Truth is fun
Shazia Mirza, a female stand-up comedian and a devout Muslim, makes headlines in the UK circuit. She says that truth – hard-hitting truth – is the essence of comedy. Rajeev Nair met her in Dubai
Funny how the UK’s accomplished stand-up comedy sits this Friday morning, hunched back on the coffee-shop chair, a thick air of seriousness wrapped tight around her. Her publicity photographs spoke a different language. Shazia Mirza was all laughter in those hand-outs.
She says she is tired. She had slept just four hours, and she can’t live without sleep.
But she assures – it is the same person that goes on-stage. The same person who electrifies the ambience with wise-cracks, quick wits, a repertoire of rehearsed comedy. She did it all in Dubai at the One Night Stand stand-up comedy event organised by Fuzon Events in Dubai.
But first a profile: Mirza, a British citizen born to Pakistani parents, holds a degree in biochemistry from Manchester University. She was a teacher; her parents wanted her to be a doctor; she eventually became a comedian. She is a regular on evening talk shows, has written various BBC shows, was a panelist on BBC’s Mind Games, profiled on CBS 60 Minutes, has performed all over Europe and all set to go on her US tour.
She sticks to the UK’s stand-up comedy tradition, which means, no slapstick, no Bollywood jokes… It works – from Sweden, where she had her most memorable stage, to France, to Norway, Denmark and Finland, and now, Dubai.
Words had to be squeezed out of Shazia today; she says she isn’t reserved. Isn’t she tired?
How is it to be a Muslim, female stand-up comedienne?
I don’t think of it. I just think of myself as a comedian, not this and that…
How did the comedian in you happen?
It is a strange thing to say you wanted to be a comedian. It was an accident. I never planned to be one. I did it one night for a laugh and I couldn’t stop it.
Did you discover the comedian in you suddenly?
Nothing happens suddenly. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, a good Asian doctor, so I will marry a doctor and our kids will be doctors and every body will be respected. I had enough of it. I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t want to be a doctor because every one could say, your kids are doctors… I don’t know how I became a comedian; it takes years to become one. No, I don’t feel like a proper comedian.
Was your family disappointed with your career choice?
No, they weren’t disappointed because I had a degree in biochemistry. I was a teacher and they thought what I was doing was a strange thing to do. They thought I will grow out of it and get married…
Which is the put on? The humor on stage or the serious you that you now seem to be…
I am quite tired all the time. I am not a high energy person. When I was a child, I was naughty all the time… On stage, no, I am not a different person. It is the same person.
Are you generally reserved?
No, I am not. I am just tired.
All comedians seem to face a problem; people expect them to be wise-cracking, humorous all the time…
Most aren’t. It is not a transition of sorts. You aren’t the same person 24 hours a day. You have different moods. On stage, you have a written material that you want people to listen to.
Is every line you say on stage rehearsed?
A lot of it is. One hour is a long time. You better have something up your sleeve.
What is the difficult part of being a comedian?
It is all difficult… making people laugh, saying something valuable, travelling on your own, performing on your own, if something goes badly, it is all your fault…
Why is stand-up comedy regarded as such a man-thing?
Because people think it is alright for a man to stand up there and make people laugh but it is not alright for a woman. It takes a long time to change that kind of mindset, to have an impact on something… But yes, I have worked hard for four years. I travel a lot, I do little gigs, little ones every night of the week, maybe because I am Asian I work hard.
Where do you pick your lines from?
Life. I am a keen observer of life and people. I am baffled why people do certain things. I can’t understand why people are in porn films… I use that as my material. I get lines from family, travelling… You write things you want to say, your point of view, why you think one way, and the way I think represents who I am…
And how would you describe yourself?
I was born and brought up in England, brought up by religious parents who go for Haj every year, all this defines who you are and how you think.
Has being a Muslim affected your work?
It has affected others, not me. They come and watch my shows to see what I have to say, hoping there is something different, and it is different.
Has life changed being a comedian?
Not exactly, though I travel a lot.
You are inspired by the great comedians of the past, the truth they told. Is comedy all about truth?
Without truth there is no comedy and people don’t like to hear the truth. Any show could go wrong all the time. The audience might not understand my comedy because mine is not slapstick. I don’t talk about Bollywood. I don’t sing and dance. It is pure stand-up comedy the way we were brought up in the UK.
Do you research for the audience?No, not at all. I do what I want to. If they get it, they get it. Every show is different. Every audience is different. There will never be the same set of people in the same room every again. Usually one hour is a long time to do comedy. If it is going badly, that could be the longest hour in your life.
Do you plan to perform in India or Pakistan?
I was supposed to go to Pakistan last month. It got cancelled. I will go in future. I want to go to India. It is very modern. I am sure their comedy is different from ours.