Muslamic ray guns set to stun
- Shahzad Sheikh

British Asia News Network

London, April 19

Interview with Comedian and Actor, Aatif Nawaz

British Pakistani comedian, Aatif Nawaz has been making people laugh professionally for over a decade. With multiple awards, comedy tours, TV and radio spots under his belt, as well as critically acclaimed performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with shows like 'Muslims do it Five Times a Day!', he's about to hit our TV screens with a new show in August.

How did you get into comedy?

I was the third child and my parents didn't have monster expectations of me. I was very lucky that my parents were always quite encouraging for me to pursue whatever I wanted. I caught the acting bug at 14 when I was cast as Mr Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors. I did drama A-Level but after university I just got a normal job though I continued to train as an actor.

A friend of mine was producing a Bollywood-style dance show and one night because of technical problems I had to fill in on stage for 45 minutes and I really enjoyed keeping the audience entertained. Around the same time I had watched British Iranian comedian Omid Djalili on Live at the Apollo. I had an epiphany - and realised - this is what I want to do with my life!

I actually sought out Djalili and managed to speak with him. He's like a mentor to me now.

Is it a great time for Asian and Muslim comedians right now?

Comedy as a vocation is more accessible now that it used to be. When I started out, I didn't know what to do. But now you have access to courses and open mic nights. There are more family-friendly venues for Asians and Muslims to go and watch comedy, and there's a whole kind of scale of how 'Halal' these comedy shows get.

There's a big hunger for jokes that reflect identity, but we as Asians, or Muslims or whatever, have such diverse identities which is an opportunity for many different voices and different styles of comedy. So just looking at Muslim comedians for example, there's Eshaan Akbar who talk about struggling with faith, there's people like me that find ourselves on the frontline of defending our faith, there's TezIlyas for whom faith has been a big part of his work, Imran Yusuf who talks about interfaith stuff and touches on anti-Semitism and homophobia, and people like Ali Official who appears to a younger audience.

But you have to appeal to a bigger audience too. If you only told Muslim jokes you'd be able to make a living, but not a great living, just playing to Muslim audiences all year. But mainstream crowds are receptive to good comedy, and you can't keep talking about the same old tropes like arranged marriage and terrorism, unless you've got something really fresh and interesting to say about it, which I don't think anybody has now.

There must have been some tough audiences, not always receptive to your comedy?

Yeah, but you just go do another show and you move on. Early on, in 2008, I did a show in Blackburn and when the review came out it said the show went downhill when I came on! I was upset, but a friend of mine told me that if you're going to worry about this, just leave it, as there's a lifetime of this ahead of you. He was right. My answer was to just go back and do it better.

To be honest I think in the first three years of my career I wasn't a very good comedian. And even then I didn't get good, just okay.

'Muslims do it Five Times a Day!' in 2015 was the first proper show that I put together and debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was the show that I toured with and which put me on the map, with another 11 days in London and six more dates around the UK. People remember it to this day, which is great!

You've been very busy though - you've done these comedy tours in the UK and Internationally, you've done acting spots, made a documentary film 'Postcard From Lahore', done radio and TV, what keeps driving you forward?

I'm just so grateful. There was a time when I was doing stand-up for 50 quid a week for three years! It was necessary to hone my craft. And now I'm just really grateful for every opportunity that comes my way. I really enjoy my work, I get to do cool things, I meet great people, I get recognised - on the way here three people stopped me and asked to take a photo. It's a really nice feeling, I don't want it to stop, I believe it's a blessing.

I did do a film that actually was at the Cannes Film Festival, but I don't have an interest in making films. Stand up comedy is my first true love, being in front of a live audience is my favourite thing and I love writing comedy.

You went full Desi and even did an urdu serial? And you've hosted a show on the Islam Channel?

Yes, well my Urdu is very good. I totally melt into a local when I go to Pakistan, they can usually tell when you're from the UK, but not with me. I've even done a few gigs in Urdu and I've done commentating for a wrestling organisation in Urdu, I was also the translator for the Pakistani Olympics team when they came here!

I did four years on the Islam Channel after a producer there saw my show comedy show. I had a lifestyle chat show and had a wonderful time, meeting some incredible people, like Guz Khan, who became my closest friends.

Does laughter and comedy break down barriers and help against Islamophobia?

I would love to think so, but the truth is I don't think so. I talked about Islamophobia back in 2015. It's now 2019 and we're still there, things don't really change.

I've done shows in Brexit towns or places with BMP councillors, and I did feel uncomfortable getting on stage. The audience was respectful and enjoyed my show, but it didn't really change anything in their minds I don't think.

In my stand-up it's almost like it's Me-Time, it's about me. It's about my experiences. So there's an anthropological element to my show, but I don't make them overtly political. There are some wonderful comedians out there doing that.

What are you working on now?

At the moment the thing that is occupying most of my time is a TV project for the BBC I'm working on with friend and fellow comedian Ali Official. It'll be on the BBC in August as a one-off to start with and is called Muzlamic inspired by the MuzlamicRayguns viral video.

The word was born from a position of hate, Ali Official and I discussed it and decided to reclaim it. The sketch comedy show is something we've been writing for a year in coffee shops and at my house, and reflects our lives. We're very excited about it!

I do BBC Doosra and the BBC Cricket show with some commentary for the IPL, County Championship and World Cup and I'll do a special comedy series for the World Cup as well.



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