We’ve seen some new faces popping up in British comedy over the past couple of years. A few more women pepper the stand-up circuit now, and there are a handful of comedians with disabilities who are gaining popularity. Plus acts that were once simply filed under “LGBT comedy” are making it to mainstream stages.
But the perception, too often a reality, of stand-up comedy as a beery pastime for middle-aged white men exasperated with their wives/jobs/hair loss persists. And it’s telling that the most high-profile stand-up who specialises in political satire is Al Murray, whose mock-bigot Pub Landlord alter ego has known to appeal to genuinely xenophobic audiences.
So what happens when the country’s best-known comedy venue hosts an evening of solely Muslim comedians? Are UK audiences able to laugh about Islam?
Watch Imran Yusuf:
The Comedy Store just off Piccadilly Circus in London showcased six Muslim comedians in a beautifully-named comedy set, HaLOL, this week to a packed venue. And their routines – at once risqué, affectionate, edgy and daring – proved that the best comedy springs from a precarious standpoint.
As the journalist Caitlin Moran recently told the Guardian in an interview, “men have made all their jokes; now all the jokes are in the ladies’ corner”, there is a definite feeling that the old high command of comedy (usually respected middle-aged white male comedians for whom the Comedy Store is a spiritual home) are far too comfortable to hog all the jokes any more. And could there be a less naturally comfortable subject to have a laugh about than Islam, and the experience of British Muslims today?
Watch Tez Ilyas:
HaLOL is slickly compered by Imran Yusuf, an energetic young thing who bounds about the stage and gently ribs the audience (“these are my three wives”, he says gesturing to some women in the front row, and “I love Celtic people, they are the Palestinians of the British Isles,” he shouts, fist raised, when he hears from some Irish audience members).
Yusuf, who has been nominated for Edinburgh Best Newcomer and appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, talks a bit about his Kenyan-Indian roots, and informs the audience before the show begins that life is “not easy for Muslims” in Britain at the moment – a statement that is brought to life by the acts he hosts.
The biggest laughs by far – but also the most extreme periods of shocked silence – are elicited by the only woman in the line-up, Shazia Mirza, a comedian and writer of Pakistani descent from Birmingham. “It’s a woman,” she says in mock-awe when she takes the stage, “turn your face the other way, it’s all Haram now.”
Watch Shazia Mirza:
Her set is by far the most daring, veering from giving audience members in hijabs a dubious welcome – “good to see you out of the house” – to explaining Grindr to an elderly Muslim man in the front row, and from an excruciating punch line linking bikini waxes with FGM to being mistaken for Malala. “That’s right,” she deadpans. “I got shot in the head and now I tell jokes”.
Ironically, the theme of her set is her dismissal of people who get offended. She also laments the media’s insistence that she represents “my lot”, a frustration voiced by many writers, entertainers and public figures of a minority background.
Watch Prince Abdi:
Over and over, stories of discrimination, casual racism, and rising misinformation and hysteria about Islam in Britain supply each performer with rich comic material. British Nigerian comedian Nabil Abdulrashid opens his set with a description of performing in Kent, and how terrified he was of his audience of “22 bald white guys”. “Are they naturally bald?” he asks, “or do they just have strong opinions about immigration?”
The cheeky, sharp-suited Tez Ilyas’s confessions about life as a young British Muslim man – staying sober on a Benidorm stag weekend, receiving sexts from a potential date who uses the word “Paki” – are a painfully hilarious illustration of the difficulties of growing up as a Muslim in the UK.
The Somali-born Prince Abdi’s impressions of characters encountered by a black man going about his life in London – a cockney, rudeboys, a strict Jamaican father, night bus maniacs and gang members – are searingly accurate, matched only by Abdulrashid’s impersonation of a fey TV executive telling him his name’s “too Muslim”.
Unusually for a two-hour comedy run, all the material is high quality and very few of the jokes fall flat. But the loudest cheer all evening is in response to Yusuf’s simple declaration at the end of the night: “Fuck Isis”.
Watch Nabil Abdulrashid: