While plenty of comedians can remember watching Richard Pryor and Robin Williams as young kids, Ali Sultan didn’t even know what stand-up comedy was until he was a teenager.
“I moved from Yemen when I was 14 and had never heard of or seen stand-up until one night when I saw it on ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien,’” Sultan remembers. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world and wrote a set with my broken English and imagined myself on ‘Conan.’”
The dream would be alive and well in his mind for the next several years, but it would take Sultan until his 20s to finally make the leap from dreamer to doer.
“At 22 I was having a weird year where I was trying to find my place in the world because nothing fulfilled me and I didn’t care for school anymore,” Sultan says. “So I tried to write a book, poetry, and even rap. I was pretty horrible at all of those but I knew I needed to do something that involved writing. My best friend Andrew kept telling me that I should do stand-up so I looked up comedy clubs online and came across Acme. I did the open mic night on Monday and it felt amazing and fulfilling.”
Just two years later in 2013, Sultan became one of the most buzzed-about new talents on the scene, when he won contests at both Acme and House of Comedy. Though the attention and cash were both major benefits, the real reward came from sharing his comedy with his toughest critic: his mom.
“My mom is an immigrant and doesn’t really get stand-up; definitely not as a career,” Sultan says. “It’s a hobby to her at best. The first time she saw me was also the first time she saw live comedy. It was the finals for the contest at the House of Comedy. I had a great set and the host called me a beast. I won and my mom said, “Ali, you are a beast.’ I laughed because I knew she never heard the word ‘beast’ used that way until the host said it.”
The pride Sultan experienced having his mother witness and understand his dream was a massive confidence boost for him, and helped push past some of his own mental and cultural hurdles.
“I came from a part of a world where people don’t dare to dream because dreams came with disappointments,” he recalls. “We were born into a system that worked against you, so a lot of people mentally grow to be practical and play things safe.”
My friends and family in Yemen used to bug me about helping them to come to America but now they are like nah we cool
— you (@Ali_Sultan) November 9, 2016
For a comedian who has won multiple contests at the biggest clubs in town, the idea of slow and steady improvement as a performer may seem like an underwhelming goal. But as Sultan tells it, getting better is always his priority.
“Every time I put the work in something good happens,” he says. “So my goal is just to keep up a good work ethic, grow, and be the best comic I can be.”
Where can you see him next?
- Basically any open mic in town, including Acme, Sisyphus Brewery, Willy’s, The Comedy Corner Underground, House of Comedy, and Joke Joint.
- Twitter: @Ali_Sultan