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Funny Boy

Comic and TV Presenter Aatif Nawaz tickled us pink when he popped into the Asiana office to tell us about his new show Muslims Do It 5 Times A Day. Zahra Suleman tried to keep her laughter under control...

Posted: 03.09.14

When did you decide to be a comedian & TV Presenter?
The comedy thing just happened to me really. About 10 years ago I was attending a friend’s Indian dance showcase and the CD they were supposed to play malfunctioned so I was asked to take the microphone and mess around while they sorted it out, that was my first taste of being a stand-up!

The TV thing was a little bit different. I did some presenting in between acting jobs for various bits and pieces and the big gig was the one that I have now with The Islam Channel. The producer had seen me do stand up and he really liked it. They wanted make their lifestyle show more accessible rather than being too dense. I love it so far, its so much fun and I’m meeting great people. It goes out to something like six million people around the world. I could be doing stand up for 10 years and never reach that number.

Have your family and friends always been supportive?
They were slightly worried on my behalf because I left behind a very stable, well paid job to go into performing. Plus I was in my mid twenties at the time so at that point they were thinking I should be starting a family or getting married. But they did start enjoying it more when I began appearing on TV; they watch me on The Islam Channel pretty much every day and they’re really into it, which is cool. 

What was your first big gig in the comedy world?
A promoter got in touch with me and asked me to host my own open mic night in Clapham, which I ended up doing for two years. It was really intense. I call it my internship in comedy because you’re doing a show every week.

When did you first start to feel successful?
I guess when I performed at the Leicester Square theatre. I did four shows and they were all sellouts. It was kind of like a greatest hits album for me; using the best of my material. 

Also, I got to perform at The Southbank Centre during the Alchemy Festival, which was like a fancy night out; people were there in suits and ties and lavish dresses. Then you’ve got me on stage in front of these people telling my jokes!

Do you have any hobbies?
Yeah, I like loads of things! I was talking to my wife about this the other day actually; I have way too many hobbies. I get easily distracted! I love cricket, I do some radio and writing and I also love films and reading. 

Have you performed in any cool places abroad?
Yeah, a couple! The opportunity came up to me to go on a tour in Africa and I really wanted to do that just because a) I’d never been to Africa and b) performing there seemed like something really exotic.

Las Vegas was really fun too. I took my wife and we made a whole trip of it. People kind of talk about it as the town of gambling and there is a lot of gambling there but there’s loads of other things to do; so many amazing shows. We saw Cirque du Soleil, which was amazing then there’s the theme parks, shopping, food and general culture.

I also performed Pakistan where I did a show in Urdu. It’s completely different but it makes you accessible to more people.

What comedians do you like?
I’m a big fan of Robin William. It was really weird actually; two days before he died I was watching his film Weapons of Self Destruction with a friend. Apparently Mrs. Doubtfire is the number 1 top seller on play.com at the moment. So yeah, people are feeling that nostalgia, he was a great actor, it was a great loss.

I love Omid Djalili as well; I met him very early in my career in 2010. He was very kind and gave me some really good advice. It was just a thrill to meet him because I was a fan and I got to perform in front of him, which was nice.

What advice did Omid Djalili give you?
My material used to be quite risky initially because that’s all I knew, how to push boundaries. He helped me identify some gaps and just had some general kind words. Just for him to say you were very funny, keep going and thanks for following my work was awesome. He’s was just a nice guy.

Do you have a daily routine or is each day completely different for you?
They tend to be quite different. I guess the most consistent thing I’m doing is The Islam Channel because it’s the same time everyday, so I like that.

Describe yourself in three words
It’s hard to this without being like one of those guys (laughs). I guess I’m quite energetic; I like to say I’m entertaining and overly introspective, that’s two words, I’m cheating… 

Which do you prefer, being a comedian or a TV presenter?
I’m going to say being a stand up comic really, because even though I love TV presenting, nothing compares to like the buzz of being on stage. If you’ve got the… I was going to say something rude there… if you’ve got like the guts/courage to get on stage and do stand up comedy then go for it!

The worst that could happen is just that people don’t find me funny. I don’t mind that; I’ve certainly had gigs that didn’t go that well but the point is not to get disheartened: not everybody is going to like what you do. Comedy is unlike anything in the world whether you do it front of 15 people or 500 people, it’s always amazing.  

Did you find it hard to breakthrough within the Asian community? 
Yeah, I mean I’m still trying to breakthrough. It’s hard because I feel like if you’re a brown stand up comic, you’re immediately expected to address certain things. A friend of mine likes to think that I’m just a comic who happens to be Muslim, not a Muslim stand up comic.

What advice would you give to up and coming Asian comics/actors?
I try and spend time with them as much as I can, I’m training a couple of comics at the moment and they want to do all sorts of things. I would recommend that if you want to do stand up comedy, first you’ve got to understand that there is nothing glamorous about it, especially in the beginning. You have to go to like dirty, dingy pubs and bars and sometimes you’ll end up performing for five people but the most important thing is to persevere. Practice as much as you can, see other comics and watch comedy, there’s so much to do.

What has been the highlight of your career?
I feel like it’s coming, like I’m on the verge of a highlight.

Do you have any role models?
My dads my role model, he came over to this country to find a better life, he worked hard to give his kids everything they need and gave me the freedom to do whatever I want.

Is there anyone who you would love to work with?
There are loads! On the mainstream front, I’d love to work with, Ricky Gervais. I’d like to do a show that would be about two sides of faith as he is a well-known atheist. . I mean, I’m not an Islamic scholar or anything, but I’ve got an opinion.

How do you go about writing new material?

I always make time to see my friends because I find them inspiring. They always tell me stories that eventually become jokes. I also think about things that happen through every day life. I’ll hear a story, or I’ll listen to the news and there are crazy things that happen all the time. In my last show that was about food, there was this one story about a pilot from Pakistani International Airlines who refused to fly his plane because the sandwich of his choice wasn’t being served. So you’ve got 400 passengers waiting to fly and their like what’s going on? And the pilots like ‘I’m not flying I want my favourite food.’ The cabin crew are from a different company so they have to call his boss, and when they do he’s like ‘well, I think you better go and get him his sandwich if you want that plane to go anywhere.’ These stupid things need to be exposed!

How did you meet your wife?
Through a friend, it’s a weird story. A friend of mine was having dinner with her and I was coming off a film shoot. I was going past his house on my way back and kind of turned up to dinner and she was there. It was kind of random, because I could have just gone home and we would never have met.
We got to know each other and were married within the year. Somebody was saying to me that’s pretty fast but you get to a point in your life where you’ve met so many people that you can identify someone who’s nice quickly. So I mean I always tell her, it took six months but I knew straight away! She’s like no you didn’t, no you didn’t but I did!

Your new show (Muslims Do It 5 Times A Day) is coming up in the next few days, how do you feel?
I’m hugely excited! It’s the first time I’m doing something thematically on Islam. I talk about things like charity, faith, paranoia, and racism; there are so many heavy themes. Its something I’m passionate about. People may say that was bad, you didn’t represent Islam right, but it’s just my experience. It’s what I want to say, this is my forum.

Do you have any plans for after the show?
If I get the right response to it I’ll take it to Edinburgh next year. I’m in discussion with a couple of broadcasters about possibly doing it for television, but again I want to play it live first and then work it out. I’d also like to do some more charity work. I did a bit of fundraising for Syria to do with their Water Aid campaign and how that corresponds with the ice bucket challenge.

Have you done the Ice bucket challenge?
No, I was nominated six times! Once I had a bit of a tiff with my production team, where I refused to do it. I spent part of Ramadan fundraising to get clean water into Gaza. I would feel like the world’s worst biggest….you know…just doing the complete opposite.

Aatif Nawaz’s show Muslims Do It 5 Times A Day is on at The Leicester Square Theatre at the following times:
Sept 6 & 27th, Oct 4th and 25th and Nov 8th.
Find out more at www.aatifnawaz.com

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