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Shazia Mirza interview

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2007-07-17

Shazia Mirza

Shazia Mirza

British Muslim comic Shazia Mirza has been making a name for herself. Leslie Bunder talks to Mirza about her involvement in the Sacred exhibition at the British Library as well as her love of Jewish comedy and her idol Joan Rivers.

What appealed to you about getting involved with the British Library's Sacred exhibition?
Well they asked me to do it, and I thought it would be a really nice thing to do because there are lots of artists taking part so I thought it would be fun. It's something different from what I normally do.

How different is it?
I normally do comedy clubs, any audience really, whereas I think a different kind of audience will come and watch this show.

With Erran Baron Cohen also on the bill, is this the first time you've worked with someone Jewish?
Oh God no,most of my friends are Jewish. My manager in America is Jewish, I go to America a lot, and when I do stand up comedy in New York all the people who help me get gigs are all Jewish, they all helped me to work when I first went to America. The first time I ever performed in America was in San Francisco, and it was organised by a Jewish woman.

Have you shared bills with other Jewish people?
Yeah, I've always done that, even in this country.

Who's been your favourite Jewish person to share a bill with?
Well, I've worked with Joan Rivers but I didn't share a bill with her, but I do love Joan Rivers. We did a charity gig in New York and I was on much later than her, about two hours later. But she was great. I met her and I spoke to her and everything, she was great. I've read all her books and always admired her.

Do you have any other Jewish comedy influences?
I love Woody Allen. Even before I went into comedy or decided to become a comedian I loved Woody Allen. And I like Sacha Baron Cohen.

What do you think Muslim comics can learn from Jewish comics?
Everything!

And what do you think Jewish comics can learn from Muslim comics?
Nothing! There's nothing to learn, there's no humour! I get death threats for telling jokes, that doesn't happen with Jews. They embrace it, they love it. That's how they get through life.

Do you think it's easy to interpret the Jewish experience with the Muslim experience?
No, it's not easy and it's not the same I don't think. I keep thinking the Jews are so ahead of their time and they've come such a long way, they're running all the great things like the entertainment business in America. My manager in America is Jewish and he saw me and said he'd like to work with me, because he'd never experienced any Asian Muslim comedy before. It's so different, you never see Muslim comics and even if you do, it tends to be very stereotypical, there's nothing clever about it. Like Woody Allen is very clever and very personal, but the people I've seen so far haven't matched up to that. And I think the reason for that is that we're never encouraged to go into the arts or comedy, it's always seen as the hobby. 

Do you have any favourite Jewish jokes?
Well, what is a Jewish joke? I have comedian friends who are Jewish but they don't necessarily tell Jewish jokes, they tell jokes about their neuroses and their life but that isn't necessarily Jewish.

What sort of reaction have you had from the Jewish crowd in Edinburgh and elsewhere?
They love it. Even more so in America. Over here I always have emails from Jewish people telling me we've got so much in common and they totally understand my jokes. We have a lot in common but in terms of comedy Jews are well ahead of the game.

What do you think Jews relate to exactly?
Well I did a show recently where a Jewish man came up to me and said 'I came to watch you tonight because I was interested in what you had to say'. I think a lot of them come to analyse the show because this man said 'I don't think people like Sacha Baron Cohen have thought this through, because the characters that they do, they're increasing anti-semitism on a day to day basis'. A lot of Jewish people come and they analyse my comedy and ask me really intelligent questions afterwards.

You've never had any Jewish members of the audience demand their money back?
No! What, is that a Jewish thing? Asian people do that as well, they're asking for their money back before the show even starts!

Shazia Mirza will be part of a headlining evening with Erran Baron Cohen featuring comedy, music and words at the British Library on July 26. The event is free but tickets need to be reserved. For more information, visit: www.bl.uk