Comedian Dina Hashem Senses a Gulf

Dina Hashem believes the gulf is a distance between what audiences want to pay to hear and what she wants to joke about. The comic makes it sound freeing and stressful, almost an opportunity for both creative freedom and distancing. Hashem’s stand up can similarly embody multiple contrasts, effortlessly and effortfully. 

For example, Hashem appears both confident and uncomfortable on stage. 

Look no further than her most recent special, Dark Little Whispers (now available to stream on Amazon). The comic scores big laughs without a whole lot of bells or whistles. Hashem’s low-key delivery often just highlights how strong her material is; it doesn’t need a lot of seasoning or sugar, if you will.

How do you feel after the release of your special? 

Mostly anxiety. 

So you’re not enjoying the sense of accomplishment?

Oh no. I never feel that way. I’ve been waiting my entire life to feel a sigh of relief that I’ve done something properly. Maybe that’ll come someday.

Maybe a year from now you can breathe that sigh of relief about the special?

A year is optimistic. We’ll see. We’re all going to die, aren’t we?

Very true. Do you look into how people react to the special or just put it out there and let it be?

Well, it’s not even that I’m afraid of what people will say. I’m afraid people won’t say anything. I’m just afraid people won’t see it with the fucking algorithms. They get in your head where you’re like, oh my God, I can’t reach the people I’m trying to reach. It’s very, very frustrating, but whatever.

I feel Dark Little Whispers would bring comfort to shy people or anyone with anxiety just to know, Hey, this person got through theirs, and look at them on stage.

Yeah, that’s really actually one of the things that I hope, that people can get over the things that block them from communicating.

Your delivery is absolutely less is more. When do you know your shyness, really, is advantageous for your comedy? 

I do have a low key demeanor, but my thoughts don’t necessarily match that energy. I think it does work for comedic effect. I do think it allows some flexibility to go a little harder. If I was screaming about Jihad, I think that’d be a different vibe. That was a reference to one of my jokes, just to be clear for the readers.  

You seem to enjoy it when the crowd goes uncomfortably quiet after a joke. 

Definitely for my grandma joke. I mean, that joke sometimes doesn’t even get a laugh. People are just shocked when they process the information. For anything religious or political, that makes the tension release of the punchline even better. 

Like the Trump thing, whenever I ask if people voted for Trump, the room always gets very tense. That’s a fun road joke because depending where you are, the reaction will be totally different. But what I like about that joke is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who people voted for because the joke works for everyone most of the time. So it’s more of just a fun way of getting the temperature of the room and making everybody uncomfortable and seeing who’s brave enough to clap for that. 

When the crowd doesn’t laugh and needs to process any information, do you kind of get to sit back and enjoy, like, this moment is for me?

Definitely. I mean, the longer I do this, I care less and less about what the audience thinks, and I’m just trying to have fun and entertain myself, which is selfish and not the right thing for a performer to do. But you just get bored doing the same thing over and over. You get bored wanting to just make everyone happy. Sometimes you just want to make them upset. 

Is that really selfish? If you enjoy what you’re doing, others will too, right?

I think that’s true, but you can’t go too far into that because then you start losing people. It’s such a delicate balance between doing things that I think is funny and what an audience might think is good. Sometimes I feel like the chasm between those two things is growing so far that I have to stop doing this. But yeah, finding that middle ground is still necessary if you want to make any money. 

When did you begin to have a good sense of what you like and don’t like to do as a comedian? 

I only recently started feeling comfortable being something closer to who I am. I don’t think I’m there yet, because my demeanor or character or whatever on stage initially just came from the fact that I was extremely nervous. People would think I was just doing this shy, awkward character and I could hide behind that when, in fact, that’s just how I felt. I had never been comfortable on stage. I mean, performing is not natural to me at all. 

I guess that was sort of informing my comedy for most of my career, and it was only up until a few years ago, I started to loosen up and could do more than that sort of character. I guess I got bored of ingratiating myself to crowds. In my opinion, it’s easier to get a laugh when you’re being timid and asking the audience to, in a way, find you cute, which is fine, and some people do that really well. But for me, it’s more interesting if I could just challenge them more and still get a laugh. It’s a bigger win.

Photo by Chris Palermo

Which comedians do you admire in that regard? 

Tim Dillon is one of my favorites. I feel like his presence is extremely challenging [laughs], but that’s what’s exciting about it. My favorite comic of all time is Norm McDonald. I don’t know if he would necessarily fall under that category, necessarily. I mean, maybe his panel interviews, but he was just always doing exactly what he wanted and saying what he wanted and trusting in his own sense of humor. I feel like that’s what everybody wants to get to. What was crazy was that he was always just saying what was in his head, and it was always hilarious. Just a magical human being.

Was there a lightbulb moment that made you trust your own sense of humor more?

Honestly, it was being trolled relentlessly in 2019. There’s this whole thing where Comedy Central posted this joke I did about a celebrity, and I didn’t know he had a cult following. I just got spammed with threats and hate for a year. One of those messages really got to me even more than any of the death or rape threats got to me. He was like, “You look scared on stage.” And I was like, oh my God, no one has ever said that to me before, and it’s true. He nailed it. I can’t even be mad. It’s true. I am scared and I look scared, and it bothered me so much. 

Just that on top of everything else I was going through at that time with all the messages, something in it just broke me a little bit and made me let go and just realized this is stupid. What I do is stupid. Standup is stupid, and I should just try to have more fun. If I’m going to be putting myself at risk of these attacks and being misunderstood, then I might as well be doing something I want to do.

Did weed or psychedelics help you at all with performing? 

I will occasionally get high and think of a joke. I wish it happened more, but there are definitely jokes I thought of while I was high that I probably wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. I guess in that sense, it’s helped. Doing psychedelics has definitely just opened my brain in a way that nothing else can. Obviously, I have jokes about the experience of doing those things, so that’s helpful. 

Do you actually listen to REM while doing psychedelics, or is that just the character? 

Yeah, that one’s not fully accurate. Most of my jokes, I try to keep true to life. I think it’s more interesting, but that one’s a little cobbled together. I do love listening to music while I’m on any sort of drug like that. I think it’s the best, but I don’t know if I was listening to that REM song [referenced]. I had just started listening to REM only recently in my life, so it was sort of mind boggling to listen to them. They’re great.

What else do you like to listen to when you get high?

The Pixies are my favorite band, and their lyrics are already just so fucking out of this world that when I’m high, especially for a trip. Their lyrics are so visual. This song, “The Happening,” it’s about aliens coming down, and it just really hits differently when you’re high. 

How was growing in Jersey for you? Did that environment inspire you to go into comedy at all?

I dunno, I lived so much just in my own head that I feel like my environment, no matter where I was, it wouldn’t have really mattered just because I had such a sheltered upbringing. I spent so much time alone in my room. I’m really not actually a very observant comedian. I’m not observant of my surroundings at all, so I can’t quite say if New Jersey really had an impact. Maybe when I first started doing stand up, I definitely felt like the odd one out at open mics and stuff. There was definitely a brasher type of energy, and then I would go up and it’d just be a record scratch. So in a way, it helped me be comfortable doing my own thing on stage.

Which rooms or venues on the road do you find challenging? 

Really, any road room that is full of people who don’t know who I am, which is a lot of ’em. I did a little run of shows in Wisconsin and I never refrained from telling jokes about growing up Muslim or anything, just because I was curious myself to see how they’ll go over. But those jokes can definitely be a challenge in places like that. Not that they’re like, we don’t want to hear this, but just they’re not familiar with it, so it doesn’t hit as hard.

The Mecca joke, people will just not really get it if you don’t have the foundational knowledge of certain things. But I never feel alienated anywhere. I feel like there’s this perception that, oh, if you’re a certain identity, you can’t tell jokes in a certain area, but that’s not been the case in my experience. I mean, sometimes I just jump ship. I’m like, “You know what? They’re not here on a Saturday night to hear about Islam, so let me just pivot away.”

Should we also talk about the Sheraton Hotel? Any comments there? [Note: The Sheraton Hotel once turned away Dina’s family in need of shelter after they lost their home]

Back to Sheraton, that is a core memory I would say in my life. Actually, someone only recently told me that they thought I was doing a parable of the story of Jesus, which I’m not familiar with. Is that the thing that Jesus was turned away from an inn? Is that part of the lore of Christianity? I have no idea, but someone brought it up to me. I was like, oh, maybe I should work that in. But yeah, they should be out of business probably. Are they? I haven’t looked up the Sheraton recently.

I believe they’re still in business. 

That’s a shame. I almost drowned in their pool once, as well. That’s another core memory.

So, a lot of grievances against the Sheraton.

Not a fan.

Photo by Chris Palermo

I’m happy your Amazon dig stayed in your special. 

Oh, the Bezos thing? I wasn’t sure if they were going to leave that in or not. They probably didn’t even watch the special. I wasn’t sure if that was going to fly, but Bezos, you know, he seems like a real down to Earth billionaire with a sense of humor, you know?

[Laughs] They stream so much anti-corporate stuff on Amazon, I wonder, does Jeff even watch this stuff? 

I cannot imagine he knows what’s going on there. I’ve noticed that as well. I mean, The Boys is such a good show, but it calls out all that shit. 

I always wonder about that, too. Is that punk rock or contradictory? 

I actually have a conspiracy theory about that. You notice this trend of all these shows and movies talking about how bad rich people are? I feel they’re just setting an upper limit for what we’re allowed to do to rich people. It’s like, “Oh yeah, go ahead and use your art to make fun of us. Just don’t show up at our doorsteps with pitchforks.” Like, “Oh, you got us good with your little movie, just leave us alone.”

[laughs] I think there’s something there. Then they balance it out with stories like Air, you know? “Hey, capitalism, it can be pretty cool, too, right?”

That’s true. They do balance it out with all of that garbage as well.

What are you working on now? 

I have a little movie idea that I’m working on about a woman who, well, I don’t want to give it away, but it involves porn and a woman, but there will be no porn in the movie. But I’m very excited about this idea, and then I’m working on building a new hour of material, which I don’t want to do at all. And yeah, and I’m getting into a little bit of voice work. If anyone out there wants a voice for their thing, I’m happy. 

So, no excitement whatsoever about building another hour of material? 

No, really, this is the most honest I’ll ever be with somebody. I don’t want to do it. I don’t think I have anything left to say. As I said, the gulf between what I want to say and what a paying audience wants to hear is enormous. I really don’t know what I’m going to do, and I’m very afraid.

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