shut as far as opinions go. That’s difficult. As a comedian, I’m a pretty opinionated guy.”

Hassan is hosting Canada Reads for the third straight year. (It concludes over four days in late March, as five celebrity panelists debate the merits of the contenders, this year around the theme One Book to Move You).

Hassan is stoked about the contest’s “massive” impact on Canada’s literary scene. “All the books on the short list go on to be best-sellers,” he says. “Many people read the books before the event happens, because they want to have an informed opinion as to which book should be the winner.”

Hosting CBC Radio programs has become a major part of Hassan’s métier. He has been the host of Laugh Out Loud on Saturday evenings since its debut in 2013. (LOL, which showcases Canadian stand-up comedians recorded at festivals and comedy clubs across the country, attracts more than a million listeners.) Hassan is also a frequent guest-host on the weekday arts show q and recently hosted the Toronto drive-home show Here and Now.

Moreover, Hassan now devotes about one-third of his work life to acting in non-comedic roles on television and in movies. “I grew up watching people like Robin Williams who were known for their comedy but would also bring depth to serious roles,” he says. “So to be in that position, I relish it.”

He has recently played recurring characters on the TV series Odd Squad (PBS), Designated Survivor (ABC) and Cardinal (CTV). Later this year, he’ll be seen on the CBS series Blood & Treasure. He will also appear on movie screens this year in MySpy, an action comedy filmed in Toronto, and Mafia, Inc., an organized crime drama shot in Montreal.

Is Hassan’s reach beyond comedy a caution to aspiring side-splitters against putting all their eggs in one basket? “You can make a living as a comedian,” he says, “but you have to be a little bit more diverse in your approach. It’s harder just to be a ‘road dog,’ [touring the comedy-club circuit], but there are plenty of those around, too. If you can work in the U.S. and Canada, you can do upwards of 100 club appearances a year.”

In the digital age, “there are many more ways to be funny and to monetize that,” Hassan suggests. It’s possible to be a comedian without even going on stage –YouTube channels, podcasts and blogs can build a comic’s brand online. In fact, “people have so much comedy that they can access in their own homes, it’s harder to get bums into seats [at live shows]. But if you bring a special perspective that people haven’t seen, they will still come out and see your show.”

Hassan was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick and raised in Brossard in Quebec. He majored in political science at McGill. “Sadly, what I was learning didn’t stick. I didn’t immerse myself. Back then, instead of a thirst for knowledge I had a thirst for beer, recycled spaghetti and the Peel Pub.” His tastes in cuisine improved, however, and after earning an MBA in Ontario, he started his own catering business, aiming to host a TV cooking show. To build his confidence as a performer, he began doing stand-up.

He has been ‘killing’ it at clubs across Canada and in the U.S for the past 13 years. In addition to gigs at both the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal and JFL42 in Toronto, he has twice performed at the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival in Jordan and appeared at the world’s largest com-fest, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Hassan’s humour has been influenced by his Muslim faith and South Asian heritage. The first joke he ever wrote recreated “in painstaking detail” his experience being subjected to intensive screening by airport security in the post-9/11 era.

“My identity, my ethnicity, my religion has always played a small role in my comedy,” he says. “But now it has come front and centre.” For the past two years, Hassan has been touring his solo comedy show Muslim, Interrupted across Canada. In January, he and fellow comic Dave Merheje launched a two-man show, We Ain’t Terrorists! at venues in western Canada.

Still, he emphasizes that he is not an “ambassador for Islam,” being neither well-versed in the faith nor a devout practitioner. “I’m not winning a Nobel Peace Prize for my open mic set,” he quips. “All I talk about on stage is how being a Muslim has affected my life, and how it plays a role more frequently now as I’m raising my children and struggling to explain to them a religion I don’t fully understand.”

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