Why you should care
Because comedy can be mined from anything.
In the north of England three years ago, two men and a woman were ready to perform a stand-up comedy show for a charity benefiting an LGBT organization. As the group came in, hecklers started in on the woman. “What the fuck is she doing here?” one yelled. The comedian, who has a kindly, sly smile, wasn’t taken aback, because, she admits, it was indeed weird for a woman like her to be there. She is a Muslim, and that day wore a red hijab and a severe black tunic — not your usual good-time Saturday-night garb. But she took on the elephant in the room. “‘Look,’ I said, ‘the organizers of this event had a one-armed, one-legged ginger midget comedian ready to go, but she went on holiday. So they brought me in.’ They laughed and were immediately on my side!”
Shaista Aziz is making a joke about the prejudiced expectations of what an ordinary British Muslim woman can and should do. Turns out, she’s like any other Muslim, with a multiplicity of interests, the only difference being she speaks about her experiences in public, and her jokes are really good. Especially those about the challenges of living as a Muslim in a post-9/11 world — like getting harassed on the street — and coping by looking on the funny side of things.
Go on, mate — do it, if it’s good and funny.
Before she became a performer, Aziz saw plenty of death and destruction as an aid worker and journalist. She worked for Oxfam’s Rapid Response Team in the Middle East, in Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake and even in bombed-out Lebanon. “Pakistan, despite everything else, is a gem of a place for comedic observations,” she says wryly. And she’s worked freelance for the BBC and Al-Jazeera as a news writer and sometime host of documentaries. When she took time off from the intensity of those jobs, she decided to give comedy a shot. And it took immediately.
Aziz enrolled in a six-week comedy course in Liverpool in 2010 and, after writing under the guidance of professionals, started gigging in town. Within her first month, she won the prestigious King Gong open-mic competition at the Comedy Store in Manchester. A few months after that, she performed at the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and reached the final of the Liverpool Comedy Festival. She was overwhelmed by audiences’ reaction: a mix of “shock and awe, without the carpet bombing,” she says, and of relief, for people to finally be able to laugh about such heavy subjects.
In the time since her debut, Aziz’s work has been described by critics as “edgy.” Aziz has used some of her growing profile to produce journalism and aid work on the side, all while trying to keep her comedy chops sharp. She does admit to having a hard time in mainstream comedy clubs because of the strange reaction from her peers. Some of the white men couldn’t even look at her, she says, because their material sometimes deals with Muslims and is usually surface-level dumb. “Now they have no conviction with their material, if I’m there. But I say, Go on, mate — do it, if it’s good and funny.”
So what’s in store for this rising star, who lists Eddie Izzard and Monty Python as favorite performers and has fond memories of watching her Pakistani immigrant father laughing at British comedy? She’s developing new material for a show and is writing a sitcom based on her war-torn experiences. We bet it will be explosively hilarious.