“If I want representation for someone who looks like me and has all the different facets of my identity, I’m going to have to make that character.”
Aida Osman is a comedian and writer based in Los Angeles, California. They spoke with Funny Or Die over Zoom to discuss their career, intersectionality in comedy, how the industry has changed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer of 2020, and what still needs to change for progress to continue.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Thank you for joining me! Let’s get into your origin story. How and when did you start in comedy?
I started doing stand-up when I was 19 in Nebraska. The very first time I did it, I was doing slam poetry comedy. I was trying to do a mockery of poetry slams. Oh my god, buddy, it was so bad. It was so fucking bad. I’m having flashbacks just thinking about it.
The second time I did stand-up was my senior year of college. I was like, fuck it, let me just try this, and I actually just read my tweets, which was such a stupid idea and not a good formula for anyone starting stand-up. But it worked because the tweets that I had been writing were essentially one-liners. Then I got really, really into comedy and was doing dive bar shows in Nebraska with six other local white comedians. Thriving, actually.
And then you were in New York for a bit?
Yeah, I went to do Wild ‘n Out in May of 2019. After Wild ‘n Out was done, I moved there for the summer of 2019 and was doing stand-up, meeting a bunch of New York stand-ups, and just having a blast. Way too much fun. Then I moved to LA at the end of 2019 .
What was your beginning here in LA like? At what point did you get involved in writers’ rooms?
I moved to LA because I got the co-host position at Keep it!, this podcast at Crooked Media, which was great, but I still really wanted to break into comedy writing. You know this hustle, treating Twitter like a portfolio and writing every day, trying to fire off tweets like it was my fucking job. I’ve since calmed down, but that’s because I’m in writers’ rooms now. Now I don’t even know how to use that goddamn bird app. I no longer enjoy it. I’ve been saturated with all the ways people can be funny on Twitter. There was a while where I was posting raps and music—
That was the best era of Aida Twitter!
And I should come back! But after a certain point, you go into a Netflix meeting and they’re like, “You’re the pegging girl! You’re the girl who pegged boys in their booty hole!” It’s great, it gets you a job and Big Mouth executives love it, and you find your people in that way, I guess. It’s not embarrassing, but you don’t want to let it define you. I want huge projects. I want to write for all these different shows. I didn’t want to just be pegged as the pegging girl.
But I think I might bring that back, because I do want to find that world where rap and music and comedy can intersect. If it’s in a non-corny way, it can be some of the best comedy. I’ve had a squirting anthem in my head for like a year, I have stupid lyrics ready, it’s just about putting it together. The horrible part is the world has been falling apart ever since I released the pegging rap. I’m not saying that started it, but I’m not saying it didn’t. But there’s no gap to release a squirting anthem. The president’s getting impeached or Black Lives Matter is happening, and it’s like, well, here’s Aida with her squirting song…? What?? I’m trying to find space for it. It’s hard.
What’s it been like not only breaking into, but finding such success in different areas like stand-up and as a writer and podcast host, in such a heteronormative, cis, white industry, and becoming a trailblazer for other young, queer, Black creatives?
It’s a big question! We can take it down in pieces.
Oh my god. Being called a trailblazer at all, thank you, that’s insane. It’s so hard to be objective about what I’m doing, what I’m trying to do, and the reason why I started in the first place. I didn’t understand the world of comedy writing until I realized there was a lack of Black women and nonbinary people in it at all. I looked around and there are not a lot of nonbinary comedians or people who are willing to make jokes about their pronouns, and even just have the kinds of conversations about gender that I’m really excited to finally be having.
The success has been really weird. I don’t know how to define it. I feel like I’m always going to be dealing with imposter syndrome, but I also think that every good creator should. If I’m not in a room where I’m like, am I supposed to be here? I’m not working hard enough, I think. I feel most comfortable when I’m uncomfortable. So I feel good right now, but it is scary.
It’s scary to be in a [writers’] room and look around and realize that you are one of the few Black people in there, and that the executives and people are trying, but you still see the lack. You can’t help but see the lack. I think one of the hardest things is, as a Black person, you spend all this time going, “Black people are not a monolith. We have so many different facets to our being, stop trying to pigeonhole us,” but then you get to the writers’ room and nobody asks you to do it, but you feel like you need to be the spokesperson for Black culture and you feel like you need to nail it. You need to make sure you represent everyone. So there’s this burden that you’re putting on yourself, and that’s really daunting. I try to just be myself and let that be the representation, because that’s the only thing I can do.
Does that ever compound with also being nonbinary and queer and Muslim? Do those different facets intersect at all, or come with that same kind of pressure?
I still have yet to find a writers’ room where me being Muslim is even invited into the conversation. If there’s no Muslim characters, there’s no Muslim sensibilities. It’s becoming more apparent to me that if I want representation for someone who looks like me and has all the different facets of my identity, I’m going to have to make that character. Fox isn’t going to release a primetime show that is Muslim, nonbinary, and Black. I have to be the one to write that character.
I’ve yet to figure out where all my intersecting identities can come together and speak as one voice, but that’s uniquely my challenge, and that’s exciting. Nobody else can ever take my career or my story away from me.
I still find that we’re not having gender conversations in writers’ rooms. I wrote on one show where we’d have open conversations about gender with the girls, but still no openly nonbinary characters. That show is revolutionary in many ways, but we still don’t have any main characters who are openly trans or nonbinary. I’m excited to have shows where cisgender people aren’t always the main stars, but I haven’t even been in the room where that’s a reality yet. We’ve had a trans coming of age storyline on Big Mouth season 4, so we’re getting there. We really are getting there.
I feel like a lot of cisgender writers don’t write nonbinary and trans characters if they or the audience can’t immediately identify that they are trans and nonbinary by looking at them, or if that’s not the focus of their narrative.
We need more trans characters and trans actors that play roles where maybe it’s after the season is over when you’re like, “Oh, that person or that character is trans?” I also think it’s exciting to write characters that are nonbinary or trans and figuring that out, and their story is not tied to that figuring out. There’s no reason that my confusion or my experience with gender should be a device.
Yes, the purpose of trans and nonbinary characters doesn’t and shouldn’t have to always be trauma or struggle.
Yeah. I know that I have certain privileges being femme presenting, but it’s a unique thing to try to explain still feeling burdened, because it sounds like bullshit complaining, but it still hurts to have an identity that isn’t clear and recognizable to other people.
I tweeted recently, “Someone just called me sir in the airport and now my pussy is wet.” It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I wasn’t trying to even be masculine. It just happened. Someone called me sir and I was like, whoa! I got really excited and I tweeted that, and someone was like, “This tweet makes no fucking sense. What’s wrong with you? What do you want? You don’t even know what you want.” It was difficult for me, I was like, oh my God, that person is right. Maybe I don’t know what I want.
But I had to tell myself that is part of the wonder of my day to day. I don’t know and that’s okay, and accepting that lack of knowing so I can go be fucking great. So, more people call me sir. If you see me in the airport, call me sir.
Since you’ve been in LA, how have you seen comedy, or more specific spaces like writers’ rooms for example, change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer?
I’ve seen the beginnings of changes. I’ve seen large corporations beginning to sow the seeds for change. The next year to two are going to be really pivotal in proving that they still give a fuck about what we’re trying to say. I’m still so new to this industry and I feel so fortunate that I’m walking into a very safe environment, but a lot of growth still needs to be done.
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I think ten years from now in an ideal world, if I’m a showrunner and I have the ability to staff a writers’ room that is all Black genderqueer people, and not just a small show but a show on Fox or ABC, that is going to be when things have truly changed. Right now it doesn’t feel super palpable.
It feels like we’re in this transitional phase, where someone like me is still answering to all white executives. And sure, I’ll take white money all day, but I can’t wait ‘til I’m the one signing the checks to another Black creator. And hopefully they don’t have to go through what I’ve gone through, which is uncomfortable conversations with executives about how I deliver jokes or how I speak and a lot of microaggression in writers’ rooms, but that’s so much better than, say, five or ten years ago. I can’t even imagine what someone like Issa Rae or Kenya Barris had to go through. I feel like we’re in-betweeners, but every generation probably feels like that. Maybe in ten years people will be like, “We’re in-betweeners,” and robots run all the writers’ rooms.
While we’re in this transitional phase, what are changes you think need to be implemented by executives, and people running writers’ rooms, and showrunners, that could and need to happen immediately?
Large corporations need to be providing resources to marginalized writers, giving them script writing software, or access to a masterclass or somewhere they can get information. Transitioning from the stand up world, I didn’t know screenwriting existed until I was about to be hired as a screenwriter, and that’s such a fortunate experience, but I didn’t have the tools I needed to be the best that I could be in a writers’ room. And nobody’s telling little Black girls in Nebraska that they should go to school for screenwriting or playwriting, nobody gave me script writing software, or a laptop, or even the inspiration to do all of this.
I’m a strong advocate that all careers and passions are only seeds dropped into people’s pots. If there’s no seed being dropped into that pot, there’s no flower, no plant that can grow. I think large industry corporations in Hollywood need to have programs that encourage project submissions, and then have actual execution and follow through to promote those projects, and give [creators] the resources to make those projects.
Accessibility, resources, and promoting that this world even exists, and of course, just hiring more Black writers and more writers that are marginalized. I often see executives and people who have seats at the table just sitting there like, “Where do we find them? What are we to do?” The burden is on you to be in active pursuit of these people. You look goofy having Black characters and no Black writers. That should never be something that exists. You look goofy having trans characters without trans writers. In fact, you cannot tell those stories without having those faces in the room. It’s so vital that they do the work and find those people, because those people exist, they have social media, there are newsletters that are all about Black writers that want to be hired. Go find them. Don’t come to me. Don’t ask me, “Do you have any little friends that I could hire?” No. Go find them.
I have talked to so many white executives in general meetings and they’re like, “This is such a unique, fresh voice. We never met anyone like you.” And I’m like, what? You should be taking more meetings with Black creators. I should not be one of the first Black, Muslim, nonbinary people you’ve had on your couch.
Did you have anything that you wanted to plug?
Watch season four of Big Mouth on Netflix, be on the lookout for season two of Betty on HBO, and listen to Keep it! Wednesdays on Crooked Media. It’s a pop culture podcast that I do with Ira Madison III and Louis Virtel. We talk about the intersections of pop culture and politics, we get really messy, and it’s the reason why I’m blocked by a lot of your favorite rappers.