You do not have to go to shows every single night! Each person will find their version of success that is unique to them and the path is never the exact same. When I moved to a big city to continue my comedy pursuits, a lot of people told me I had to go out every night no matter what. I ran myself ragged doing shows at the cost of my own health and ended up in the hospital. It was not worth it, and when I decided to only do as many shows as felt manageable I found much more success.
As a part of our series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Aisha Alfa.
Born in Nigeria, raised in Canada, with stints in Korea and France, Aisha Alfa is now living and working in Los Angeles as a comedian, actor, writer and host. Aisha is a former professional soccer player, wedding planner, certified professional life coach and motivational speaker. Her comedy album All The Parts” streams on the All Things Comedy Youtube channel and was listed as Ebony Magazine’s “5 Black Female Comedy Albums to Get Your Chuckle On”. Aisha has a joke on GQ’s “100 Best Jokes In The World” and she has performed live stand up comedy around the world including Just For Laughs (Montreal, Canada), Cape Town Comedy (South Africa), Breakout Festival (Chicago), Montreux Comedy Festival (Switzerland) and clubs throughout North America. Aisha plays Carolyn on the dark comedy thriller Based On A True Story on Peacock and you may also recognize her as Ms Grell on the Degrassi franchise (Netflix), Jordan in Good Trouble (HULU) and Claire in Sorry For Your Loss (Facebook Watch). She has a TEDx talk on the importance of failure, an interview series called Plus One about pregnancy, fertility and motherhood and is the co-host of the positive podcast The Shout Out Show. In addition to acting and stand up, Alfa has added a new role to her resume — Mama of two amazing kiddos!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Nigeria but grew up in Canada in a mixed race family — my father is Nigerian and my mother is the descendent of ghosts…she’s very white. My parents worked extremely hard to earn their PhDs in their respective fields (Engineering and Microbiology) while raising me and my older brother. I grew up always doing extracurricular activities, mostly because my parents were working. But it’s what allowed me to adapt easily and fit in with any group. I played drums, was a competitive gymnast, did swim lessons, participated in cultural dance, and eventually ended up playing every school and club sport available to me — soccer, basketball, volleyball, track and field, badminton, hockey (even though I couldn’t stop on skates). I grew up dancing to Motown in the living room and learning how to beatbox so my older brother could practice freestyle rapping. My foray into comedy was watching Saturday Night Live and In Living Color with my family and reenacting the sketches.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path as a comedian?
I kind of stumbled into acting/comedy if I’m honest. I didn’t grow up believing a career as a performer was available to me. We were expected to do well in school and being on the honor roll was the goal. I found out you could take drama in university when I enrolled in a class in my first year of college. I was promptly kicked out when I had to miss the first day of classes because of my commitments to the varsity soccer team! I travelled around the world as a young adult and had many many adventures. In retrospect, I’m pretty impressed that I’m still alive (or maybe in one piece) to tell the tales of all the shenanigans I got into! Eventually, I found myself living in Korea, teaching English to kindergarten kids, playing soccer in a men’s league and representing Korea in the Asian Gaelic Games in the sport of Gaelic Football, but I just wasn’t feeling fulfilled. So, I went to France to study French and eventually made it back to Winnipeg, Canada to live with my parents again and decide what I wanted to do with my life. I tried many things and got the opportunity to host an online lifestyle channel where I LOVED being in front of the camera. I got into an acting class and then had an opportunity to try stand up comedy. I thought it would be a one off exercise in getting outside the comfort zone, but it gave me such a high I kept doing it and eventually comedy and acting kind of took over as what I wanted and part of who I am. I’ve never looked back!
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was asked to be involved in the National Summit on Racial Inclusion put on by the Mayor of Winnipeg, hosted by the Museum of Human Rights in Canada. It was an amazing event that created dialogue between groups about racism in Canada, what can be done and how people from different groups feel. It was truly an honor and I got the gig because of my profile as a performer in Canada. The event was very emotional, authentic and solutions focused and I also got to bring some humor to the event which is a great way to unify groups with severely opposing philosophies. It was an honor and I still can’t believe I was a part of such a monumental event, with such serious big wigs!!!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started in comedy, I was asked to do my first paid comedy set for an organization that helps people living with disabilities maintain their independence. It was a long list of performers, most of whom were part of the organization. The woman who hired me told me she needed me to do at least some jokes about disability, because she thought otherwise people would not relate. I felt super uncomfortable about it, but agreed because I was new and needed the money. Cut to the set…it was rough! Haha! And after the show the woman who hired me apologized when she realized how ridiculous and unfair her request was. But I should have said no in the beginning. Telling jokes about disability as an able-bodied person is like someone telling black jokes who is not. There is NO WAY I should have even entertained the idea of her request, I’ve since learned to say no when people ask me to do things (in comedy or any other realm really) that I don’t feel like I can successfully deliver — whether I feel uncomfortable, don’t have enough time or just don’t want to do it. I want to over deliver and have people saying “WOW she’s good” not, “Ooof what was she thinking?!?!”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people who have helped me along the way in my career, but today I feel like mentioning one of my first agents, Carolyn Sterling from Grand Wave Entertainment in Toronto, Canada. When I moved from Winnipeg to Toronto I had no representation and had only been doing comedy and acting for 3 years. Carolyn, and the team she worked with, took me on as a client and got me in the door for all my first major roles in Canada. Carolyn personally took great interest in my career and would push for me to be seen for projects casting directors didn’t think I was right for. I remember once getting a call from her, she told me she needed a quick scene taped on my phone, because she had been struggling to convince a casting director to see me for a role in a drama — at the time everyone thought I was only a comedic actor, but in fact I started in drama. When Carolyn thought I was right for a role she did everything in her power to get me in front of the casting team! I am forever grateful for her and how she helped shape my career early on. We are still friends to this day! Gold is best, boom boom! (That’s an inside joke for Caro.)
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Failure is your friend! Easy to say, hard to put into practice. I grew up thinking I needed to be perfect, that I could not mess up and if I did it would be catastrophic! But as I get older I realize nothing is the end of the world! Being able to screw up is what makes us better, it helps us evolve and face our fears. Knowing we are loved, worthy and wonderful, even even in the face of failure is the message I hope to impart on my kids. I actually did a TEDx Talk called Holding Hands with Failure on the Road To Creativity that speaks exactly to this idea. Failing often means we are trying new things — changing, evolving — that’s a good thing, especially for performers. So, just go put whatever you’ve got out there. If you “fail” GREAT! Learn from that and try something new. If nothing else you’ll have hilarious stories to tell!
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
Thank you! I have a lot of things I’m working on including a live comedy show called Toasted at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles, my podcast The Shout Out Show which I co-host with comedian Sophia Zolan and a TV series and feature film I plan to pitch once the industry union strikes get resolved. Of course as things evolve and projects come in, I always post about them on my social media (@aishaalfa) and my website (www.aishaalfa.com).
What do you do to get material to write your jokes? What is that creative process like?
I am not the kind of comedian who sits down to write out my jokes. I tend to write down a few ideas or nuggets and then go on stage to work them out. I love the instant feedback an audience gives you. I audio record my sets so I can listen back and remember the parts that worked and dive into them. When I perform it’s like I black out and I can never remember the lines I said, so having audio recordings is key for me. Also, I find the best way to have things to talk about on stage is to live a full life! If all you do is wake up and go to stand up shows, all you can talk about is the comedy clubs! I have two kids that are hilarity machines, I see friends, I love to dance and eat good food, I travel, I have a healthy relationship with my hubby, I do therapy, I exercise and try my best to soak in all the aspects of life.
Super. Here is our main question. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian” and why?
1) You do not have to go to shows every single night! Each person will find their version of success that is unique to them and the path is never the exact same. When I moved to a big city to continue my comedy pursuits, a lot of people told me I had to go out every night no matter what. I ran myself ragged doing shows at the cost of my own health and ended up in the hospital. It was not worth it, and when I decided to only do as many shows as felt manageable I found much more success.
2) Do not compare yourself to anyone else. Social media makes this one hard, but there is absolute danger in comparison to anyone who is not you. It leads to jealousy, resentment, contentment in mediocrity, self-doubt and most importantly a loss of focus on you! You are the only you out here and your shine is a unique vibration. When we try to change that light we dim ourselves which is a crime against the universe!
3) You can be more than one thing. I consider myself to be a hyphenate performer: comedian/actor/writer/host. Often people ask which one is my main focus and the truth is, I need them all! Some people need one single aim to put all their efforts into, but I can’t see myself being totally fulfilled doing just one thing and that also works. Sometimes I’m doing stand up comedy shows all the time, sometimes I’m on set and can’t do stand up as much, sometimes my kids are sick so being a Mama is my main focus. I love variety and never want to be put in a box with a lid. All of the parts of my career lead back to who I am and what I want to do. I am a performer and I want to create fun. There are many ways to do that!
4) Don’t be precious with your gift, put it out there! There is nothing worse than allowing your inner critic to stop your art from flowing. I have so much work that I never released because I was trying to make it “better” or “perfect”. Stop hoarding your talent and just dump it into the world. If you enjoy what you do, there is an endless supply and it is our job to let it be seen. Let yourself be seen people!!!
5) Find your people. You’ll enjoy your career more if you find your tribe and celebrate those people, invest in those relationships and cultivate the love with that group. Not everyone is going to be your cup of tea, and you will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some people don’t even like tea! I often feel like I don’t fit in with the majority of the people I meet. Sometimes it makes me want to try to change myself, but that feels crappy. I feel my best when I am around my people, my crew; the people I trust, laugh with and love being around. When you find your people, hold on to them with everything you’ve got!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This quote by Martha Graham, the fierce pioneer of modern dance, is one I go back to time and time again to remind me of my job as a creative:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Supporting women! Women make the world go round! If we want this world to be a better, kinder, safer place we need to invest in women — mothers, daughters, leaders, healers. Equal opportunities, equal rights, equal celebration of women should be at the forefront of all our societies. The more we can move the needle, the better our world will be for everyone.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have lunch, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
There are plenty, but my top three right now are Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones and Michelle Buteau. Maya Rudolph is HILARIOUS and seems like the kind of person I’d love to have a meal with to laugh and be real with. Rashida Jones is so cool and seems to care about and be involved in projects that deal with the female experience which I love. And Michelle Buteau is hilarious and a Mama and I’d love to hang with her and open for her (if you’re reading this Michelle, I’m available!)
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
Follow me on Twitter and IG: @aishaalfa and on Youtube @AishaAlfaComedy I encourage all my fans to reach out! I love hearing from people who’ve seen my work. I try to answer all the messages I get from my website and on social media, which sometimes surprises people!
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Editorial Photos: Troy Jensen @itstroyjensen (photography & make up)
Comedy Photo: Greg Feiner @greg.feiner
Aisha Alfa: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Comedian was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.