Funniest of them all

Despite being an accomplished comedian and columnist, Shazia Mirza has faced
death threats. But she feels happy to make people laugh, writes Kalindi Sheth

Shazia Mirza, an award-winning British Asian comedian, is at the not-so-harmonious confluence of many worlds. Born to immigrant Pakistani parents in Birmingham, the 34-year-old Muslim gave up her day job as a teacher to step into the unconventional field of stand-up comedy when all her parents wanted her to do was become a doctor and get married. "They are so desperate for me to get married that if I hooked up with a one-legged horse tomorrow, they would be over the moon. If I won an Oscar, they wouldn’t really care. Those are their values," says Mirza candidly.

Shazia Mirza, a British Asian comedian, describes herself as a liberal Muslim
Shazia Mirza, a British Asian comedian, describes herself as a liberal Muslim in some ways but devout in others Photo: WFS

But despite all the struggles with her conservative upbringing—she secretly performed at dingy clubs until she won the People’s Choice Best Comic Award at the recent Comedy Festival—Mirza is a practising Muslim. She even wore the hijab for six months, though, as she says: "It was part of a stand-up. I was experimenting with a character."

Mirza, famous for gags about Islam, her own upbringing and gender biases, hasn’t abandoned her religious beliefs. "I am a Muslim but I don’t pray five times a day. I am liberal in some ways but extremely devout in others. You have to be in some way liberal minded to be a stand-up comic; I don’t think mullahs would do that well on the comedy circuit," she says, only half-joking.

Mirza has toured the US, Sweden, Denmark, France, Holland and Germany, as well as India and Pakistan, and has won numerous awards, including the Columnist of the Year PPA Awards, 2008. She was also a semi-finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing last year 2008.

"I feel connected to India and Pakistan, as that is my heritage, my culture. I can relate to people of these countries," she says. Comparing her performances in both countries, she says: "Both countries have been the best audiences I have ever had," but adds: "Pakistan was amazing, and they wanted me to be as provoking and edgy as possible."

Ever the comic, she relates an incident from her Mumbai tour. "In Mumbai, there were 2,000 people in a 200-seater venue—that’s India. During my show, some members of the audience fell into the water fountain at the back of the room. It was hilarious. I think it was the first time they had a wash that week, because they wouldn’t get out of it," she jokes. She also befriended actor Naseeruddin Shah and his wife Ratna Pathak during her Mumbai tour.

"Naseeruddin Shah came to my first show and then invited me to his house in Hyderabad for the weekend. It was wonderful. His wife and he are both wonderful people who showed me a different side to India and a different way of life," she says.

But comedy is not always fun and games, as Mirza would have you know. Despite being an accomplished comedian and columnist, she has routinely faced death threats, and experienced racism and sexism. "Comedy has been a struggle. People judge you and your act before they have even seen it. It is usually Asian people who tell others not to come and see my shows, as they may be ‘rude’. This is all speculation, and all the people that have eventually come to see my shows have loved it. But comedy is hard, anyway. You constantly have to write new material and constantly have to work against negativity, bullying, racism and sexism. This may not be what everyone has experienced, but I certainly have," she says.

At the same time, however, Mirza says she wouldn’t trade her career for anything. In the male-dominated comedy circuit, Mirza is one of the few women who dares to be herself. "Being a Muslim woman in comedy, I have always felt that I have to be 10 times funnier then any man to get any credit. Yes, I have experienced some terrible racism and misogyny — these have been terrible experiences but I am sure that happens in all businesses and all areas of life."

But the negative experiences are easily overshadowed by the positive ones. It is truly her raison d’`EAtre. "When I am on stage and I make people laugh, I feel really happy. It is a feeling I can’t describe, but nothing in life comes close to that elation of making people laugh," she says. WFS