News & Politics

A Disappointing Daughter? Interview with Acclaimed Comic Shazia Mirza

Speaking with the Pakistani-British comedian about her journey from biochemistry to cracking jokes.

Shazia Mirza was raised in a strict Muslim household in Birmingham, UK, by Pakistani parents, who wanted her to be a doctor or a lawyer. Her dream was to write or act, but she reluctantly got a degree in biochemistry and became a science teacher at a school in London. She took comedy-writing classes at night and began performing at small clubs in London, and, a few weeks after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, she got on stage wearing her hijab, and started off her act: “My name is Shazia Mirza . . . at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license.”

 

After that night, Mirza’s comedy career took off. She won an award at the London Comedy Festival, started performing all over Europe, was profiled on "60 Minutes" and was a semifinalist on Last Comic Standing. Mirza has written columns for the New Statesman and now has a weekly column at the Guardian entitled 'Diary of a Disappointing Daughter.’

Mirza, who is planning a move to Los Angeles from London at the beginning of next year, has a show in San Francisco on October 18 at the Punch Line Comedy Club. Alternet spoke with her in her apartment in London on the phone about telling jokes to her high school science students, how comedians can only perform their own material, and how telling her parents she was doing comedy was similar to coming out.

How did you become a comedian?

It was an accident, really. I was teaching, and it was a really rough school, and so I would tell them jokes to keep their attention. They weren’t interested in science, which is what I was teaching. They would always tell me I wasn’t funny. They were really tough kids – I’ve never had a comedy audience anywhere near as rough as them.

How did you get from there to performing on stage?

I took a course in writing comedy because I wanted to learn to write jokes. Part of the course is you had to perform, which I didn’t know. But I did it, and I loved it. I loved talking about my life and making people laugh.

What were you doing jokes about? Were you talking about being Muslim or your family?

No, I didn’t talk about my family then. I mostly talked about teaching and how I hated teaching and how hard my students were. People loved it. I think they couldn’t believe I was saying it.

How do your parents feel about your being a comedian?

Well, they’re old now, so they’re tired. They’ve given up. At first I didn’t tell them what I was doing. The reason I told them was because I was going to be on a TV show, and I thought there was a chance they might see it. They were horrified. They thought I would never meet a man to marry me. They had wanted me to be a doctor and they were in denial about me doing comedy. People would stop them on the street and say they’d seen me on TV, and they say, “Oh, it’s just a hobby. She’s really a biochemist.” It was like coming out when I told them. I have gay friends, and some have told me it’s really similar.

What do you like about being a comedian?

I like traveling around the world. I didn’t realize when I became a comedian that’s what I would do because I didn’t know anything about the job of a comedian because I hadn’t planned to be that. I’ve been to places I would never have been if I weren’t doing comedy. I’ve performed in Kosovo, Germany, Sweden, Holland –all over the world. I love performing to different audiences because you never know what the audience is going to be like and people are from different cultures. When I went to Germany, I’d heard they didn’t have a sense of humor, and I wondered if my material was going to work. It was really surprising, but yes, it worked even in Germany, and if you connect with people, they will laugh.

Do you think seeing you changes people’s minds about Muslim women?

I don’t think people really care. They just want you to be funny. That’s what they care about. And you have to talk about your life and make people believe it or they won’t laugh. That’s what unique about comedy. Anybody can sing a song or act a role, but no one can do another comedian’s material because it’s specific to your life. That’s why they don’t have shows like that for comedy. They don’t have an American Idol for comedy. It’s something that can’t be replicated. Anybody can sing a Beyoncé song. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can sing it well or you’ll be good or in tune, but it can be OK and it can be entertaining. But no one can do Richard Pryor’s material because it’s about his life. It’s about growing up in a brothel and his mother being a prostitute. Only I can do my material because it’s about my life. If you connect with people, they will laugh.

Were you nervous when you made the joke about the pilot’s license?

No. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was still fairly new to comedy. And people laughed. They laughed everywhere, even in New York.

What kinds of things do people say to you after they see you perform?

Afterwards loads of women come up to me and say, “Your mum sounds just like mine,” or “Oh, my family is just like yours.” I get that from all kinds of people. If you talk about your life, people can relate to you.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.
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