Senior Zaid Karabatak found his voice and his passion through comedy troupe at IU

Growing up an Arab Muslim in a post-9/11 America wasn't always easy for Indiana University Bloomington senior Zaid Karabatak. Being bullied for his ethnic background and forced to always explain his heritage stripped his self-confidence.

"I grew up immediately having a chip on my shoulder and having to understand and explain things at such a young age," Karabatak said. "I was talking about how Muslims aren't terrorists when I was in third grade. I had to learn a lot, really fast. Because my name is different than what most people see, people are going to ask me what that's from. That's going to lead to more questions."

But after discovering the world of comedy, Karabatak learned to use jokes as a way to both explain and stand up for his culture.

Karabatak with his father during a trip to Medina, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of Zaid Karabatak

"I want to continue to be an ambassador, continue to be a voice for people who maybe don't feel confident enough to speak up about themselves or don't feel confident to teach others about where they come from," said Karabatak,an information systems and business analytics major at the Kelley School of Business. "So I feel like I've been given an opportunity to show a different side of things."

Raised in a devout Muslim community in Dayton, Ohio, Karabatak saw his religion as something strictly serious and, at times, uptight. But that changed once he discovered the comedy special "Allah Made Me Funny" with his older brother. Karabatak started using his background as a springboard for his own comedy, shaping his perspective on life.

"I see these guys being able to make fun of things and have a good time with it," he said. "And eventually that's how I started to handle things. I started to not make fun of things but look on the bright side of things. If I was upset, I would try to make a joke out of it."

His innate ability to make others laugh didn't go unnoticed. Karabatak's brother urged him to get into comedy. During his Intensive Freshman Seminar at IU, a few friends signed him up for talent night -- telling him only 20 minutes before he was supposed to go on.

Karabatak laughs during a recent tWits rehearsal. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

"They're like, 'By the way, you're performing standup; we signed you up for a slot,'" Karabatak said. "Luckily, I had written some bits or whatever. I tried it, and I realized, 'Yeah, this is what I love doing and what I really want to see myself doing in the future.'"

Karabatak's passion for comedy was not immediately embraced by everyone, though. His father had doubts about this newfound hobby, and his mother wanted him to focus on school. But Karabatak knew he could manage both. So he joined the sketch comedy group The University tWits shortly after talent night his freshman year, sharing his original comedic style with IU.

"Zaid is so great to work with because he is fully invested in tWits and puts forth incredible effort," said Carmen Carigan, University tWits writer and performer. "He genuinely enjoys rehearsal and lights up the group with his presence. He is one of my favorite people to perform with on stage because I trust him so deeply."

The University tWits meets weekly and hosts a show once a month. Because it's a laterally structured group, every tWits member spends the first two weeks of every month writing and generating ideas. Then the group pitches those ideas, typically between 30 and 40 sketches, and complies the best 18. After that, the team rewrites the sketches together, creates the script and starts rehearsing. Since his time with tWits, Karabatak has gained one important and enthusiastic fan: his dad.

"He came and saw me the last show of my freshman year. And since then, he's been super supportive and always showing everyone videos of me from my standup," Karabatak said. "People I haven't met that are just his work friends will be like, 'I saw your video. You're really funny.' That definitely means a lot to me to have his support."

Karabatak leads a tWits meeting at the Indiana Memorial Union.  Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Known primarily for his physical comedy, Karabatak craves being in front of an audience and learns as he goes along.

"I think there's nothing more satisfying than saying something and just getting an immediate reaction from the audience," he said. "I think that's what makes comedy so unique: It's an ongoing conversation with the audience of like, 'All right, let's try this. OK, they like that. Let's try this. They didn't like that. Let's try something else.'"

Besides tWits, Karabatak is also a committed member of IU's Middle Eastern Student Association. Balancing multiple extracurriculars, gym time and schoolwork, Karabatak stays motivated because of some important people in his life.

"I'm the youngest of three kids. But in most recent years I've kind of become someone that a lot of my family like turns to when they need to talk to somebody," he said. "To have them in my corner really makes me super excited and makes me want to keep working."

Although Karabatak came into college with some uncertainties about who he wanted to be, he said IU offered him the tools and experiences necessary to grow into the person he always knew he was.

"IU Bloomington gave me the major that I love, information systems. Like I said, I'm very passionate about that as well, but it also gave me comedy," he said. "It also gave me a lot of confidence and reassurance and allowed me to find myself in an area where I think a lot people were trying to find themselves. I just think that IU Bloomington really helped me develop, find out who I am and be comfortable with that person."

This Tuesday, Feb. 26, join us as we follow Zaid Karabatak through his day as an IU student as part of our One Day/One Hoosier series. Look for his story through @IUBloomington on Twitter, @iubloomington on Instagram and iu_bloomington on Snapchat as it happens live starting around 10:00 AM ET.