Funny friendship: Q&A with stand-up comics Ali Sultan and Jeff Larson

·5 min read

Aug. 5—Ali Sultan and Jeff Larson have a funny friendship in many senses.

They're an odd pair — one a Rochester retiree, the other a Yemeni immigrant based in Minneapolis. And what they have in common is even more unlikely: stand-up comedy.

Sultan met Larson when both were performing at Goonie's Comedy Club in Rochester. Soon after, they performed together at the Paramount Theatre in Austin. This month, they're taking the stage again at Events Sports Bar and Grill in Kasson.

We caught up with them to talk about life in stand-up comedy, Sultan's June 28 appearance on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," and more.

What got you into comedy?

Sultan: As a kid, I used to do impressions for my family. Anytime I could captivate their attention with humor and see the joy in their faces, it felt good. When I came to the States, I saw stand-up for the first time on "Conan." Ever since, I've loved that art form. It didn't occur to me that it's something you can do, because it's not a norm or a thing you can go to school for. But eventually, I did some research and did an open mic. It was like 300 people. I got one laugh within the first minute, and I was hooked. I was like, "I want this forever."

Larson: I really enjoy when my jokes connect with people. I just look forward to being onstage. It's ironic, because I was the kid that couldn't get up in front of class. I just stuttered and stammered. Now, I look forward to it. Once you get that in your blood, you can't give it up.

You're a pretty unlikely pair — how did you meet, and what sparked this "reunion" show?

Sultan: It was my first year of comedy. I won a couple of local contests, so I got a little buzz, and Jeff was nice enough to book me in Austin at the Paramount Theatre. I had such a good time at that gig. I can't believe it went well, because I was a year in, and headlining. I thought it'd be more fun now that I know what I'm doing, doing the show with Jeff. So I reached out and said, "Let's do a reunion show," and that's how this gig came about.

How do you write your sets? Do you have a particular writing process or guiding principles?

Larson: I start with anything that would resonate with the audience, where I can take something they'll think is going one way, and come up with a very different punchline than somebody is expecting. That's the common thread in comedy — you want to surprise people with what you say.

Sultan: What I do is I get to a premise. It could be I take a shower, float an idea, and go, "Oh, that's a joke." And then my brain will do the rest. You just kind of find the beat, find the setup, middle and end, and then you take that idea and go onstage and see if people think it's funny.

When you're doing something for the first time onstage, it's clunky. So you do it at open mics, get comfortable with the rhythm of the joke. Sometimes you go up and it gets nothing, but your intuition says, "I really think this is funny." So you find a way to rephrase it, if you feel strongly about the bit. The way I know how strongly I feel about a bit is how often it floats into my head, because if it's memorable to me, it's going to be memorable to the audience.

You've both done a lot of gigs over the past few years. What was your best or most memorable gig?

Larson: One of the best gigs I had was at an event at Goonie's called "Four for the Funny." It was the first time I did 25 minutes, and it seemed to work like a charm. When you're doing open mics, oftentimes, you're not getting a lot of time. So it was fun to actually feel successful at that length of time onstage.

Sultan: Every show feels magical, no matter where it is. I'm constantly having memorable nights. My recent most memorable would be the "Colbert" set. I was proud of how it went, and I was proud of the audience's response. But a night in North Dakota with small-town folks feels as good, so I'm grateful.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you more about your "Colbert" appearance — when did you find out you were going to be on? What was it like performing knowing that millions of people would see it?

Sultan: I found out near the end of 2019 that I was going to be on. Then the pandemic happened, so that delayed stuff, then all of a sudden, they said in two weeks we're taping. Two weeks is not a lot of time to prepare. You have to practice that set until it's down perfect. It's all about precision. Every word counts. Everything that you say has to be approved by them, so you have to submit a written version of your jokes and stick to that specific wording.

So it was pretty high pressure, knowing all these people are watching, knowing that your peers are watching. Definitely a lot of nerves, but when it came down to it, I found peace and composure, and I was happy that it went as well as I wanted it to.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to do stand-up?

Sultan: There's always space for people that are hobbyists, but if you want to make this your profession, you truly have to love it, because there's no guarantee. There's no stability. I don't have a 401(k). And you have to dig in deep and see why you're doing it. If you don't love the thing itself — if the process, the journey, bombing, all those things don't appeal to you, get out.

If you go

What: Ali Sultan and Jeff Larson, with emcee Ryan Stock

Where: Events Sports Bar and Grill, 401 8th St. SE, Kasson

When: Thursday, Aug. 12; doors open at 7 p.m., show at 8.

Tickets: $12 at the door

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