It is difficult to know where to begin when preparing questions for an individual as impressive as Shazia Mirza, in terms of her life experience – a Biochemistry graduate, she embarked on a teaching career in Dagenham, before becoming a journalist and comedian. Her output is prolific, with material ranging from extremism to body hair. More recently, she survived ‘Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls’, during which she memorably led fellow islanders to a water source. With such a list of reference points, what is her current show, ‘With Love from St Tropez’, about?
“I started to write this show in Edinburgh, but it’s changed since then. It’s really about the state of the world. Trump, Brexit, being on a beach in St Tropez, a bit about the Periodic Table.” We perhaps expect comedians in 2018 to fill their shows with zeitgeisty references to the topics dominating public discourse. Brexit, Trump, fake news – these are themes so monolithic, so demanding of a response from the arts, that audiences may be weary after months of exposure to wry political ruminations destined for perpetual re-runs on Dave. But Mirza built her reputation in the noughties, before we had such stringently politically engagé expectations of comics. Yet back then, an era now perceived by media outlets as a simpler time, Mirza’s work had an edge. Watching back clips of her stand-up from the period, her content has not become dated, cliché or uncomfortable to watch in the way that much noughties comedy now has. In an appearance at Winnipeg Comedy Festival in 2009, Mirza jokes about a US journalist asking her the serious question of whether she’d ever considered ‘being a suicide bomber’. “Well, if the comedy doesn’t work out…” is Mirza’s deadpan response.
Reviewers herald her subject matter as ‘brave’. The current climate is something of a gift, then, for a comic like Mirza. Yet, she tells me, referring to Trump and Brexit, “I’ve never spoken about these things before.” These themes “relate to everybody. It’s happening now.” We are watching a show developed in real-time.
I ask if there’s now a pressure to include the political material, where in the past it would seem natural for her to include. Mirza denies this, describing her writing process as determinedly ‘observational’. It is personal, almost organic. “I listen to people’s conversations.” She adds: “Women are in fashion, women’s marches. I think of all these ‘big’ topics and I think, I wonder what’s my point of view? Once I’ve got my point of view, then I can do jokes about it, because until you know what you think about something, you can’t really be clear about doing jokes…I don’t think about the audience anymore, actually,” she reveals. “I just go ahead and do it.”
This fearlessness was reflected in her last stand-up tour, ‘The Kardashians Made Me Do It’. Disappointingly for many, this show was not primarily concern the Kardashians. It did, however, provide ample material for debate in its discussion of the motivations of ‘Jihadi-brides’, with Mirza defending her creative choices on national television. We are no doubt all familiar with certain media outlets bemoaning how students are quivering snowflakes who react adversely to any hint of the polemic, so I’m interested in whether Mirza has noticed any significant changes in how audiences receive her comedy, even after the declaration that she does not consider her audience in the writing process. Has she become more censorious? Or has the supposedly more sensitive atmosphere become a tempting one, daring her to be more provocative for greater effect?
“I know it’s fashionable to be offended…some people on other people’s behalf, some people are offended because other people are not offended enough. I just think about what I want to say, what I think is funny, and I just go ahead and do it. If I thought too much about how people are going to react, and who’s going to be offended, I don’t think I could really do a true piece of work.”
Perhaps then we can take the comments concerning a ‘true piece of work’ as Mirza’s advice for aspiring student stand-ups, but Mirza did not begin her comedy career when she was at Manchester University. When I ask whether her degree has helped her with comedy, I get a flat ‘no’. In retrospect, I’m not really sure why I thought a degree in Biochemistry could have any relevance to stand-up. Yet it did lead to Mirza’s teaching career. Teaching was never an ambition; she entered the profession “not knowing what else to do.” It was in an inner city comprehensive that she realised “how hard it was.” Mirza is not the only comedian to have begun their professional career in the classroom; ‘The Inbetweeners’ and ‘Cuckoo’ star Greg Davies also left teaching for comedy. Why the trend in this particular career move? What is the logic behind such a drastic decision?
“It provided me with material,” she reflects. Teaching also gave her resilience. “There’s no difference, really, between being a stand-up comedian and a teacher. It’s the same thing. I used to teach sixteen-year-old boys. They’d stand at the front and say: “This is shit. When is it going to end?” I’ve never done a gig where people have stood up at the beginning and gone “God, this is shit, when is it going to end?”. So, I think I’ve had the best training. Nobody’s ever tried to throw a chair at me while I’m on stage. Or locked me in the broom cupboard. So, I think comedy is a lot easier.”
I conclude that Mirza wouldn’t recommend teaching as a career. “No, I would,” she answers surprisingly. “But…at 21, I had two degrees, I had all the knowledge, but I had no stories to tell these kids. I couldn’t relate to them.” I half-jokingly ask if she’d ever go back to teaching. “You know, I might go back… I do like to educate people. But I love travelling the world, I love being creative.” As she underlines, her current life is not that different. Her time as a teacher demanded her to be constantly onstage. “The lessons were one hour long! I mean, in comedy, it’s only twenty minutes!”
Classroom career aside, what influenced Mirza’s observational style? Her home city, Birmingham, offered something of an apprenticeship in her trademark observational style. Mirza remains attached to her home: “It’s where I was born, where I grew up. I go back, and I go down the road where I was brought up, and it seems like such a long way, from where I was then, to now.” Television was a source of inspiration, with comedians like Richard Pryor and Robin Williams lingering in Mirza’s memory. In 1975, Pryor entitled an album: ‘…Is it Something I Said?’, which is a phrase that you can easily imagine framing Mirza’s material. Closer to home, she cites Julie Walters and Victoria Wood as comedic reference points. ‘Acorn Antiques’, the brilliant soap opera parody set in the eponymous shop, was filmed in Birmingham. “My mother used to drive past that shop as she’d pick me up from school. They’d be filming outside of there. It just seemed like such a different world to how I was brought up.”
This is now a world that Mirza inhabits; the result of the utilisation of her life experience and watching the world around her. More than once in the interview, she reiterates the opportunities for travel brought by her career in comedy. “You meet lots of different people, you have lots of different audiences. It changes your mind on certain things.” The opinions Mirza forms forms along the way clearly enrich her comedy. One constant from university to the stage seems to be the Periodic Table, so maybe brush up on that before her latest show.
Shazia Mirza will be performing ‘With Love from St Tropez’ in Oxford at the Old Fire Station on Friday 6th April.