Shappi Khorsandi: Laugh? I nearly died

Living under the threat of assassination hasn't discouraged the comedian Shappi Khorsandi from shooting her own mouth off. Clare Rudebeck meets Iran's exiled funny woman
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The Independent Culture

In Rotterdam, Shappi Khorsandi's name alone is supposed to send people into hysterics. Not that it has anything to do with her stand-up comedy: in the Netherlands, "Shappi" is a brand of dog food. Before a recent gig in the city, she was assured that she had only to mention the coincidence during her set to bring the house down. "So, of course, I got up on stage and said, 'You know, I always thought I was rather glamorous. And then I come to Holland and you've named a dog food after me." No one laughed. "Obviously not an audience of dog-owners," she says philosophically.

In Britain, her name also provokes confusion - especially among journalists. Shappi may be a rising star of the comedy circuit; she may have toured the United States and had a sell-out West End show; and her first solo run may be about to open at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But journalists remain puzzled by one thing.

What they really want to know is whether or not she's a Muslim. "Since September 11, I've had loads of calls from the media ask- ing me if I'm a Muslim," she likes to tell her audiences. "So I ask the journalist if they'll put my picture in paper if I say that I am. If so, I say, 'Allah be praised!'" Just for the record, she is not (as The Mirror reported) a Muslim. Nor was she raised as one.

So who is she? On stage at the Ginglik comedy club in Shepherd's Bush last week, she was giving little away, playing confidently with the London audience's curiosity about her roots. She tells us how, when she was being chatted up recently in Richmond, the man said he'd love to know all about her culture. "Well, I'm from Ealing, so I said, 'What are you going to do? Memorise the Central Line?'"

The audience relax and laugh. A table of Germans next to me shriek on - and off - cue. Shappi reels the crowd in by teasingly never quite allowing us to get comfortable. Unlike so many other comics, she doesn't set up a two-dimensional stereotype on which to base her routine. And she could easily have done so: while she may not be a Muslim, she is Iranian and a refugee.

But Shappi is not going to tell the Ginglik crowd that just yet. Instead, she homes in on something else that makes her unusual as a comedian in the male- dominated world of stand-up . "As you might have noticed, I'm the only woman on tonight," she tells us. "But I'm not going to tell anti-man jokes. I like men. My father was a man. And his father before him."

Talking to her after the gig, it turns out that she has sold her father rather short. He may be a man, but he is also a comedian, a celebrity in his native Iran and the reason why the family had to seek asylum in Britain. Like Shappi, his comedy pokes fun at some aspects of Muslim and Iranian life. In one of his jokes, a man tells his friend that he's going to have his wife flogged.

"She is unreligious. She showed her hair to our guests," the husband tells the friend.

"But I have met your wife many times," says the friend. "She would never take off her headscarf."

"Ah, no," responds the husband. "The hair was in the soup she served to our guests."

When the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979, jokes such as this meant Hadi Khorsandi was immediately a target. He was put on a list of people to be assassinated. The family fled to London. But they weren't as safe as they'd hoped; when Shappi was seven, she came home from school to find policemen telling her father that the family had to go into hiding. They had uncovered a plot to assassinate Hadi.

"After that, Dad had to look for bombs under the car every day. He would always look at me and say, 'I have no idea what a bomb looks like. To me, the whole thing looks like a bomb'," she recalls.

Despite the threats, he has continued to write and perform in Farsi. And he has clearly had a big effect on his daughter. "I was pushed into this career by my parents," says Shappi, laughing. "When I was five, I was really mesmerised by Margaret Thatcher. I started doing impressions of her. I'd pretend to be on the phone talking about using plastic bullets in Northern Ireland."

Her parents were only too keen to encourage their infant political satirist. "They used to wake me up when their friends were over and get me to do my comedy routine for them," she says. Both she and her only brother, Peyvand, became stand-up comedians, although Peyvand has since decided to concentrate on writing. In 1999, father, daughter and son all toured the US. Shappi and Peyvand performed their show, How to be Iranian, to audiences of predominantly exiled Iranians.

With an Iranian audience, she tells the jokes she would hesitate to tell the crowd at Ginglik. "I might play around with the fact that some immigrants are now anti- immigration," she says. One goes like this:

"My sister looked out of the window the other day and said, 'Ugh! There are Iranians moving in next door. There goes the neighbourhood!'"

But she wouldn't tell that one in Shepherd's Bush. "They might laugh for the wrong reasons," she says. It's clearly difficult to walk the line between poking fun at her background and degrading it in the hope of a cheap laugh. That said, towards the end of her Ginglik gig - just as the audience is getting comfy - she quite unexpectedly sails over the boundary of taste.

"I went out with a suicide bomber once," she says with a wry smile, letting the remark hang in the air. "He loved me to bits." A few minutes later she does it again: "You know that guy who sewed up his eyes and mouth and ears? He wasn't protesting. He was trying to sew a button on his shirt, but you know what men are like."

The audience howls with laughter. Shappi says it's taken her a long time to feel confident enough to make jokes about such sensitive subjects. "I had a real battle for a long time with my family," she says. "They'd tell me I should be sticking up for people like Shahin Portofeh, the protester who sewed up his eyes, ears and mouth. But I've been doing my own stand-up for six years now and I know that I'm not compromising my beliefs."

In fact, she admits to feeling very strongly about asylum and the US's hostility towards Iran. How could she not? The rest of her family, including her grandmother and her cousins, live in Iran. When I ask her about the United States' apparent threats against the country, she finds it uncharacteristically hard even to complete a sentence. "I'm very scared... It's horrific... Oh, god, I'd die."

But she doesn't tell that to the audience at Ginglik. "As a comic, you have to understand that, if you express your opinion you will only ever fire up people who already agree with you," she says. "That's not my job at all. My job is to cheer people up and make them laugh."

Shappi Khorsandi appears at the Pleasance Attic, Edinburgh (0131-556 6550), 1-24 August