When he was a kid, all Gibran Saleem wanted in the world was to be a Ninja Turtle.
Fast-forward to 2019 — instead of battling crime as an anthropomorphic reptile, Saleem is a stand-up comic with a master’s degree in psychology.
“Who knows, though,” he said. “If I end up in a sewer one day, that might be a sign.”
As a stand-up comedian who has been featured on television shows on MTV and PBS, one of Saleem’s primary interests in his comedy routines and lectures is to increase dialogue between different religious and cultural groups.
At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 1 in the Hall of Philosophy, Saleem will explain “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Muslim Perspective: A Personal Journey” as part of the Week Six interfaith lecture series, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”
Saleem said he grew up in a Pakistani household that emphasized secure jobs over riskier professions, which eventually led him to pursue a degree in psychology.
“I moved to New York (City) to go to graduate school for psychology, and I lived a block away from a comedy club,” Saleem said. “When I got there, I was going to shows pretty regularly, just watching. Eventually I went to an open mic, which was people just trying comedy, trying out jokes. I just saw regular people trying to figure it out, and I realized: ‘Oh, so anyone can try it.’ ”
While the transition from psychology to comedy might seem unusual, Saleem said it was a natural development for him that combined many of his interests into one field.
“I felt like it was incorporating my interest in psychology, but also my interest in public speaking,” he said. “I had a lot of social anxiety in high school. I felt like creatively, intellectually and even in terms of marketing, I felt like it incorporated so many fields into one. It felt more fulfilling.”
Part of comedy’s allure for Saleem was also its link to religion.
“The overall goal for religion is positivity,” he said. “With comedy, the overall goal is to make people laugh and to connect with people. When it comes to religion, I joke about myself and my culture, my religion, a lot of stuff like that. And when I can get the audience to laugh, that means they’re understanding me. Overall, I feel when we can relate to one another, we realize we’re all just human beings.”
It’s finding commonalities with his audience, and blurring the lines of division between different religions that Saleem said he’s most interested in discussing with his Chautauqua audience.
“Ultimately, I’d like people to say, ‘I understand where he’s coming from. He’s not so much different from me,’ ” he said. “The more you lose the lines of division, the more people can grow together.”