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Inside the Mind of a Stand-Up Comic Vying for Title of 'Funniest Fed'

AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on Wordmaster, finding the right words to make people laugh. Meet Shahryar Rizvi. He's a computer specialist, also working part time on a master's of business administration.

So what's he doing in a competition organized by a local comic to find the funniest federal employee in the Washington, D.C., area? It turns out he was judged the third funniest person on campus when he made his debut as a stand-up comedian in college five years ago.

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "Once I was up there, after the first joke, it was just magic. I didn't want to get off."

AA: "Why don't you explain a little bit this idea of stand-up comedy in the American context."

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "I think it is probably the hardest art form there is, because you're up there with nothing, no props, nobody else to work off of. It's just you alone and whatever you have had planned to say. And your goal is to be as funny as consistently as possible.

"I mean, it's one thing to go up there and say a speech or something like that. But to go up there and try to be funny and get as many laughs as you can within a five-minute set, a ten-minute set, twenty-minute set, an hour set. One of my main goals is I try to make sure everything I say takes about a second to get. Like I twist it and I try to write it in such a way that it takes a second to get because I feel like that second it takes to get makes it funnier."

AA: "Well, not to put you on the spot here, but maybe you could give us an example or two."

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "You know, doing it like this is just not going to come out funny."

AA: "No, I understand!"

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "But, you know, [at], they have short, one-minute videos up there."

VIDEO: "I work for the Census Bureau pretty much for the reason everybody else works for the Census Bureau: we're trying to get off unemployment. But it was still a tough decision, though. I mean I was desperate for a job. Like I was actually so desperate for a job, that when I applied with the defense company Lockheed Martin, I actually changed my name on my resume to Lockheed Martin. And my entire cover letter was about it not being a coincidence that my name was Lockheed Martin, that I had in fact been sent by God to work for their company."

AA: "So now you're a semifinalist in the 2007 Funniest Fed Competition."

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "It's the first one, actually. They say '2007' like it's been around for a while, but it's the first one."

AA: "That's what it says on their Web site! But, right, it's the first ever. But let me just ask you here on kind of a serious note, I mean these are serious times right now. We've got a war, we've got political tensions in the government. Would maybe some people think this is a little flippant for government employees to be competing to be the Funniest Fed in Washington?"

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "In my personal opinion, I can't think of any time where there wasn't like tension or a war or anything going on in the history of mankind. So I don't think that's a good enough reason to not be able to do what you're good at, not to do a hobby. I don't think there's anything wrong with us getting out there and making jokes and doing our thing, no matter how good times are, no matter how bad times are."

AA: "What's it like being a Muslim stand-up comedian right now in America, especially after 9/11?"

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "I don't think there's any -- there's nothing extraordinary about it at all. There are a lot of Muslim comedians kind of coming out of the woodwork these days. Ever since 9/11 it's been a big deal to kind of focus on them just because it's fascinating. But for the most part, the crowds listen to me, and fellow comedians -- I've never noticed any sort of tension or anything like that. So I don't think there's -- "

AA: "Well, what sort of topics do you tend to focus on in your routines?"

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "I focus on more everyday things. I don't do too much Muslim stuff. I do a little bit here and there. There's a lot of more Muslim comics who do a lot more, and that works more for them. I actually try not to do it too much because I don't want to kind of use it as a crutch too much. I feel like a lot of comedians might do that if they're a different race or something like that, they might kind of push on it a little more.

"But I do a little bit on it, and whenever I do it, I try to make sure it's extremely creative, extremely funny, something no other Muslim comic would come up with. But I myself try to stay away from that. I try to stick to normal, everyday stuff. I feel like the crowd enjoys that more."

AA: "Well, and let me ask you, last question here, who do you find funny?"

SHAHRYAR RIZVI: "Comedian-wise, I generally find Jerry Seinfeld funny. I think he's probably my favorite comedian. I find my father to be funny, too. Not a comedian, but I think he's a genuinely funny guy."

AA: Shahryar Rizvi at the United States Census Bureau is one of ten semifinalists in the privately sponsored Funniest Fed Competition. The final rounds are this week and next before an audience and a panel of judges. The winner will get two hundred fifty dollars.

And that's Wordmaster for this week. You can learn all kinds of things about American English at our Web site: And our e-mail address is I'm Avi Arditti.