If Ali Hassan’s face doesn’t seem familiar to you, his voice almost certainly does.
On CBC Radio, he hosts the comedy show Laugh Out Loud, as well as the hugely influential Canada Reads competitions, and is a frequent guest host on As It Happens and Q. Watch CBC Gem, and you’re likely to spot him on shows like Run the Burbs or Sort Of. He is currently touring the country with his stand-up comedy act. He even followed fellow McGill alum William Shatner into Starfleet Academy, appearing on an episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
Another place where you’re likely to encounter Hassan, BA’95, is in your favourite bookstore. His recent memoir Is There Bacon in Heaven? explores his upbringing and roots as a Pakistani-Canadian and his experiences as a father. Based on his popular comedy act “Muslim Interrupted,” Hassan wanted to tell a universal story that people could relate to.
“People ask me, who is this book for? I always say it’s for everybody,” says Hassan.
“If you had a father or a father figure with whom you had a strange relationship, there’s a big part of this book you can relate to. If you have children, this book is, at the end of the day, a love letter to my children; you can relate to that. If you struggle with identity, whether cultural, religious or just because you’re a little different in some way, I feel those people will relate to this. I think there’s something huge [in the book] for everybody,” he says.
The idea for the book took root before the pandemic. Hassan’s ex-publicist had begun a new career in the publishing world. After asking the comedian if he wanted to write a book, Hassan finally decided to take the jump and write a memoir. He faced several roadblocks along the way.
“There were several reasons to stop writing; I gave up a couple of times there.” Both his mother and a friend passed away while he was working on the book. Then there was all the upheaval surrounding the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder.
“I constantly told myself, ‘Hey, who wants to read this with all the crap going on in the world?’ And my editor, Justin, would say, ‘Look, it’s because of all that’s happening in the world. That is why your book is essential. We’re looking at it the wrong way. People need an antidote to all the bad news. And that’s what this book is.’”
Rick Mercer would seem to agree. In a blurb for Is There Bacon in Heaven?, Mercer writes, “Ali Hassan has written perhaps the funniest and most heartfelt Canadian memoir yet.”
While the book provides plenty of laughs, it also deals with thorny issues that many second-generation immigrants have to contend with. Describing himself as a cultural Muslim, Hassan writes about his struggles to make a bridge between his Pakistani origins and his Canadian lifestyle, and the tensions that can exist between respecting your heritage and being open to new cultural experiences.
“You know, if you’re not white and you are Muslim, you spend so much time trying to impress upon other people that, hey, not all Muslims are created alike, and okay, we’re not a monolith, right? It takes different types of people to make up this broader community,” says Hassan.
He spent years grappling with his own identity, failing to learn Arabic as a child attending Islamic Sunday School, and drawing rebukes from relatives for his Western ways during visits to Pakistan. As he writes in the book, “religion is supposed to be a compass … but what happens when religion confuses you the most?”
“I just have to accept that this is the type of Muslim I am,” Hassan says. “I can’t feel sheepish about this. No one can tell me I’m not Muslim. In every artistic pursuit I have, my Muslim background plays a huge role.”
Hassan grew up in Montreal, enjoying what he calls the city’s distinctive “joie de vivre.” He earned an undergraduate degree in political science at McGill, and while he says he didn’t particularly distinguish himself as a student during that time, he forged some of his closest friendships there.
The comedian/actor/radio host took a circuitous route to his current career. He worked as an IT consultant and as a cook and caterer, before discovering his passion for performing comedy.
“My advice is, whatever you’re doing, even if it’s something you don’t enjoy, do it and get as much out of it as possible,” says Hassan. “It’s still a great experience that leads you toward [the next part of] your life. Embrace everything, even if it’s not what you want to do with your life eventually. I feel like it all works out eventually if you’re a curious enough person.”
As the host of Canada Reads, Hassan plays a huge role in promoting some of the country’s best books and authors. His father taught literature and collected hundreds of books.
“I think this would have been a super proud moment for [my dad] that his son hosts this. He would have watched it every year, and he would have had his own critique. He would have heckled the authors and the panelists, but maybe not so much me.”