Sultan moved with his mother to the U.S. from Yemen as a teen almost 15 years ago. At that time, he spoke no English.
“I used to watch Conan O’Brien when just starting to learn English,” Sultan said. “I liked him the best because he was super physical. His body language was super funny, he seemed really silly. He was easy to get for someone who hasn’t mastered the language yet. That was when I saw my first standup performance. I saw that and I said, I want to do that. That was the first time I thought about standup.”
An imaginative kid with a love of basketball, Sultan had previously dreamed of becoming an NBA player, an inventor or a theoretical physicist.
“I lived in Ethiopia before I came here, and I was really good at basketball in Ethiopia,” Sultan said. “In a country where basketball is not a thing, I was amazing.”
Sultan recalled a conversation with his Minnesota high school gym teacher, who asked Sultan what he really wanted to be when he grew up, after Sultan told him his dreams of becoming a basketball star.
“I was like, this guy doesn’t believe. Wait until you see me five years from now—telling jokes at a bar.”
Thousands of jokes on local and national stages later—and after winning the title of the funniest person in the Twin Cities—Sultan will be doing a standup set on mainstream TV himself. He was chosen from hundreds of hopefuls to appear on comedian Kevin Hart’s Comedy Central show “Hart of the City,” which highlights lesser-known comics across the country. Sultan will appear in the Twin Cities episode on Dec. 8.
Sultan’s comedy does involve his ethnicity and religious background and their intersection with U.S. politics and social climate. After all, he’s one of few Arab Muslim comics in the U.S., he said. And in this political climate, that’s hard to ignore.
“My last relationship ended weirdly; the girl I was dating broke up with me because I was a Muslim, but that’s not how she said it,” Sultan said during one set at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis. “She said, ‘Ali, I don’t think we should date anymore, because I’m a Catholic, and you’re… whatever.’ And it’s true, I was born in Yemen and I was raised a devout whatever.”
It’s a delicate balance to delve into sensitive topics while staying, well, funny. Sultan said he handles this by pulling from personal experiences, like his deeply religious mother stumbling across his STD test results. (He told that joke on “Hart of the City.”)
“Some (comics) are like, here are some points, and don’t have a joke in there,” Sultan said. “I stick to personal stories. My points are usually subtle and not in your face. The jokes I’ll do, you don’t even realize there’s a point unless you’ve thought about it. And I don’t take myself too seriously—that tends to help.”
Sultan often performs in front of a mostly white crowd. Over the years he’s learned how to work important messages into his set in a way that brings people into the joke rather than making them feel on the defensive.
“I smile a lot, that helps, the tone helps,” he said. “The way you construct a set, gain trust first. I can’t, like, open with police brutality.
“You dance with not only conservative or maybe even bigoted thoughts, you also have to tap around white guilt—that’s equally as oppressive. Because people immediately go, ‘Oh, I’m not like that,’ and it’s like, ‘It’s not about you. I just see you as my friends and I’m telling you about something.'”
Want to make it big in comedy? Sultan offered this advice: Get ready for rejection. Even today, after years of experience, he sometimes bombs with a crowd, he said.
“I love it enough to bear the rejection and the ups and downs,” he said. “It’s the field with the most rejection you’ll ever feel. I have yet to observe anything that has much rejection as comedy. Everyone thinks they could do comedy, so they judge it harsher. …
“It takes 10 years to become a good comic, and then 20 years in you’ll have someone giving you advice who doesn’t even do comedy.”
How does he deal? It helps to not care whether a crowd loves or hates you.
“If I’m in the right mindset, I’m not looking for a crowd reaction,” he said. “In that mindset people usually get on my wave. I’m telling you jokes that are funny—I don’t have that need for you to laugh, I’m not desperate for the laugh.”
Over the years, he’s changed how he writes his jokes. He used to start with what he thought would please a crowd. Now he starts with material he’s passionate about and works from there— “it doesn’t matter who is in the crowd.”
“I used to sit down and say, ‘What’s funny?'” Sultan said. “And now I say, ‘This is funny—I’ll make it work.'”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.