Shazia Mirza is an award winning British Asian Muslim Stand up comedian from Birmingham England, who is currently touring with her new show ‘The Kardashians Made Me Do It’. Well known for her sharp wit and cutting sense of humour, our Head of Arts, Zoe Head, investigates what makes this comedian so unique in her time.
Shazia, what drew you to a career in comedy? Was there a particular moment when you realised it’s what you wanted to do?
I always wanted to be on the stage but my parents, obviously being very conservative, just wanted me to be a doctor. So I actually went to university, I studied biochemistry at university, which is obviously coming in very handy now I’m doing comedy. Basically, when I finished uni I was really interested in writing. I just wanted to write. I went on a writing comedy course and I remember writing a routine about my moustache and everybody thought that was hilarious. It was an evening class and was full of bankers and lawyers and people with very serious jobs, who secretly harboured a desire to do comedy.
How did your prior career as a teacher influence you as a comedian?
Yeah I think it was a really good training ground. A lot of comedians are teachers and it was really great training for me as a comedian because it was a very difficult school that I taught at. I mean, all the schools I taught at were very difficult. I used to have kids try and escape my lessons through the window. And they said ‘God, Miss, this is so boring! When is it going to end? When is this going to end?!’ I was used to getting all kinds of abuse and you know, when I started comedy, nobody ever tried to escape from one of my gigs through a window. Nobody ever sat there and said ‘Oh god, this is boring. When is it going to end’. People would listen to everything I said! And I thought, this is amazing, I think I’m going to carry on! With everyone listening it’s really easy.
You are famous for deadpan delivery, is it difficult to train yourself to have a straight face or does it just come naturally?
Erm no, I am naturally miserable. I’m always miserable. Nothing really makes me laugh. Stupid things make me laugh, like if I saw a woman running for the bus and she fell over. For some reason, I would find that hilarious. And everybody would look at me like ‘that’s sooo inappropriate that you’re laughing, that’s sooo awful’. But that’s the kind of thing that I find funny. But it’s really weird, in real life I’m just…monotonous really. That’s how I am.
How do you think satirical comedy positively impacts on society?
Well, now that we’ve got Donald Trump and Brexit and Nigel Farage, I mean, what else is there to talk about?! I mean, for a comedian, this is reallyy.. I mean, in the eighties when Thatcher was in power, we had ‘Spitting Image’ and that was a really big show because it satirised the time, it was about the time, it’s a reflection on society and everybody.. and what was going on. And I just think, the same is going to happen again now because stuff is going on in the world. It’s kind of like the elephant in the room. I mean, what else are you going to talk about?
I’m sure you’re aware that your work is often referred to as ‘brave’. In your own words, what does that mean to you?
I have no idea what that means. I don’t think any comedian thinks to themselves when they start off, you know, ‘I’ve got to be brave’. I think most comedians think, ‘you know what, I’ve got to be funny’.
In your comedy you tend to deal with very provocative ideas that some may take offence at, what would you say to someone who found your jokes ‘politically incorrect’?
It’s basically my mum and dad that are offended by my work. They just want me to get married. They are the most critical. I don’t really get that much criticism from the public. I get it mainly from my parents. I think they’re just annoyed because most of the jokes are about them.
Tell us a bit about the show you’re currently touring with, ‘The Kardashians Made Me Do It’.
Well it’s about four things; people being offended, political correctness, ISIS and Jihadi brides. That’s what it’s about. Because really, there’s a large chunk of it based on the three girls from Bethnal Green that went to join ISIS last year. They were going to Ibiza, but actually they’ve gone to Syria. And that’s what it’s about. Most of the stuff in my show is true. It’s based on facts, I did a lot of research. But I have to say, you know, even though they sound like really dark subjects, it’s my funniest show and it’s very very very funny.
How did you come up with the title for your show?
Well, basically, these three girls from Bethnal Green who went to join ISIS last year, after they’d left, their parents were called in to the home affairs select committee by the MP Keith Vaz, God where’d they find the time, and he asked the parents ‘Why have your daughters gone to Syria?’ and the sister said ‘I can’t understand why she’s gone, she used to watch the Kardashians’. That’s what they told the government of our country. ‘She used to watch the Kardashians’. And I just couldn’t believe it. It’s just so funny. That’s what they told the government! And that’s where the title came from.
How did you feel when you first saw the images of the three Muslim girls from Bethnal Green, did it particularly resonate with you? Did you understand why they went?
It did and I did. It resonated with me because I used to teach in Tower Hamlets and I used to teach girls that looked like that, that were like that so I knew, not these three particular girls but I knew girls like this. I knew how they thought, how they behaved, I knew about their background, you know, it was all very familiar to me. And so it was not unusual for me to form an opinion and know why they went. And everybody I spoke to, all my friends who are still teachers, who used to teach with me, and other girls their age, and other girls who went to the same school. I mean, I spoke to a lot of people that I know. It was so obvious to me and to everyone why these girls had gone and it was nothing to do with religion or politics or that these girls had been radicalised which is what the media kept putting out there. And what my show is really, what it does is – I’m not saying I’m right or I’m wrong or, you know, what I believe you must believe it too. I just offer a different way of looking at this, a way that you will never hear in the media because the media are trotting out their own narrative and they don’t want anyone to ruin that narrative. I’m presenting a different point of view and it’s strange because all the people that have been to see the show, after they’ve been, I’ve had so many emails and they all say to me ‘Thank you for making me see this in a different point of view, I never thought of it like that but it all makes sense now.
Do you ever feel any pressure that you may be seen as a figure representing the British Muslim female population? And if so, does that bother you?
Well if I am representing them I’m doing a terrible job. I mean, I spend half an hour on stage doing cock jokes. I don’t really think that’s a representation of all Muslim women in Britain. No, I don’t think so. It took me a long time for people to see me as a comedian because that’s all I ever wanted to be. And now I think people do see me as that but I feel like I’ve got to be twice as funny as everyone else to, kind of, get there.
Was the clash between Western and Muslim culture something you struggled with when growing up?
When I was growing up life wasn’t like it is now when being Muslim is such a big thing. When I was growing up nobody really saw race or culture or religion. Like, I went to school with a lot of girls who were Hindu, Sikh, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish – Birmingham is like that, it’s got everyone. We never saw colour. We never really talked about religion you know. Growing up, it was never an issue really. I think it’s different now.
Have you ever been heckled at one of your shows?
The thing is people don’t really heckle anymore because they have bouncers on the door. Also, people pay a lot of money now to come watch you. And they want to hear what you’ve got to say. They don’t want hecklers to ruin the show. You know, it’s not really like it was in the eighties and nineties where there wasn’t really beer drinking culture and blokes that did really… that used to get drunk and shout if there was a woman on stage. And Jo Brand has some great stories about that, about being heckled by men and being put down. But we don’t get that really anymore. I think maybe I was heckled once in all my life…It was very long time ago.
What is it like coming back to Birmingham, where you grew up?
It feels just like you’re coming home really, exactly that. It’s really great to perform in Birmingham because you feel like you’re one of them. And they’re very proud of you. You still have to be funny because Birmingham has so many great comics over the years, you know, Lennie Henry, Jasper Carrott, Frank Skinner, Julie Walters. We’ve had so many great comics from the Midlands. People from the Midlands generally are very funny so really you have to be funnier than your audience. People in Birmingham are very funny!
Do you look up to or admire any other comics currently in the public eye?
Well, the people I really seriously admired are now dead. You know, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers. I really loved Billy Crystal. These comics that have been going for years and when they started comedy…George Carlin, he was another one of my favourites and he’s dead. These comics started years ago. I’ve performed with Robin Williams a few times in San Francisco and they were people who really had something to say. Realllyy had something to say. George Carlin and Robin Williams were really great social commentators and they really spoke about the time. I mean, if Robin Williams was alive today, or George Carlin, oh I’m sure they’d have really amazing routines on Trump. They were so brilliant at what they did and they really, kind of, grafted, you know, up and down. The circuit and all over the world doing gigs. And nowadays it’s very easy for young people. They think ‘Oh, you know, it’s very glamorous to be a comic, all those young boys in skinny jeans and big hair’. I think they just think, ‘you know what I’ll do a few gigs and I’ll get on TV’. And that kind of, grafting and doing the circuit – you’ll be really good comic. Like George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers. I don’t think that they exist anymore. Not that I’ve seen.
What comes after ‘The Kardashians Made Me Do It’?
Well, I’m writing a new show. I have to, really. And I’ll tour that again. I’m going to America and I’ll be doing some stuff there.
What advice would you give someone wanting to do stand-up as a career?
I’d say work very very hard and tell the truth.